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For this coconut milk rice pudding, use coconut milk that is preferably not expired.

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The first time my daughter made bread with my mother-in-law, I casually walked by the counter to peruse the expiration dates on their ingredients. The flour was older than my daughter, having expired before she was born five years earlier. My in-laws are notorious for using every last drop of their products regardless of their expiration date, and this is one example of many.

I was met with rolling eyes each time I pointed to an impressive expiration date in their cabinet. Imagine the wind in their sails when, in about the last year, article after article came out declaring expiration dates simply guidance: advice that needn’t be followed! It turns out, they may have been ahead of things (darn it!).

ExpiryI treat expiration dates as a nun would treat the Ten Commandments. They might as well be written in stone. They are my protector and I always abide by them. (Except for the one time I served beans that were slightly over their ‘best by’ date and nearly poisoned my family.) That one tiny error set me straight.

What are these nebulous dates? What is “best by” other than a tech mega store? What exactly do expiration dates mean and aren’t they meant to keep us safe? These terms aren’t regulated, which is why labels can throw around verbiage like “expiration date,” “enjoy by” and “best by.”

Foods expire at different rates, but the take-away is this: The more a food is refined or processed, the longer it lasts. We know preservatives and manufactured ingredients like high fructose corn syrup give foods a longer shelf life, but they also compromise their nutritional integrity.

According to an article in the New York Times, white flour lasts longer than whole wheat and white rice has more longevity than brown. This is attributed to the fat content in unrefined grains, which turns rancid quickly. We’re now being urged to use our own senses to determine whether a product is safe. Foods in cans last longer than those in glass, which lasts longer than those packed in plastic.

Where did they come from?The addition of expiration dates on food products came from a movement for more transparency about our food in the 1970s, but, with the exception of baby food, they’re completely voluntary. Instead of giving us the date by which food rots, these dates denote quality rather than safety. With grocery prices skyrocketing, who among us can afford to be picky these days?

“Expiration date” is a vague indication of when the manufacturer believes the food will no longer function in the same way (think yeast or baking powder) or will no longer be at its peak freshness. It benefits food companies to have us consume food when it’s fresh and tastes best so we will buy their product again, but it doesn’t exactly mean the food should no longer be consumed. (Who knew?)

“Use by” is meant to be a more exact term, yet the food dating system has been laid out so ambiguously that very few of us know what the terms mean. “Use by” means just that: we should use by that date, otherwise we risk our safety.

“Best if used by” is another nebulous term referring to a product’s freshness.

“Sell by” dates take into consideration that the foods may be sold on a certain date and consumed a few days thereafter.

Milk is said to stay fresh at least a week after the date with which it’s marked, but use a smell test if you’re worried, since food can spoil before its stamped date.

Eggs are said to stay fresh well beyond their date, but not knowing when they were packed makes this confusing as well.

Spices may be reported to last forever (one thing my grandmother maintained until the day she died,) but they certainly do lose their potency, which is kind of the point of using them in the first place.

Waste not want notThe mission to clarify what these dates mean and standardizing terms may help food waste. I throw out so much food simply because of expiration (sell by, use by, eat by, whatever) dates and it’s estimated that nearly 90 percent of people in the U.S. do the same. Nearly 20 percent of food thrown out in American households is due to misunderstanding these dates and believing that it’s dangerous to consume thereafter. This compounds the atrocity of food scarcity in certain parts of our nation, let alone other countries. Additionally, some reports attribute up to eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions to wasted food decomposing in landfills.

The FDA wants to standardize food dates so that we all know what they mean. To streamline these terms, they are turning to “best by” so we know when they may be at their freshest. We can make up our own minds from there.

Now here’s hoping that the eggs I left overnight in the garage don’t actually need refrigeration as their label claims ...

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Coconut milk rice pudding

(don’t forget to check dates for best flavor)

• ½ cup white basmati rice

• ¼ teaspoon salt

• 2 cups whole milk

• 1 can coconut milk (preferably not expired)

• 2 cinnamon sticks

• ¼ cup coconut sugar

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 2 egg yolks

Combine rinsed rice and salt with milk, coconut milk and cinnamon sticks in a large saucepan.

Cook over medium heat, bringing to a boil while stirring.

Cover and allow to cook for 15 minutes.

Uncover, add raisins and cook for an additional 8 minutes, stirring to prevent the mixture from sticking to the bottom.

In a small bowl, combine sugar, vanilla and egg yolks, whisking until combined.

Add to warm rice mixture and continue to cook over low heat, stirring until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.

Serve warm with walnuts if desired.