With food inflation now at record high, we’re all looking at ways to cut back on food waste and save money. One of the biggest costs comes from throwing away food when we may not need to.
The cost of our weekly supermarket shop is soaring with prices charged by shops and supermarkets hitting its highest since records began in 2005, according to the latest (September 2022) British Retail Consortium (BRC)-Nielsen IQ index.
Overall shop price inflation has gone up to 5.7% in September, up from 5.1% in August. Fresh food products are now at a record 12.1% higher - up from 10.5% in August.
Alongside this and other living costs, including that of energy prices, now could be the time to start thinking about our food waste habits which is costing the average household £700 a year as we bin a whopping 4.5 million tonnes of food each year according to food waste charity WRAP (opens in new tab) - The Waste and Resources Action Programme.
The confusion between use-by-and sell-by dates is one of the key contributing factors to food waste as most people are unsure what is still okay to eat and what we must throw away.
Potatoes, bread, milk, ready meals and fizzy drinks are the top five most wasted foods according to Love Food Hate Waste (opens in new tab).
We explain the differences and how to keep food out of the bin and the cash in your pocket.
What does a ‘use by’ date mean on food and is it safe to eat?
‘Use by’ dates are usually found on fresh meat, fish and pasta whereas with other foods like packets and tins it’s a ‘best before’ date.
“A ‘use by’ date is a safety date and you shouldn’t eat anything that’s past its use by date as the risk of bacteria multiplying and making you ill is much higher”, warns Shefalee Loth, food nutritionist at Which? Consumer group (opens in new tab).
However for ‘use by’ dates to be effective you need to stick to the storage instructional; for example, a pack of bacon may say it should be stored on the bottom shelf of your fridge.
“Retailers are getting a lot better at only putting use by dates on products that really need them like cooked and fresh meats, fish and bagged salads”, says Loth.
If you spot something in the fridge with a ‘use by’ date and know you won’t eat it in time, stick it in the freezer. You can freeze food up to and even on its ‘use by’ date.
“This works for meat, fish, milk, cheese and even eggs,” says Loth. “But don’t freeze eggs in their shells. Instead, break them and freeze them in an ice cube tray.”
Can you eat food past the ‘best before’ date?
With ‘best before’ date, it is more about the quality of the food rather than safety.
“It’s perfectly safe to consume after this date but might not be at its best – like biscuits, herbs and spices, cheese and even milk. It will taste terrible before it does you any harm,” says Loth.
“As long as packaging is intact and the product has been stored correctly, a product that doesn’t have a ‘use by’ date can be perfectly good to eat for days, weeks and even months after the date has passed,” add Jamie Crummie, co-founder of food waste app TooGoodToGo.
“Foods that can be eaten past their best before include eggs, milk, yoghurt, honey, soy sauce, and hard cheese. Frozen food, dried pasta and bread are also likely to remain edible after the best before date has passed”.
And when it comes to exactly how long you can keep and eat these items - according to the WRAP - biscuits and cereals can be safely eaten for six months beyond their best before date and tinned food and sweets for up to a year afterwards.
However once items have been opened, say a jar of jam, pesto sauce or salad cream, check the storage instructions as after opening, it may advise using within a certain time.
Spot a ‘sell by’ date? You can ignore this says Crummie, “as they’re not required by law and are simply used by retailers as a guide for stock rotations”.
What’s the best way to check if food is ok to eat?
While we’re not suggesting you eat mouldy food or something that doesn’t smell right, but taking a common sense approach rather than rigidly sticking to those ‘best before’ dates can make the difference between an empty fridge or one with a few meals left in it.
“The best way to test if food is safe to eat is to use your senses”, says Crummie. “Does it look normal, has the colour or texture changed? Can you see any visible signs of mould? Smell it – take a good whiff. We all know when milk has gone bad by smelling it, you don’t need the label to tell you”.
The milk sniff test
UK households waste 300,000 tonnes of milk a year - worth £270m.
Morrisons stopped having ‘use by’ dates on some of its own brand yoghurt and hard cheeses in 2020 and since January this year it’s replaced the ‘use by’ date on 90% of its own brand milk with ‘best before’ dates and encouraging customers to do a ‘sniff test’ to check it’s ok to drink.
A Morrisons spokesperson told The Money Edit: “Unlike some other fresh products, drinking milk after a ‘best before’ date is not a food safety issue.
“Research shows fresh milk can often last a number of days past the ‘use by’ date shown on the bottle. However, UK consumers are routinely throwing away milk, as they incorrectly believe it’s unsafe to drink”.
So, next time you are about to throw milk away, take the milk sniff test first as it could save you a trip to the shop and save you cash.
What’s the best way to store food to stop it going off?
Your fridge may feel cold but it’s the temperature that counts. “Storing most fruit and vegetables in your fridge, below 5 degrees celsius, can extend their life span by days, weeks and even months, in the case of apples and potatoes”, says Catherine David from WRAP.
However a Which? study found some built-in fridge thermometers aren’t always accurate and advise investing in a stand alone fridge thermometer.
“And be aware of the different temperature zones in your fridge: the bottom shelf will be coldest whereas the door is the warmest part due to constantly opening and closing it”, says Loth.
Most food can go in the fridge, including eggs even though they’re not kept in the fridge in the supermarket. Supermarket shelves tend to be colder than the average home.
But don’t put bananas in the fridge as they won’t ripen this way and bread can dry out and won’t stay as fresh for long, so that can stay in the kitchen too.
How to store fruit to make it last longer
When it comes to fruit – it’s not just a case of throwing the lot together in your fruit bowl or fridge. “There are some fruit and veg that should never be stored together if you want to keep them fresh - apples, bananas, pears, mangoes, plums and nectarines give off high levels of a natural ripening agent called ethylene, which can prematurely ripen and spoil surrounding produce,” adds Crummie, co-founder of Too Good To Go (opens in new tab). "Around 720 million eggs are thrown out every year but something as simple as keeping your eggs in the fridge can increase their usability by up to three weeks past the best before date”.
Sue Hayward is a personal finance and consumer journalist, broadcaster and author who regularly chats on TV and Radio on ways to get more power for your pound. Sue’s written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, i Paper, Good Housekeeping, Lovemoney and My Weekly. Cats, cheese and travel are Sue’s passions away from her desk!