A couple of months back, none of us thought anything of dropping in to the supermarket to pick up a couple of bits and pieces on the way home from work. Some herbs to enhance the pasta sauce, perhaps, or fruit to make smoothies for breakfast. A pint of milk, a loaf of bread. Shopping patterns had changed in recent years, with the weekly shop less of a thing than it used to be. But now that we are all trying to limit our trips to the shops, and eating most of our meals at home rather than in the canteen at work or in cafés and restaurants, the Big Shop is once again a reality.
And even if you are avoiding the shops completely, by being lucky enough to nab one of the coveted supermarket delivery slots or availing of one of the many new delivery services that have emerged over the past few weeks, chances are that you are buying larger quantities than you might have done previously. These days, no one wants to run out of anything, and that means that our fridges, freezers and kitchen cupboards are packed far fuller than they would be under different circumstances.
Buying large quantities of food at a time cuts down on the number of times that we leave home and risk exposure to the virus, but it does mean that we have to think more carefully about food storage, so that we don't end up wasting food because it spoils before we have a chance to use it. If you're one of those people who has made banana bread for the first time in recent weeks and posted a photo of it on social media (because if you didn't Insta it, did it really happen?), you'll know what I mean.
But whatever about a blackening bunch of bananas that can happily be re-purposed into a delicious treat, it's painful to have to jettison expensive ingredients simply because they weren't stored correctly, or you delayed using them in favour of something else that would have lasted longer.
If you're anything like me, one of your first lockdown activities was to take stock of what you had in your freezer. We had some 'interesting' meals from the mystery packages for a few nights - no domestic goddess prizes for me that week - but at least it freed up some space for more considered shopping. Some of the items that we ate were suffering from freezer burn, which happens when frost gets inside packages of frozen food and moisture leaches out. Most items will stay in optimum condition in the freezer for three months before falling victim to freezer burn, which is exacerbated by frequent opening and closing of the freezer door. It's not a safety issue - food keeps indefinitely and will not go bad when frozen, provided the freezer is functioning properly - but it does impact on texture and flavour. So chicken breasts that are freezer-burned are better used in an assertively spiced curry or stew with plenty of sauce than served grilled or baked where their deficiencies will be more apparent. (Vacuum sealing is the best way to avoid freezer burn, otherwise press as much air out of the package as possible before closing it - that's why it's best to store frozen food in plastic bags rather than stiff containers.)
Next for audit was the pantry cupboard. According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, 'the date of minimum durability, or 'best before' date, is the date until which a foodstuff retains its specific properties eg taste, aroma, appearance, any specific qualities which relate to the product, vitamin content etc, when the product has been stored appropriately and the package unopened. Typically, a 'best before' date is used for food products such that are canned, dried, or ambient, frozen foods etc. Many foods that are past their 'best before' date may be safe to eat, but their quality may have deteriorated.
This means that in spite of the presence of a 'best before' date, the reality is that very many foods will last indefinitely, even if their intensity of flavour diminishes over time. Amongst the things that will never go off are vinegars, sugars, honey and salt, so don't throw them out but do move the oldest products to the front of the cupboard so that you use them before newer ones. The same goes for tinned foods - if the tin is neither bulging nor rusty, and if there is no visible deterioration of the contents or a bad smell when you open it, then they are fine to eat. When it comes to food in glass jars, if the little button at the top is bulging it indicates that there has been bacterial action inside - if it's flat, and there's no visible spoilage, the contents will be fine regardless of the date.
I saw a thread on Twitter recently where people tried to outdo each other in relation to the oldest spices they'd found in their cupboard of shame. Mine was a jar of asafoetida from 2005, and I did throw it in the bin - but it would have been safe to use, just not very potent. Plus, I reckoned, if I had kept an unopened jar of a spice for 15 years, and it had survived a house move during that time, the chances were that I wouldn't be needing asafoetida any time soon.
Dried beans and pulses will last indefinitely too, although they do toughen with time and will take longer to cook. Oils and nuts, on the other hand, can turn rancid - and the best way to tell if they have is by taste. (You can store nuts in the freezer to make them last longer.)
Perishable food, defined by the FSAI as food 'likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health', carries a 'use by' date rather than a 'best before' date. The 'use by' is the date up until which a food may be used safely, ie consumed, cooked or processed, once it has been stored correctly. After the 'use by' date a food is deemed unsafe in accordance with article 14(2) of Regulation EC No 178/2002 and cannot be sold. Typically, a 'use by' date is used for fresh, ready-to-eat and chilled foods such as yoghurt, milk, meat, and unpasteurised fruit juices. Eggs are an exception and carry a 'best before' date, although they will be fine to eat for a while longer. When a new batch of eggs arrives into the house, think about baking something with the ones that you have left from the week before.
For me, fresh food is where common sense comes in. We've all had the experience of opening a carton of fizzy coleslaw or sour milk that's within date and knowing by the smell, look or taste of it that it's not okay to eat. I've returned many items to shops for being 'off' despite the date on the packaging. We all need to trust our eyes and noses more, without taking foolish risks.
Fresh meat and fish are likely to be amongst the most expensive ingredients that you buy, so you definitely do not want to lose them to spoilage. This is where a meal plan is your friend - if you're not going to be able to use everything within a couple of days, whether by eating it straight away or making a stew or curry for later in the week (when it will taste even better after a couple of days in the fridge), then freeze it.
When it comes to fruit and vegetables, the rule of thumb is that the softer it is, the quicker you should use it. That means eating the berries and salads before you turn to the oranges and carrots. Don't worry about 'best before' dates on fruit and vegetables from the supermarket - if you bought them loose from a greengrocer they wouldn't have any of those dates and you'd have to use your own judgement. Just because an apple has gone a bit wrinkly, and the label on the plastic bag says that it is a couple of days past its best doesn't mean you have to throw it in the bin. Your children may refuse to eat it but that doesn't mean it won't make a fine crumble or compote to have with porridge.
Every few days, take a few minutes to assess the current state of the fresh food you have. Try and eat leftovers from dinner for lunch the day when they are at there most appealing (and you can still remember what they are), turn wrinkly vegetables into soup, herbs into flavoured oils and perhaps have a go at pickling and fermenting, old-school techniques for food preservation that are - understandably - popular once more. You can even turn the milk that's gone off into yoghurt in a Thermos flask... but I tried that last week and can't speak for the results.