Photo source: UF/IFAS Northwest District
If your family is like most, grocery shopping is a dreaded weekly task. Typical shoppers usually have an idea of what they plan to purchase based on a previously made shopping list. Even then, it’s easy to go astray with impulse purchasing, bargain prices, and buy-one-get-one free opportunities that simply can’t be passed up! Before you know it, the shopping cart is loaded with delicious treasures just begging to come home with you.
Now that you have done the shopping, transported it home, and begun to put food items in their appropriate storage places, you realize the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry are cramped and nearly full. On a related aside, you should see my parents’ pantry. They have enough cans, boxes, and packages to feed their entire neighborhood…twice! Not to mention the two full size refrigerator/freezers that are bursting at the seams. Like my parents, I suspect many of us have a food overbuying addiction. So what happens next? Well, it’s time to clear out the old and make way for the new, of course. But how do you know what to purge and what is still good to keep?
Food Date Labeling Confusion and Food Waste
Standard or uniform language for food product dating does not exist in the U.S., which makes things tricky when it comes to deciphering expiration dates. Current Federal regulations do not require product dating (excluding infant formula), but instead allow food manufacturers to voluntarily set and display these dates on product packaging. With the lack of Federal measures, product dating enforcement is left up to individual states, resulting in consumer confusion over food safety. The U.S. wastes close to an estimated 40% of food produced annually, which equals approximately 160 billion pounds (Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic). Of that, confusion over the meaning of date labels seems to be responsible for roughly 20% of safe and edible food wasted by consumers. Undoubtedly, this hurts purchaser’s pocketbooks and results in $29,000,000,000 of wasted consumer spending yearly (Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, 114th Congress 2D Session).
Food Quality vs. Food Safety
While cleaning out the pantry and cold storage, I also have been guilty of trashing perfectly good food. So many of us unknowingly accept the stamped date as common law not to be questioned. So what does that date actually mean?
The “open” date used by the manufacturer or retailer on food packaging is passively thought of by the consumer as the “expiration date,” or the last date a food can safely be eaten. This is a very common misconception. Food safety is not represented by this date, but rather it refers to product quality and freshness. Dates determined by food companies take into consideration such factors as ingredients, product characteristics and packaging, as well as time and temperatures associated with distribution, retail sale, and storage.
With no current standards in place, a variety of food date phrases are utilized which often are misleading to retailers and consumers. Most commonly used phrases include:
- “Best If Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.
- “Sell-By” indicates to the retailer when the product should no longer be displayed for sale.
- “Use-By” is the last date recommended for use of the product at peak quality. This is only a safety date when used on infant formula packaging.
It’s important to remember that open dates on food products ONLY reflect food quality and NOT food safety (except for infant formula). For a list of specific foods and recommended storage time frames, check out the FoodKeeper resource at FoodSafety.gov.
Knowing the signs of spoilage will help you determine if a food is no longer fit for consumption. Although the quality date may have passed, the food is safe until it begins to spoil. Spoiled food may have a different smell, taste, and/or texture with sometimes visible discoloration. This occurs when environmental conditions (such as temperature, moisture, and oxygen) are introduced which support the growth of bacteria, molds, or yeasts. Given enough time, these microorganisms multiply rapidly and affect the safety of the food. If perishable items are not handled and stored properly, spoilage occurs much more rapidly. Learn more about proper refrigeration and food safety.
Do Your Part at Home
- Plan meals in advance and make a specific grocery list. Check the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry to utilize what you already have on hand.
- Don’t overbuy! Especially be aware not to purchase excess perishable items that are likely to spoil quickly. These may be foods that require cold storage, fresh bakery items, and fresh produce.
- Always look for and compare date labels of an item; choose the one with a later date.
- Store foods promptly and properly for food safety and best quality. Discard potentially hazardous cold food items that have not been properly refrigerated for 2 hours or more.
- Keep a thermometer inside the front of your refrigerator and check it regularly to be sure it stays below 40 degrees F.
- Thaw foods safely! Thawing in the refrigerator is the safest way, but using cold running water or defrosting in the microwave are acceptable ways to speed up the process. Never sit foods out at room temperature to thaw!
- Recognize the signs of food spoilage and promptly discard foods that smell funny, have off-flavors, obvious mold growth, or sticky or slimy textures (such as fish, poultry, and deli meats).
- Evaluate each item in your pantry and consider whether or not it’s something you want to continue to store and use or want to remove.
- High temperatures affect the shelf life of shelf-stable foods so it’s important to store dry goods and pantry items in temperatures at or below 85 degrees F. Use the “First In First Out” (FIFO) method of rotation, using older items before newly purchased ones. Read more about Shelf Stable Food Safety.
- Discard cans that are rusty, bulging, or leaking, as they are at a high risk for containing the deadly pathogen that causes Botulism. Never taste suspicious foods! Take extra caution by disposing of cans and jars into a tightly closed plastic bag before placing in an outside trash receptacle.
Help Families in Need & Keep Unused Wholesome Food Out of Landfills
Mistakenly discarded food products, not only is the U.S. but globally, have created a sad cascade of wasted resources and money with increasingly negative environmental and social implications. Food banks and local community organizations have plenty of under-served and needy families who can benefit! Remember, it’s safe to donate dry and canned goods, perishables, and other food related items that are beyond the quality date of the product.
Find a food bank near you.
We all can do our part to reduce the amount of wasted food, save money, help the environment, and help our communities!
USDA Food Safety Information, Food Product Dating
USDA Food Labeling Fact Sheets
Get out of your chair. Photo source: Amy Mullins
Have you ever thought about how many hours a day you spend sitting? Sitting at your desk, sitting in front of a computer, sitting watching television, sitting in the car, sitting, sitting, sitting. On average, Americans sit approximately 13 hours a day and sleep 8 hours adding up to a whopping 21 hours of inactivity. All of this sitting around may in fact be shortening our lives.
The cumulative effect of daily inactivity, or sedentary time, has contributed to a nationwide crisis of escalating chronic health conditions that include obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, certain cancers, and type-2 diabetes. According to research, including a 2014 Harvard study of over 92,000 women, the risk of dying from stroke, heart disease, and cancer increases with the more time spent standing. In addition, the negative effects of excessive sitting seem to be just as strong in people that participated in a regular exercise regimen!
Standing Has Many Benefits
Our bodies increase a fat-burning enzyme called Lipoprotein Lipase when muscles are activated. This doesn’t just happen during purposeful exercise, but even during periods of standing. In fact, standing burns 30% more calories than sitting still! Regular engagement of muscles keeps them in a more continuous metabolic state that helps improve blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Regular intervals of standing with minimal movement does all of this and so much more:
- Improves posture
- Tones muscles
- Increases blood flow
- Improves metabolism
- Improves mood
- Increases mental energy
- Reduces fatigue
During a typical day at work, experts recommend not sitting for more than 20 minutes at a time with regular intervals of standing. Standing up and walking even for just 5 minutes can lift your mood, increase mental energy and productivity, and can even dull your urge for unnecessary snacking.
What You Can Do
Standing desk. Photo source: Amy Mullins
Get up and move more! Consider some of these ideas to help in your quest to be more active during the day:
- Create a culture of health and encourage others in your workplace to support one another.
- Purchase a “standing desk” or get creative and make one to meet your needs
- Use a smartphone app, wrist monitoring device (such as a FitBit), or just an alarm on your phone or desktop to remind you to stand up and stretch or to walk outside for some fresh air.
- Instead of emailing or calling a co-worker, get up and take a stroll down the hall.
- On a conference call? Stand, move, stretch, do squats or desk push-ups.
- Take the stairs as often as you can.
- Forget hum-drum meetings in the conference room! Get creative on your feet and schedule walking meetings.
- Skip the afternoon coffee and energize with some office exercises. Consider getting an exercise mat, resistance band, stability ball and light weights.
- Wear comfortable shoes and clothing to the office and enjoy part of your lunch break taking a brisk walk and/or stretching.
- Bring your own reusable bottle to work and drink more water throughout the day. More water means more times you’ll have to walk to the restroom!
It’s not easy to create positive habits, but your health is worth it. But, making even a few changes to your normal routine can put you on a path to a happier and healthier life. For additional information about healthy habits in the workplace, visit:
NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine
U.S. Division of Occupational Health and Safety
CDC Workplace Health Promotion
University of Michigan Computer Ergonomics
photo credit: Amy Mullins, UF IFAS Leon County Extension
Have you ever imagined planting a small garden and growing vegetables for your family? It may seem like a difficult and daunting project, but I assure you the benefits of growing your own vegetables far outweigh the reservations and roadblocks that may have previously stood in your way. Among these benefits include increased physical activity, stress relief, better mental health, and better nutrition. Consuming a diet rich in produce can reduce overall calorie consumption and provide a variety of nutrients to minimize the risk of developing chronic diseases associated with overweight and obesity.
Growing your own vegetables and herbs in the best way to “eat locally”! The convenience of having what you need for fresh salads, soups, and sides right outside your door can enable you and your family to have a healthier diet. And did you know that when children are involved in the gardening process, they are actually more likely to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables? Pull the kids off the couch and get whole family involved in garden planning, planting, maintaining, harvesting, and cooking.
Spring is the time to plant beans, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, okra, field peas, peppers, summer and winter squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. Just think of all the possibilities for an abundance of healthy eating this summer!
Getting started is easy. Check out these UF IFAS resources to help get you on the right path to growing your own produce:
Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide
Plant These Spring Herbs
Produce Pointers Recipes
We all have family traditions that make our holiday celebrations special. From your great-great-grandma’s sweet potato casserole or pecan pie, to your mother-in-law’s sausage stuffing or decadent plum pudding, there’s one thing that always seems to be a common factor among traditional holiday dishes: a massive amount of, fat, sugar, salt, and calories!
It’s not only a single meal but rather an entire season of parties, events, gatherings festivities, and unhealthy choices that add up to that holiday weight gain we resolve to lose when January rolls around. As the holiday season begins its rapid approach, take time and consider those past eating habits that set your new year off on the wrong foot. Why not make a resolution now to eat healthier this holiday season?
Just a few simple strategies can help make the difference and keep those unwanted pounds away. Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t skip meals. Eating healthy on a regular basis will keep you from overindulging at holiday gatherings.
- Use smaller plates for meals and gatherings and be mindful of portions
- Choose more vegetables and smaller helpings of entrees and desserts
- Drink more water and minimize alcoholic drinks and eggnog
- Make healthier recipe ingredient substitutions when cooking and baking (Mayo Clinic):
- Instead of heavy cream, use fat free half and half or evaporated skim milk
- Instead of bacon, try Canadian bacon, turkey bacon or smoked turkey
- Decrease sugar in baked goods by half and add vanilla, nutmeg, or cinnamon to intensify sweetness
- Substitute applesauce or prune puree for half of the butter, shortening, or oil
- Use two egg whites or ¼ cup egg substitute for each whole egg
- Replace salt with fresh or dried herbs and spices.
We can all still experience the joy of the holiday season, without making food the focus. Make a resolution to be mindful and eat healthier this holiday season, and your waistline will thank you.
Some additional links that you may find helpful:
It’s something we all hopefully learned as children and carry with us now into adulthood: washing our hands often and properly. But I’m sorry to say that we’ve probably all witnessed numerous instances of people leaving the restroom, coughing or sneezing, touching their cell phones or any number of other filthy surfaces, and then neglecting to wash their hands. According to a research study from Michigan State University (2013), only 5% of people washed their hands properly after using the toilet with 7% of men and 15% of women not washing their hands at all. This type of behavior is a recipe for disaster, leading to the spread of germs and pathogens.
Germs and pathogens are invisible and ubiquitous, living on every imaginable surface. Even though they can’t be seen by the naked eye they have the ability to make us very sick, and can even be deadly. According to Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist with the University of Arizona, a typical cell phone has approximately 25,000 germs per square inch! We spread germs very easily from surface to surface and from hand to mouth, increasing the potential for illness to ourselves and others every step of the way. If these germs contaminate food contact surfaces or the food we eat, the likelihood for a foodborne illness has been created. Common symptoms of foodborne illness include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and abdominal cramps. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.
The good news is that we all have the power to stop the spread of germs. The Food and Drug Administration says that “washing with plain soap and running water remains one of the most important steps consumers can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others.”
It’s good practice to always wash your hands (CDC):
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
- After handling pet food or pet treats
- After touching garbage
Are you following these steps to proper handwashing (CDC)?
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
Soap and water may not always be available, so using hand sanitizer is the next best thing. Although hand sanitizers don’t kill all germs, the CDC recommends choosing a sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol to significantly reduce the number of germs and pathogens on your hands.
For more information on handwashing and hand sanitizers refer to the CDC Handwashing Factsheet. Additional information about foodborne illnesses and the pathogens that cause them can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html