If your Thanksgiving shopping list continues to grow longer by the day, you might be tempted to look in your pantry for foods and ingredients you’ve already purchased. But when you check out the “best buy” dates, and packages opened months ago, it might be confusing to figure out what to keep, and what to toss.
For pantry items, spoilage is not a concern. Even labels that say “best by” or “use by” are perfectly safe to eat. These labels refer to optimal taste and texture of the item only, not safety.
And when you’ve opened a package, and put away for later use, most of the taste and texture preservation comes from proper storage.
Check out our list of favorite Thanksgiving foods and ingredients for advice on what to keep or toss.
Keep: Bottle of vanilla extract (opened 1 year ago)
Extracts are alcohol based, so shelf stability is very long – several years when stored properly. You’ll notice that vanilla and other extracts are already in a dark bottle. Stored away from light in your cabinet, with the top tightly screwed on will maintain flavor for several years.
Toss: Can of pumpkin (bought 6 months ago, dent at top of can)
While the purchase date is of no safety concern, the dented top might be a problem. Always better to toss a can where a dent is near the seam of the can and top. Small cracks can allow air to get in, and possibly contaminate the food inside.
Toss: Unopened bag of chopped walnuts (bought 10 months ago)
You’ll likely lose some flavor and risk a change in the taste and texture from changes in the fats. Preserve optimal taste and flavor for months by storing in the freezer.
Keep: Can of cranberry sauce (bought 18 months ago)
A can of cranberry sauce should maintain optimal taste and texture for more than a year, often close to 2 years.
Toss: Jar of cinnamon (opened 9 months ago)
Tightly sealed, cinnamon maintains flavor for at least 6 months. Because this is a frequently used spice, with the jar opened and closed often, for optimal taste you’ll want to start with a fresh jar.
Stick cinnamon loses flavor even faster.
If your spice jars are “multiple years” old, they’re safe to use, but lack aroma and flavor. To test, take a pinch between your fingers and rub — if you don’t get a fragrant smell, it’s time to toss.
Keep: Box of pie crust mix (best by 1 month ago)
The “best by” date is an estimate of product maximum taste and flavor. A few weeks beyond that likely won’t have any detectable differences.
Toss: Box of brown sugar (opened 5 months ago)
That opened box of brown sugar is safe to eat, but turns into rock-hard lumps quickly.
When opened, seal tightly in plastic wrap, then store in a second plastic bag to optimize softness.
You can re-soften brown sugar by putting in microwave safe bowl, covering with a damp paper towel, and microwaving for 15-20 seconds. While it won’t be the same as a new box, it can help make it usable.
Your best bet is to purchase a small box of brown sugar, to limit waste.
Keep: White sugar (opened 12 months ago)
White sugar has no expiration date, and maintains taste and texture indefinitely. The same applies to honey.
Keep: Box of strawberry gelatin (bought 9 months ago)
Gelatin in an unopened box is often listed as a food with an “indefinite” shelf life. You’ll get at least two years, based on the “use by” date of most brands.
Toss: Box of chocolate cake mix (bought 2 years ago)
Flavor and texture will have a marked decline, although the product is safe to eat. In a pinch, you can use the product and add additional ingredients (like chocolate chips, vanilla extract) to boost flavor.
Keep: Unopened bag of stuffing mix (bought 6 months ago)
Bags and boxes of packages stuffing mix maintain optimal taste and texture for at least one year.
Toss: Bag of croutons (opened 3 months ago)
If you’re concerned with the taste and crunchiness of croutons for your salads, toss that open bag of croutons.
If you want to avoid the possibility of the “stale bread” taste, stick with a new bag. You might want to use these for stuffing or crumble for use as a crunchy topping to a baked vegetable side dish.