Disclaimer: This blog covers how I avoid wastage at home and does not apply to restaurant trade.
Studies carried out by the likes of Jamie Oliver to the government have long been showing that food wastage in UK homes is something we need to address. The ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign launched by registered charity WRAP states the shocking statistics that we throw away 7 million tonnes of food every year from our homes in the UK, and that an average family could save £700 a year by reducing this.
So why do we do it?
Sell by, use by, best before – what?!
I believe confusion about ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use by’ dates are one of the biggest culprits leading us as to throw away such vast quantities of food each week. But how reliable are they, and what do they even mean? In our house a lot of seemingly fresh produce appears to be going in the bin – a lot of it suspiciously displaying a ‘best before’ date of the previous day or two. If something is past its best before date does that mean it’s no longer good or could make us ill? Should we throw it straight in the bin?
The answer I gave to my fiancée and now you is ‘no – always check!’ Usually ‘best before’ appears on low risk items, such as fruit and vegetables, dry goods, bread and cereals. They are also conveniently set by the manufacturer or supplier based on when they believe the quality of their product is likely to be past its best – i.e. also a sneaky trick to encourage you to buy more! These dates are decided as a guide for you to consume the item in its ‘best condition’. It’s not the date at which the item goes off or spoils. Most foods can still be eaten safely after these dates as long as there has been no obvious contamination.
To give an example, with bread and cereals this would be from mould or pests, and with fruit and veg there would be an obvious sign of the fruit rotting. Most spices and other dried ingredients can keep for many months after their ‘best before’ date. While it is true that in some cases flavour may deteriorate, they certainly aren’t likely to make you ill. So with these items, just try to buy them in the smallest quantity you know can use within the ‘best before’ date – but don’t worry too much if it runs over. If it looks fine – it probably is!
‘Use by’ dates…Now this is a different story, and you should indeed pay attention to them. You will usually find ‘Use by’ dates on high risk items that could cause a hazard to health if consumed after their date. This includes dairy, meat and fish, whether cooked or raw.
What the manufacturer is telling you with a ‘use by’ date is that the product must either be consumed by midnight on that date or undergo another process to make it safe, i.e. cooking. I won’t tell you how you should follow the rules but I am simply going to tell you how I handle it in my home – I trust my senses. If I have something like milk or yoghurt in my fridge and it is a day past it’s date I have no worries about making a judgment on how it looks, smells or tastes, because if it was off I’d know about it! The same applies to meat and fish.
And by the way – it does work exactly the same the other way. If I have something that is ‘in date’ I don’t automatically assume all is well. As a chef I’m highly sensitive to things that don’t smell or look quite right and I absolutely wouldn’t use it if I was in doubt.
It becomes so costly to throw away so much food especially meat and fish as these are usually the most expensive part of a meal. A good tip if you have some raw meat that you can’t consume right away but worry it is going to spoil soon is just to cook it and this can then extend the shelf life if stored correctly for up to another 2-3 days.
Don’t take risks with a few items, namely cooked shellfish or rice.
Another big reason for food spoiling prematurely is it not being stored correctly. Manufacturers tend to give storage instructions on packaging, but here’s a couple of things I do to bring my (apparently obsessive) organisation habits at work into my home 🙂
- Soft leafy vegetables like herbs and lettuces are so easy to damage. They should be looked after in your fridge, kept away from the back (where it is colder which can damage the leaves) and without piling things on top of them.
- Most fruit and vegetables will last longer in the fridge. However there are a few exceptions (bananas being an example that most people would know).
- Avoid storing bread in a cold place. Storing it in the fridge speeds up the bread going stale.
- Potatoes and onions will actually last longer in a cool, dark and dry place rather than a fridge.
- Always store raw meat and fish below any ready to eat items on the bottom shelf, and regularly clean out the shelves of your fridge.
- The door is the least effective place to store anything so if possible use it for condiments or drinks only.
We’re making a big effort in our house to reduce the amount of food we waste, not just to avoid wasting money but also for the benefit to the environment too. Give it a try this weekend to make a note of how much you’re actually throwing away and see if you can reduce it. I hope my tips are helpful!