Want to save $2500 a year? Stop binning perfectly good food

You could be throwing away thousands of dollars if you chuck out food as soon as it reaches the “best before” date, or regularly bin leftovers because you don’t know how long they’ve been there. Get to know the use-by, best-before and shelf-life rules to save big.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

Have you ever poured milk in your coffee only to realise with a sense of dread that the use-by date was that day? Now put your hand up if you sniffed the milk and discovered it smelt perfectly fine, but tipped your coffee in the sink anyway to be on the “safe side”.

You’re not alone. Australians waste a whopping 7.6 million tons of food each year - enough to fill the Melbourne Cricket grounds 9 times - yet 70% of that food could have been eaten.

Not only does food waste generate 17.5 million tons of CO2 equivalent annually, but it also costs the Australian economy $36.6 billion a year.

Still not convinced you should hold onto that leftover lasagne for an extra day? Food waste at home costs the average Aussie household $2500 a year - or $50 a week. Yikes.

By educating yourself on the difference between a use-by date and a best-before date, how long common foods last in the fridge and freezer, and which foods are worth buying in bulk because they have long shelf lives, you could save enough money to go on an annual holiday.

Here’s everything you need to know about food expiration dates:

Use-by and best-before dates

Highly perishable items including dairy products, meat, ready-made meals and cooked food are required to be stamped with a use-by date in Australia.

As the name indicates, these foods need to be consumed before or on that date for health and safety reasons. Eating foods after the use-by date could expose you to harmful bacteria and make you sick.

Best-before dates can be considered more of a general guide than a hard-and-fast rule.

Many foods can still be eaten past their best-before dates, but they may have lost some of their nutritional value or flavour.

You’ll find best-before dates on items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, tinned or canned foods, long-life milk and dry pasta.

While some items (such as baked goods and eggs) should be eaten as close as possible to the best-before date, others (such as dry pasta and canned goods) may last up to six months past it. 

Your best bet is to use your senses (and common sense) when evaluating whether to eat a food past its best-before date. If it looks and smells fine, then it’s probably safe to eat. When in doubt, toss it out.

Proper storage can extend freshness

If a food needs to be stored a certain way to make it to its use-by or best-before date, manufacturers are required to indicate it on the label. For example, milk and meat labels must say, “Keep refrigerated.”

Avoid buying any products with leaking, torn or dented packaging because they may be spoiled or contaminated. 

It’s also a good idea to put your refrigerated and frozen items in your trolley at the end of your shop and put them in your fridge as soon as possible when you get home.

Proper storage can extend the life of your food.

Baked-on dates and products without dates

There are a few exceptions to the use-by and best-before labelling rules.

Bread that has a shelf life of less than 7 days can be labelled with a baked-on or baked-for date.

While you should try to eat it as close to the baked-on date as possible, it’s only likely to reduce in quality over time rather than make you sick.

Products with a shelf life of more than 2 years aren’t required to be stamped with a date at all because they’re likely to be eaten before they go off.

If you’re unsure how long an item has been in your pantry, have a sniff and make a judgement call. Throw it out if you have any doubts!

Foods with a long shelf life to buy in bulk

Another great way to save money is to buy food in bulk, especially when it’s on sale. But which foods can be safely kept in the pantry for extended periods without spoiling? We’ve compiled a list of your top bulk-buy picks.

Keep in mind that the following guidelines apply to unopened packages stored in a cool, dry place. You should always check the item for signs of mould, insects or spoilage before using.

How long food lasts in the fridge and freezer

From raw seafood and home-cooked leftovers to takeaway and thawed food, here’s when to eat it or toss it.

11 tips to avoid food waste at home

Not sure what to do with the chicken that’s about to go off or all those oranges you didn’t get around to eating? Here are some tips to keep food (and money) out of the bin.

  • Be proactive by planning out weekly menus and only buying the ingredients you need.
  • Check what you already have in the fridge or pantry before heading to the shops.
  • Use FoodWise’s Recipe Finder to find recipes based on the ingredients you need to use up. OzHarvest is also a good source for ‘leftover recipes’.
  • Freeze perishable items before their use-by date.
  • Peel overripe bananas and place them in a plastic bag in the freezer to be used for smoothies or baking.
  • Use see-through containers in the fridge so you can easily see what’s in each one.
  • Make an “eat me” section in your fridge and place all your leftovers there so they don’t get pushed to the back and forgotten.
  • Eat leftovers for lunch the next day.
  • Rotate food in your pantry so older items are visible and hopefully eaten first.
  • Use stale bread to bulk up a pasta bake.
  • Make jam with overripe fruit or pickle veggies that are losing their freshness.

Save money and the planet

Knowing your food expiration dates can save you a lot of money and reduce the negative impact of food waste on the environment. Everyone wins!

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