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Get to know your dates
Not using food “in time” accounts for 41% of the 4.5 million tonnes of edible food that is thrown away in UK homes each year. That’s around 1,845,000 tonnes of food worth an estimated half a billion pounds.
A lot of that waste could be avoided if we were in the habit of more regularly checking the date labels on our foods, and taking appropriate action; for example by cooking, eating or freezing perishable foods before they go ‘out of date’ or otherwise become inedible.
Of course, regularly checking the date labels of your foods will only work if you know what the labels mean. Best estimates suggest that 50% of people in the UK don’t properly understand what the date labels on our foods mean. Misunderstandings and confusion over ‘use by’, ‘best before’ and ‘sell by’ dates is especially common and it’s thought that it is the cause of 15% of food waste in UK homes, accounting for the unnecessary waste of 600,000 tonnes of edible food each year.
This article explains what the different labels mean, suggests a few ways to make keeping track of the date labels easier, and gives you some advice on how to deal with foods that are about to ‘go out of date’ but which you can’t use up immediately.
Understanding food date labels.
There are four types of labels you will generally see on your food: use by, sell by, display until and best before. However, many of us will only see the date, whatever type it is, and throw away or consume accordingly, not knowing what those dates actually mean.
- A “use by” date is a safety measure. This is especially important: you absolutely shouldn’t eat food past its use by date – unless you have frozen it in time. This includes things like fresh meat and fish.
- “Sell by” dates and ‘display until’ dates are rarely seen these days. Neither is intended for the consumer at all, they are intended for the shops to help stock rotation. You can ignore both. These products should have another date, either a use by or best before, which is intended for the consumer and which you should pay attention to.
- A “best before” date is a guide to food quality. Foods are at their best up to the date, provided they have been stored in accordance with the guidance on the label. Foods might not be quite as tasty past the ‘best before’ date, even if stored in ideal conditions, but they will still be safe to eat. The best course of action with these foods is to use your senses to determine if the food is still palatable (nice enough to eat by your own standards). If it looks, smells and tastes ok, don’t waste it. The only exception are eggs, which have a best before date but which should really be eaten within 2 days of that date, especially if you are pregnant or have a health condition which weakens your immune system. An easy test for egg freshness is to place them in water. Floating eggs have gone bad, eggs that sink are still fresh.
Check your date labels
Now you’ve brushed up on the meaning of food date labels, it’s time to apply your knowledge.
It’s a good idea to go through your food storage areas (fridge and cupboards / pantry) and check the labels on your foods every so often. Aim to do a quick check of your fridge (where your ‘use by’ dated foods tend to live) perhaps twice weekly. One a week probably isn’t enough – unless you check the dates as you unload the shopping and manage to remember all of them, or you use a tracking app that remembers for you and alerts you when foods need using up.
You should aim to check your cupboards (where the ‘best before’ dated foods tend to live) once every 6 months or so. Don’t leave it until you move house.
There’s no need to check the date labels on your frozen food. The freezer acts like a ‘pause button’ for food and you can freeze most foods up to and on the date of the ‘use by’ and safely consume them within 24hrs of defrosting. More on that later.
What to do with food past or nearing its ‘use by’ date:
If you find anything past its ‘use by’ date, discard it. Please separate out the food from any recyclable packaging and be sure to rinse and drain recyclable items covered with food residue before putting them in the recycling bin. Any food waste you can’t compost should be placed in your residual waste bin (usually your black bin) along with non-recyclable packaging (or your food waste collection if you have one). If you aren’t sure what you can / can’t recycle in Leicestershire check this guide.
If you find foods approaching their ‘use by’ date, they will probably be in your fridge (but not always) – keep them in the fridge but aim to place them altogether on one shelf or area of the fridge – a “Use me up quickly area”. You are now faced with the challenge of preventing these items (if there are any) from going to waste. You could:
- Eat them – you can do this right up to and on the ‘use by’ date
- Cook with them – you can do this right up to and on the ‘use by’ date. Cooking kills bacteria and adds an additional two to three days of useable life to the food. If you don’t eat what you have cooked immediately you can safely store whatever you’ve cooked in an airtight container in the fridge and use it within the next couple of days. If you freeze whatever you cook instead, the food will last indefinitely whilst in the freezer but should be consumed within 24hrs of defrosting. Cool whatever you cook before you freeze it in a suitable container, and don’t forget to label the container before you put it in the freezer. The label should tell you what the food is (it’s hard to tell once frozen without a label) and the date it was made – so you can use the oldest frozen stuff first when you come to retrieve it. If you need some recipe inspiration visit: https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/recipes
- Freeze them as they are – as we’ve already said, it’s ok to freeze most foods up to and on the ‘use by’ date. Ignore labelling that says ‘freeze on the day of purchase’. Keep in mind that sometimes it’s better to portion / separate some foods before putting them in the freezer so you can take out and defrost just as much as you need at a later date rather than all of it. Again, remember to recycle any recyclable packaging that you remove, and to label your storage containers with what the food is and the date it was frozen. You can safely eat / cook and eat the food within 24hrs of defrosting, and most uncooked foods can be safely refrozen once cooked – for example if you bulk cook with the food and need to store some of the resultant meals. You can’t defrost and then refreeze uncooked foods.
- Give them away – if you can’t or don’t want to do any of the above, someone else might. Offer the food to anyone who might want it – friends, neighbours, nearby relatives. Alternatively, offer the food on the food sharing platform Olio, or look for nearby food sharing groups on social media. Some community fridges may accept the food but check with them first – most would prefer ‘use by’ labelled foods with a few days of useable life. You’ll find a map of community fridges with contact details and addresses here: https://www.hubbub.org.uk/the-community-fridge
What to do with foods past or nearing it’s ‘best before’ date:
- Look, smell, taste. If it’s palatable, it’s ok to eat it. If not, discard it / compost it if you can.
- Give it away – If it’s something you’ve not eaten because you don’t like it, and aren’t likely to change your mind anytime soon, pass it on to someone else. Community fridges are likely to accept foods that are approaching or past their ‘best before’ dates if they have been stored according to on pack instructions and are unopened.
While you are in the fridge
Check your fridge temperature!
It makes a lot of sense to periodically check that your fridge is set at the correct temperature. Many fridges in the UK are too warm,
The ideal temperature of your fridge is between 3-5°C. Higher temperatures give bacteria a chance to multiply and can cause food to go off faster, leading to it being thrown away unnecessarily, and in extreme cases can make your foods unsafe to eat. Setting the fridge temperature too low is likely to make your fridge work unnecessarily hard, shortening its life and increasing your energy bill. Anyone who’s retrieved a half-frozen cucumber from the fridge will confirm that setting the temperature too low can also render foods unpalatable, also leading to waste.
Get the temperature right
If your fridge has a digital temperature display, it’s straightforward to change the temperature to the recommended 3-5°C. However, many models have a dial, and it can be difficult to work out what the numbers on the dial mean, if it has numbers of course.
There’s no need to search for your fridge manual, instead visit the Chill The Fridge Out tool on the Love Food Hate Waste website. This gives advice, based on the make / model of your fridge, that will help you set it to a safe temperature of below 5°C. Just note down the make / model of your fridge before you visit the website.
Check with a thermometer
Even after checking and setting the dial / display in your fridge, keep in mind that the temperature on different shelves and in different areas inside your fridge is likely to vary a lot. A thermometer will help you fine tune the temperature setting, and let you know where the cold and hotspots are. In turn this will help you to figure out where the best places are to store different foods in your fridge. A bit of careful organisation of the food in your fridge will also help ensure it doesn’t spoil before it should.
Tip – the fridge door is not necessarily the best place to store milk as it warms slightly every time the fridge door is opened. Instead, put the milk on an inside shelf and use the shelves on the inside of the door to store items that are less likely to spoil such as jams, canned drinks, mustard and pickles.
Do your fridge a favour
Most household fridges are controlled by a thermostat that switches on the cooling system when the temperature is too high and switches it off when the air inside the fridge cools to the right level. This means that the harder your fridge has to work to maintain a safe temperature, the more energy it uses.
Do your fridge a favour by letting food cool before putting it in the fridge. It’s also good idea to use a cool bag for chilled food when you do the weekly shop. A study by WRAP found that the temperature of some foods could increase by up to 11°C on the journey from shop to fridge and could take 15 hours to reach a safe temperature again.
Don’t overfill the fridge
Your fridge needs air to circulate inside it to maintain a safe temperature. Packing food too closely together means the air inside the fridge can’t circulate freely. If your fridge is looking too full, take out the things that don’t require constant chilling (like wine, beer or pickles) until more room is freed up.
Shut the door
Opening the fridge door even for a short time can raise the temperature inside the fridge by a few degrees. The longer the door stays open, the more energy your fridge will use trying to get the temperature back down to below 5°C. Keep door opening to a minimum to protect the food inside the fridge and keep your energy bills down.
Foods you shouldn’t store in the fridge
Some foods shouldn’t be stored in the fridge if you want to get the best out of them. The list below covers the basics, but if you need more information about where’s best to store a specific item of food you’ll find guidance at: https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/article/food-storage-a-z
- Bananas – release a gas called ethene which makes them, and other fruits and vegetables ripen. Storing your bananas in a confined space (such as the fridge) concentrates the gas and makes them and any other fruit and veg in your fridge ripen and go soft quickly. If your fridge is really cold, it can cause banana skins to blacken prematurely. The banana inside is likely to remain edible, but the skin may be off-putting.
- Bread – goes stale quicker if it’s stored in a cool environment like the fridge (but not if it’s frozen). It’s a complicated process to do with the crystallisation of starch molecules in flour, but to keep bread soft and squidgy for longer, keep it at room temperature in a cupboard or breadbin.
- Cut herbs – are best left at room temperature with the stems submerged in fresh water.
- Coffee (ground beans) – Roasted and ground coffee beans are dry and absorbent. Keeping them in the fridge allows them to absorb the moisture in the cool air inside the fridge, causing it to take on the flavour of other items. It’s best to store your roasted beans and grounds in an airtight container at room temperature.
- Honey – Runny honey crystallises into sugary lumps faster if it’s stored in the fridge. It’s best to store it at room temperature in the jar / bottle it comes in. You can revive and soften crystallised honey by placing the container in warm water for a few minutes before using it.
- Oil – Olive, vegetable, coconut and other cooking oils solidify when cold. They can be revived by warming them up, but it’s best to keep them at room temperature so you don’t need to warm them before using them.
- Onions – Brown, red and white onions are best stored in a cool, dry, dark place such as inside a cupboard. Onions produce ethene gas, so store them separately from potatoes (which are also best stored in a cupboard). Spring onions are best stored in the fridge though.
- Pineapple (whole) – Pineapples release ethene gas, just like bananas, which cause them and other fruits and vegetables to ripen. Store whole / uncut pineapples somewhere cool and dry (in a cupboard on a countertop). Once cut, pieces of pineapple are ideally kept in an airtight container in the fridge.
- Any fruit of vegetable you want to ripen – Avocados, melons, pears, plums etc. might all need a bit of ripening before you can eat them. Cold temperatures slow the ripening process, so it’s best to keep them at room temperature until they are ready to eat. You can then use the fridge to keep your fruit at peak ripeness for as long as possible. You can of course use ethene producing fruit and veg to quicken the ripening process if desired. For example by placing a banana in a paper bag with an avocado will cause the avocado to ripen quicker.
Don’t forget the freezer
You’ve labelled everything in your freezer so you know what it is when it’s time to defrost / eat it haven’t you? Many people dont’t – so whatever you freeze, remember to label it, so you don’t have to deal with ‘mystery foods’ in the future.
If your food is going to go off, and you can’t eat it or give it away, but you aren’t sure if it can be frozen or not – just give it a go. You’ve got nothing to lose by trying.
Freezers act like a pause button for food. Food can remain frozen indefinitely and won’ t be a danger to your health as long as it remains wrapped while in the freezer, and you thaw / cook the food properly afterwards. However, the quality of some foods might degrade over time. Even if you find something in the freezer that’s been in there for years, it’s likely safe to eat – it just might not be at its best one thawed out. However, you can usually adapt the way to cook and serve foods so that this is less of an issue. Having been frozen for a long time isn’t a good reason to throw it away.
If you have a larger freezer and you are feeling super organised, you can try arranging the contents so that similar foods are grouped together so you don’t have to root through everything to find what you need.
During your sort out, you might find some items of unlabelled ‘mystery food’ – the sort of thing where you aren’t quite sure if it’s Bolognese sauce or chilli. Put these things together but keep them frozen. Over the next few weeks try to identify them as best you can, and if possible defrost and eat them.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding around frozen food; what can and can’t be frozen, when and how to best freeze something, how long it can remain frozen, and how best to defrost food.
If you really aren’t sure, here resources you can turn to for advice:
- Thefullfreezer.com – with guides to freezing and defrosting a wide range of foods
- BBC Good Food
- Love Food Hate Waste
- How to defrost food in the microwave quickly (Wiki)