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Monday, February 9, 2015

Seeing the potential in markdowns at the grocery store: the dairy case

Whether it's an item marked down to clear (about to reach the sell-by date), or a really great advertised sale, to really reap the benefits of a low, low price, I've found that I need to look way past those sell-by dates and my usual uses for the items.

Many dairy items keep long past the sell-by date, and I've had success freezing and using all dairy products, by knowing how best to freeze each type, and how to use the thawed item.

All dairy products can be frozen. However, freezing changes the texture (water separates from solids). But frozen, then thawed dairy items are still very useful in cooking and baking.

Dairy products will also "keep", unopened, from 7 days to several weeks past the sell-by date. This means the window for fresh use is much greater than one would think.

When I am shopping, and find one of these awesome deals, I run through my mind how many different ways I can use the item (will it solve a shortage dilemma somewhere in my current food supply), as well as how much freezer space I currently have. So, I've identified the "best features" for each item that I find in the dairy case, on markdown, as well as best uses for previously-frozen dairy items.

sour cream
best features

  • creamy for soups, sauces and toppings
  • adds moisture to baked goods

uses, fresh only

  • mayo substitute in salad dressings, add vinegar, salt for flavor (I'm currently out of mayo. Best price on mayo, here, is $2.19/30 ounces. My find on sour cream was $1.58/32 ounces. The sour cream will fill the role of mayo substitute for the next month.)
  • top soups
  • strain to make a thickened sour cream for scones and topping desserts
  • make guacamole or other dips for crackers or chips

uses, previously-frozen or fresh

  • add to casseroles for creamy sauce
  • make stuffed baked potatoes, to freeze
  • add to coffee cake for moisture
  • add to sugar cookie recipes
Freeze it to use in baking later. The texture changes, so it's best for baking or cooking purposes.

Fresh, use within 7-10 days past opening.
Any left over at end of the week- freeze in small portions to add to creamy soups and sauces, or amounts for adding to specific baking recipes.
With regards to that sell-by date, I've had unopened containers of sour cream remain good to eat for a couple of weeks past the sell-by date.
How to know if it's gone "bad"? Look for a pinkish tint, mold or an "off" smell.

cottage cheese 
best features

  • it's creamy
  • meltable as a cheese
  • high in protein

how to use cottage cheese, besides the traditional "dieter's plate"

  • protein boost to smoothies
  • mixed into hot mashed potatoes, or making twice-baked potatoes (can be frozen for future meals)
  • use a ricotta cheese substitute in lasagna and other Italian pasta dishes that call for ricotta
  • as an open-face sandwich topping, spread on crackers or toast, add salt/pepper and sliced tomatoes
  • a lo-cal/high protein/lo-carb "cheesecake" type dessert for Atkins dieters (this recipe was popular in the 70s, my mom ate this a lot) basically, it's eggs cottage cheese, vanilla extract, artificial sweetener -- baked in the oven until knife inserted comes out clean
  • can also be substitute for cream cheese in the regular high fat cheesecake
  • filling for blintzes and crepes
  • a hi-protein/lo-fat ice cream substitute. Puree, add sweetener, a bit of liquid in the form of lemon juice, coconut milk or other milk (depending on flavor you want), flavorings, like lemon extract, vanilla extract, almond extract, cocoa powder, then put in an ice cream maker.
  • add to homemade mac and cheese, to boost protein and cut amount of hard cheese needed
  • filling pastry for cheese-filled danish or Greek spanakopita
  • making a creamy/cheesy spinach casserole

Use within 7-10 days of opening.
Cottage cheese freezes well, but separates after thawing. Best if using in cooking.

whipping cream
best features

  • it whips to fluffy consistency
  • creamy texture

When I find this on markdown it has just a few days until expiry, so it's best if I plan on freezing it. I freeze it whipped and sweetened, in ready-to-use mounds.
I also freeze in ice cube trays, to add a bit of creaminess to cooked soups and sauces.

half and half creamers
best feature

  • creaminess

I use half and half, fresh, within 7 days of sell-by date, kept refrigerated.
I freeze it in ice cube trays to stir into coffee to use in cooking in small amounts later

some ways to use extra half and half

  • add to milk when making homemade yogurt, to add creaminess
  • make eggnog
  • make homemade ice cream (this is a great way to "keep" the half and half in the freezer for future use, IMO, already made up as ice cream!)
  • use in baking, soups and sauces, for moisture and creaminess

best features:

  • great source of calcium, Vit D and protein
  • adds creaminess and moisture to cooking and baked goods

My family has no problem drinking previously-frozen milk. When they were younger, and pickier, I sometimes put the thawed milk through the blender to reincorporate any separation, or would make chocolate milk either in the blender or just by stirring in chocolate syrup, or added to smoothies. But only when they complained loudly. It isn't every container that will have a separation issue, just FYI.

I use fresh milk up to 7 days past the sell-by date.
I freeze it in the gallon jugs, with a it removed for expansion when freezing.
Milk that is souring, I freeze in 1 cup containers, to use for pancakes, waffles and coffeecakes.

best features

  • protein
  • calcium
  • creamy

For eating yogurt as is, yogurt is best fresh. It separates when frozen. However, there are many ways to use frozen yogurt.

  • substitute for sour cream in baking (either sweetened or plain)
  • adds creaminess to sauces/soups
  • add to smoothies for protein/calcium
  • strain plain yogurt for a soft cream cheese substitute to spread on crackers, or, use in lasagna or other pasta dishes calling for ricotta, or, top desserts, or, make cheesecake-like dessert
  • with plain yogurt, use as a starter for homemade yogurt
  • make dips for veggies, chips or crackers
  • substitute for mayo in salad dressings (makes a great dressing for fruit salad, with a little honey or jelly added)

Yogurt will keep a couple of weeks past sell-by date, if unopened. It may have separated. You can either pour off the whey for baking liquid, or stir it back in. Not an issue for most folks, and separation does NOT indicate that it has gone bad (or has a plethora of bad bacteria).
You can freeze yogurt, but the texture changes. So it's best used in cooking or pureeing like in smoothies, when thawed.

hard cheese
best features

  • meltable
  • high protein

Hard cheese, still unopened will keep a long time in the fridge.
But also, it freezes well. It becomes a bit drier/more crumbly. To use as you would not-frozen cheese, in sandwiches, you would need to pre-slice loaf cheese before freezing.

soft cheese
best feature

  • creamy
  • protein source

If freezing, try doing so in cooking or serving portions. Some of the water will separate upon freezing.
Cream cheese has kept, unopened, for months past sell-by date, in my refrigerator.


  • use in frostings
  • spreads and cheese balls
  • creamy soups and sauces
  • add to mac and cheese

If keeping in the fridge, try to use within 2 months of sell-by date.
Otherwise, just pop it into the freezer. It will keep frozen for 9 months past the sell-by date. No special wrapping or packaging, just toss the butter in the carton, right into the freezer. If you by your butter in just a waxed paper wrap (restaurant supply stores carry butter this way), then toss it into a freezer bag, just to keep off-flavors out.


You can freeze margarine, and it will stay fresh-tasting for up to 8 or 9 months past that sell-by date. It may pick up off-flavors past 9 months.
But even kept in the fridge, margarine will be fresh-tasting and safe to eat, up to 5 months past the sell-by date. That was a shocker to me when I read that!

So, by looking past that sell-by date, and thinking of new ways to use the items, I can take real advantage of these unexpected deals. If I had a smart phone while shopping, I'd be tempted to quickly google uses for an item that I found on markdown, to give me an idea of how much I should buy.

Perhaps you live in an area where marked-down dairy is unheard of. These same ideas also work for that about-to-turn last cup of milk in the jug, or that half container of cottage cheese that you don't know what to do with. Or maybe you're an empty-nester and you want to still reap the benefits of buying the most economical size of sour cream, milk or yogurt. It's not a bargain if you have to throw half of it away. Knowing how to use and freeze each item saves me money, month after month.

Input? I'd love to hear what you have to say on this. And if you find this post helpful, please share, as that's what I'm trying to do, here, share what I've learned so that we all can meet our financial goals. Google+, FB, pinterest, all have the potential to reach more folks who could use this information.


  1. My hubby loves a good scoop of cottage cheese in his breakfast oatmeal. After he cooks the oatmeal and when it is piping hot, he adds a scoop of cottage cheese, a scoop of peanut butter and a few mini chocolate chips and gives it a quick stir. It gives him the protein he feels his body needs and it really does work together.

    We also love cottage cheese as we prepare a bowl of spaghetti by dropping a scoop or two right into our bowls of piping hot spaghetti. Sometimes we add some mozzarella cheese. Other times leftover spaghetti gets made into a casserole where I add cottage cheese and mozz. cheese and bake and wow, does the family really like this.

    Yogurt (esp. greek yogurt) is our favorite on baked potatoes in place of sour cream. We also use a scoop or two of any kind of yogurt in our homemade pancake batter and just decrease the amount of homemade buttermilk to compensate

    These are all wonderful changes that we make!


    1. Hi Alice,
      thank you for sharing these ways that your family uses cottage cheese and yogurt. I love the baked spaghetti casserole idea! It does sound creamy and delicious!

  2. I don't pay attention to the dates on butter because I've never had any go bad. I always store it in the fridge and have never frozen it. I buy some butter to have on hand for baking which will sometimes sit a very long time in the fridge. Have you ever had butter go bad? I'll have to start paying attention to the dates to see how fast we are really using it up.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      I think I have detected a slightly sour flavor in older butter, like 6 months or so in the fridge. And yes, I can have butter for 6-9 months before I use it, as I buy as much as I can when it's a super low price (like this week at our local supermarket -- Fred Meyer, $2/lb).

      But maybe I'm just being overly sensitive in my taste. I am careful with the butter in the fridge, to rotate stock, with the packages, put the new stuff in the back, and use the old stuff first.

      As far as having an off flavor, I think this would be more pronounced in things like butter cookies, or if the butter has been stored in a fridge that warmer than 40 degrees. When we spent time in London, we found the fridge at our place was kind of warm for what we are used to.

      And one last thing on butter, unsalted will develop an off-taste faster than salted (and the flavors in the fridge that it picks up, will be more noticeable without the salt to cover them up).

  3. I don't go by sell dates at all. The smell/taste test is much better. lol Even cheese can go way beyond the sell by date.

    1. Hi Belinda,
      Some of those sell-by dates are misleading, aren't they? Like with eggs, even the FDA agrees that eggs are "safe" to eat many weeks beyond the sell-by date. But I do adhere to the dates for meat products.

  4. Hi. Lili,

    I'm so impressed by the mark-down deals you find, not just on dairy but on other products as well. I don't think any of the groceries here mark down fresh food at all. Sometimes I'm bummed when I see the deals that others find, but we do get a lot of good sales and I am able to combine that with come of the tactics you mention above to feel like I come out ahead.

    We are not huge milk drinkers, although I like to keep milk on hand for recipes and breakfasts and so on. Occasionally this means that the last up or so in the container sours --- I have always, always used that for pancakes or crumb cake or similar. I was really surprised when some of my friends didn't know that it was ok to us soured milk. I had to explain that I'm not cooking with grotto, moldy milk. ;)

    We can often get sour cream at a really good price through buy one, get one deals. In that case I definitely go beyond the stated expiration date, usually by a couple of weeks with no problem. I like to keep Greek yogurt on hand, too, and have subbed those for one another but frankly I much prefer sour cream. I always storemy butter directly in the freezer; I don't like to pay more than I have to for it which means I really stock up during. The holiday sales. When I have small it's and bobs of cheese lying around I like to make up a simple cheese sauce--sometimes there is enough for Mac and cheese other times we just have it over toast or potatoes.

    Sorry for the typos -- I'm writing this on my tablet and it doesn't like me trying for corrections!

    1. Hi Laura,
      It sounds like you've found lot of ways to maximize your savings on groceries even without much in the way of markdowns! Great job!

      How funny that some of your friends didn't think you could use soured milk in cooking. Like you said, it's not like you were using really disgusting milk, just something not so palatable for drinking. Kind of like not wanting t use an old wrinkly apple in applesauce! (I used a bunch of wrinkly apples this week in homemade apples -- they'd be less than palatable to eat fresh, but made great sauce.)

      Good ideas with different foods for cheese sauce. And great way to use those last lingering bits of cheese!

      Thanks for your comments and ideas!


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