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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sometimes, I think we're just a tad too squeamish

There are times when upon later reflection, I've realized that I was unreasonably squeamish about something, usually food.

The company where my son works brings in take-out for lunch everyday, as a perk for its employees. One day last week, they had take-out Chinese for lunch. There was a large carton of white rice and a smaller one of brown rice leftover. The office was just going to throw this rice away at the end of the day, when my son spoke up and said he'd take it home.

My initial thought was, "ewww! Leftovers from people I don't even know!" I considered dumping it into the compost. Then I came to my senses. We gladly eat at church potlucks, with 100 or more people in attendance. I don't know all the people who've enjoyed those potlucks. We've eaten at restaurant buffets, and not only do I not know the other patrons, but I have no idea how long anything has sat on the buffet. This was rice, almost untouched with the exception of a spoon. My son not only works with these people, but considers them work-friends. So why was it that one kind of communal food was okay with me, but not another?

A good friend was relating her weekend evening with granddaughters. They had dinner at my friend's home, but left half glasses of their milk. My friend refrigerated the milk, to use in the next days. At first I had that same reaction as before, "ewww! Used milk!" But these were her dear granddaughters. How many times have we shared a lick of an ice cream cone with our child? Or tasted the baby food right from the infant's spoon? Or shared a brownie, piece of cake or cookie with our spouse? My reaction then seemed completely incongruent with other behaviors of mine.

You all know that I buy mostly marked down milk. There's usually 4-7 days left until the sell-by date. I see many other folks reach around the marked down milk, for a fresher container at regular price. This is totally reasonable, if you think that the container won't be used before it expires, and need a longer use-by window to consume the entire container. But what if you know that your family will indeed use all the milk before the sell-by date? My family goes through 1 gallon of milk every 3  1/2 days. I can easily use at least 1 marked down gallon of milk before the sell-by date comes around.

What about those bananas marked down because they are looking ripe? I mentioned to a friend who's been trying to reduce her grocery bill, that when I shop regular grocery stores for bananas, I always buy the red-taped ones, to save some money. She had that same reaction about my banana choice. "Ewww! Old bananas, yuck!" I pointed out that most of our store's red-taped bananas are just barely ripe, and just about ready for consumption. While I wouldn't want to eat a black banana, as is, I am more than happy to eat a perfectly ripe one. I suggested to my friend that she could buy a couple of the ripe bananas, then another couple of less-ripe ones (at regular price) for later in the week. She thought this was a reasonable compromise. When you think about it, if you're shopping for produce just once per week, by the end of the week, all of the produce left in your kitchen is "old". If reducing the grocery bill is important to your budget, then buying a few marked-down items to use early in the week, could be a help.

So, back to the rice that my son brought home last week. I did decide to use it that next day. I made a garlic and peanut sauce to pour over the white rice for dinner that night. And the day after, I mixed the brown rice with oatmeal for breakfast. Both dishes were very delicious. And I feel good about not wasting the food.

A little squeamishness has saved many a life, avoiding potentially harmful bacteria. But sometimes, I do think we're a bit too squeamish. Mostly, we just need to use common sense and think things through.


  1. Boy, did that ever need to be said! I agree totally. I am constantly amazed at what people find unacceptable when I know for a fact that it's just fine.

    1. Hi Judy,
      Thank you!
      We can be really inconsistent with what we find acceptable and not acceptable, that's for sure. I think it just takes a bit of common sense.

  2. Added in with this--I think people often throw out food items that are past the "use by" date which are probably fine for consumption. Now, there are obviously some foods this doesn't apply to--I'm pretty strict about fresh chicken, for instance--but many dairy products have a longer life than the date listed. I had a colonoscopy earlier this year and could only have clear liquids, so I found a box of jello in my pantry--it was several years old--but I made it and seem to have survived it just fine.

    Our Aldi's "good" bananas are typically cheaper than the red tape ones at the other grocery store I frequent, so I buy those first. But when Aldi has red tape bananas, I always buy some--the riper ones bake up better and are also good for smoothies. I often freeze them to use later.

    I would have eaten the rice, too. People are highly unlikely to have been dipping utensils into it which had previously been in their mouths, which IS a health concern.

    1. Hi Kris,
      A lot of products have sell-by dates or best-by dates that are completely arbitrary, and have nothing to do with the safety of the food. Sometimes the dates are strictly for retailers to keep track of inventory, and move oldest product to the front of shelves.

      Many states don't regulate the sell-by dating, with the exception of infant formula. And the dating of the other products is completely up to the manufacturers' determination.

      There was a story about a state that was insisting that all beverages have a sell-by date stamped on the container, even bottled water. So a major bottling company had to come up with a dating system for their water, which in fact had nothing to do with the safety of the water, just an arbitrary number stamped onto the bottle.

      With regards to your jello, there's nothing in the dry gelatin or sugar that will suddenly "turn" once the calendar page flips to the next month. The dating on such packages could be helpful if say, for instance, in 2013 a particular chemical additive was banned from use, due to health hazards. A newer package wouldn't contain this harmful chemical, but your older one would. I think it's safe to say that you survived!

      We had a case of soda pop in the pantry for about 2 years past the sell-by date. I was afraid that maybe it was flat, or the taste would be off. But it was totally fine.

      There are some things that we should definitely be cautious about (like fresh meat past the sell-by date), but the rest just needs some common sense.

  3. Great post! It always just saddens me to see how much food is wasted in this society.

    Have you seen the film "Dive"? It's a documentary about a young family of so-called "freegans" who feed themselves completely from food that others have thrown away. I'm not sure I'd be willing to pull things out of the dumpster, but it's a very eye opening look at the incredible amount of waste that is just accepted as "normal" in our society.

    1. Hi Cat,
      I've been meaning to get a hold of a copy of Dive. It does sound interesting and revealing.

      I am horrified by the amount of food that is wasted in our society. It isn't just a financial thing for me, but I always think of people who are in desperate need. How is it right that I might throw away food when someone else (who is very hungry) would eat it?

      Me cleaning my plate at every meal doesn't necessarily provide food for someone else. But if I can save some money by eating all the food that I buy, I can then give some of that money to the local food bank and downtown mission, to provide meals.

      In addition to this, our impending food inflation will be due in part to increasing world-wide demand for food. Especially now, the world can't afford to be wasteful with a limited supply of food.

      Oh boy, you hit one of my issues. I have a whole lot to say on the topic of wasting food!

    2. I read a book (drawing a blank on the name, sorry) where a psychologist was working with a lot of immigrants. The immigrants were horrified that their children in preschool were using dried beans and pasta to glue to paper for an art project--they had family who were starving back in their country of origin. It was eye opening to me to read that.

    3. My dad grew up in the depression - he was raised by a single mom and they were just dirt poor. Anyhow, he considers food waste to be an absolute travesty. He does a good bit of his shopping at what we jokingly call "the used grocery store." It's basically a salvage operation run by a couple who buy up stuff that's at or slightly past its sell by date and sell it at a deep discount. My dad is such a regular that he's become good friends with the owner. He shops there partly to be frugal, but also because he just can't stand the thought of all that food going to waste.Obviously, it rubbed off on me as well.

      Netflix has Dive on DVD but not streaming. I think I found it at the library. It's well worth the watch.

      I also stumbled upon a blog once (that I wish I had subscribed to because I can't remember the name and haven't been able to find it again.) Anyhow, the woman who wrote it was feeding a huge family on practically nothing. She had worked a deal with the produce manager at her local store where they saved most of the stuff they would otherwise toss for her, ostensibly so she could use it as feed for her chickens.

      That was her original intention... but she soon discovered that well over 50% of what was in her weekly haul was perfectly fine for human consumption, and there was so much of it that it provided nicely for both her chickens and her family! I always think about that when I see them going through the produce section filling boxes with stuff to toss, but I think I'd be way too shy to approach them with a proposition like that.

    4. Cat, it's shameful how much produce goes into the large disposals at grocery stores. Many stores simply don't want to have the "old" produce sitting out in plain sight (bad for their image, presumably), even when off to the side and labeled as discounted. Some stores will make back-room deals with local food banks or soup kitchens. But a lot of produce is simply wasted. I am thrilled that my favorite produce stand puts all of it's past-prime produce out for sale at a discount.

      Kris, I can certainly see how some people would be horrified that food items would be "wasted" on art projects. If someone you know is desperate for food, any waste seems unconscionable.

  4. I am careful with food that has been left out for a long time or food that people have had their hands in but otherwise, I am very happy to have other peoples leftovers and have taken them many times.

    The discussion about bananas reminds me of my parents. My father said that my mother liked bananas that snapped (not very ripe) and my mother said that my father only like bananas that were mushy (very ripe). Obviously, they had use for both red band and regular bananas.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      I am the same way about food left out for a long period. At holidays, we don't do the turkey or ham sitting out on display for hours. I cut what we need off, and tuck the rest into the fridge almost right away. It's not really saving food, if everyone then gets sick to their stomachs.

      Funny about your parents and bananas! Jack Sprat, but with bananas.


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