When is food still safe to eat?

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 30 Mar, 2020

At the moment, we all want to have food essentials available at home so we can spend less time in queues to enter supermarkets and maintain social distancing by not going out too often. So, to prevent waste, check out our top tips on ways you can save food and waste less.

In the UK, we throw away over 7 million tonnes of food and drink every year, most of which could have been eaten. In normal circumstances, this is a huge amount of food waste, but now it’s even more important to make our food last longer. So, how closely do we need to adhere to food labelling?

Our food can be labelled with ‘sell by’, ‘display until’, ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates to help guide us on how to sell and use food and drink. The dates for us to pay attention to are ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates – ‘sell by’ and ‘display until’ dates are only for shop staff to use for stock control, so we don’t need to think about these.

What’s important for us to remember is that ‘use by’ dates are set for our safety on food that goes off quickly, such as fish, meat and ready-to-eat salads. Foods must be eaten until midnight on the ‘use by’ date as long as we’ve carefully followed the storage instructions on the packaging. The good news is that if a food can be frozen, its life can be extended beyond the ‘use by’ date, but we should still follow the packaging instructions such as ‘cook from frozen’ or ‘defrost thoroughly before use’.

‘Best before’ dates are set as a guide for us regarding the quality of food and appear widely on frozen, dried and tinned foods, and also on some fresh produce like potatoes and onions. To keep it at its optimum quality it’s best to follow the storage instructions on the label. Eventually, it will begin to lose its flavour and texture, but we don’t need to immediately throw it away, we can rely on our senses and instincts.

In summary...

  • Use by – for safety (but can be extended by freezing, even on the date)
  • Best before – a guide for quality
  • Display until – for shop staff, stock control
  • Sell by – for shop staff, stock control

Check out our top tips on how we can all make our food last longer:

Bread

  • Bread stored in the fridge will stay fresh for longer.

Dry food

  • Store opened packets of dry food like crackers, rice and pasta in an airtight container.

Vegetables

  • Keep frozen vegetables frozen to maintain their long life – don’t defrost and refreeze.
  • Use your senses – if vegetables past their ‘best before’ date look, smell and taste alright, they’re fine to eat.

Eggs

  • Eggs stay fresher when stored at a consistent temperature, so they are best kept in the fridge on the middle shelf not the fridge door. You can take them out of the fridge early to bring them up to temperature before cooking them, especially when you want runny soft-boiled eggs and your cakes to rise.
  • If you’re unsure whether eggs past their ‘best before’ date are safe to eat, do the water test – if they sink in a bowl of cold water, they're fine to eat but if they float, steer clear. Also, if they have an unpleasant smell after you’ve cracked them, throw them away.
  • Eggs past their ‘best before’ date are best hard-boiled or used in fully cooked dishes, such as cakes.

Milk, butter and cheese

  • Milk is still safe to drink even if it has gone sour. It may not taste pleasant, but it can be used in baking or in making kefir.
  • Hard cheeses, such as cheddar and parmesan, can be safe to eat if the mould is cut off – but as soon as you see mould on soft cheese, like brie, throw it away.
  • Milk, grated hard cheese, and butter can be frozen for up to three months.

Practical tips

  • Food with ‘use by’ dates can be cooked or frozen (if applicable) up to midnight on the day of the use by date – see packaging instructions about freezing food.
  • Rotate foods in your cupboards and fridge – put the newest food at the back and bring the older food to the front.
  • If you have space in your freezer, batch cooking can help save food by making sure none of it goes to waste, which can happen when making individual meals.
  • If you’re not a fan of chopping veg, why not chop more than you need for your meal and save the remainder in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer for using another day? This might encourage you to use the veg in another meal and prevent finding half a wilted broccoli at the back of your fridge a few weeks later!

There are many ways to make our food last longer, and if we all follow these tips we can save money, save waste and save time!

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.