We each throw away nearly a trolley’s worth of shopping every month! Nutrition editor Amanda Ursell helps you stop the waste and spare the cash

It’s a shocking amount of money to squander, but according to Love Food Hate Waste, the average UK household throws away £470 worth of food a year. That’s the equivalent of a posh UK mini break for two or a new spring wardrobe. This figure rises to £700 for families with two children living at home. The first things to end up in the bin? Perishables such as fruit and veg, bread and milk. Then there are the wilting greens in the fridge drawer, the past-it packets in the cupboard, and the forgotten containers of leftover suppers intended for lunch or the freezer that never make their destination. And it’s not just food we’re wasting – think of the water, energy, fuel and packaging that go into getting those ingredients to us in the first place. If you recognise the scenario and would like to curb your spend, it’s time for a new strategy…

3 rules to get food waste under control

Keep a note
To see exactly what you’re wasting, jot down everything you throw away for a week. Be honest. At the end of the week, you’ll see a pattern to help you identify ‘weak’ spots. You’ll see why you didn’t use that unopened bag of wilting salad leaves, or threw away stale bread. Did you forget to factor in eating out or working late – or did you just buy too much?

Plan it
Once you’ve assessed what food you’re throwing away and why, write a weekly meal plan. It may feel like one task too many when running a busy home, but it will actually cut time as well as stress, because you won’t have to plan on a daily basis. Even if meals don’t run to plan, be focused. Use perishables by adding them from these ‘lost meals’ to dishes over the following days, then freeze the rest.

Think long life
Having a stock of canned and freezer foods means you’ve always got ingredients ready to use on demand. Canned foods are particularly cost-effective as they generally keep for years, if undamaged, without loss of flavour. If in doubt, check the best before date.

Know when to throw

Are use by and best before dates so important, or is common sense enough?

Use by is only found on foods that are perishable – in other words, which go off over time even when stored according to manufacturers’ instructions, such as fresh meat, chicken and fish, and dairy products. Eating perishable foods beyond their use by date risks food poisoning, so always keep within the date if you’re feeding anyone with a compromised immune system, or who is very young or old, pregnant or breastfeeding.

For the rest of us, although the Food Standards Authority still recommends discarding all foods and drinks that pass their use by date, many food waste experts say common sense can help us to make decisions as to whether we can ‘risk’ eating and drinking foods such as yogurts, milk and meat that are a few days over this date (see food checker, below). If you’re home-freezing food, you need to do it before the use by date, then use it within three to six months.

Best before dates are found on non-perishable foods such as rice and pasta, breakfast cereals and oat bars. It’s a guide for using the food when still at its peak in terms of texture, taste, colour and flavour. Eating bran flakes that have gone beyond this date isn’t going to make you ill, but they may not be as crisp as when you bought them.

Sell by and display until dates are for retailers’ use and are not needed by law. As consumers, we don’t need to worry about them.

Smart ways to stop the rot

Share it Individuals and shops with surplus food can use the free Olio app to share it rather than throw it away. Download from the App Store or Google Play and sign up for alerts from neighbours or businesses in your area. If you want what’s going, simply ‘claim’, then collect it.

Save it
As part of the Sainsbury’s Waste Less, Save More experiment in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, shoppers were asked to test and rate food-preserving products.

The following got the thumbs-up:
* FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer keeps food fresher for longer. foodsaver.co.uk
* Food Huggers literally give your fruit and vegetables a hug, keeping them fresh. Gareat for saving that half a lemon or onion in the fridge. eu-foodhuggers.eu
* Clip and lock containers are an easy way to store and freeze food. Available from supermarkets.

Find out more about the Sainsbury’s scheme at wastelesssavemore.sainsburys.co.uk. You can also apply for a grant to help cut food waste and save money in your local area.

Redistribute it
FareShare takes surplus food destined for waste from supermarkets and businesses and redistributes it to those in need. The food is used to make nutritious meals for homeless hostels, day centres for the elderly, women’s refuges and children’s breakfast clubs. There are 20 regional FareShare centres around the UK. Get more information and find out how to get involved at fareshare.org.uk.

Join in
Become a volunteer for Knorr’s Flavour For All project, which is helping to feed some of the 4.7 million people around the UK who go without eating every day. The company is donating funds, helping volunteers learn to cook and adding flavour to meals using Knorr products and food donated to shelters and soup kitchens. To get involved go to knorr.co.uk/flavourforall.

HFG quick food checker

British Lion Eggs are salmonella free and stamped with a use by date. After this, the quality of the egg will reduce, but if you’re not in an ‘at risk’ group you can probably go a few days beyond this. Ted Labuza, professor of food science at the University of Minnesota, goes further, saying that if you keep eggs below 5°C in the fridge, they can last up to five weeks from the date of laying – which would be a whole week longer than the Lion mark date. As a rule of thumb, if the egg smells bad once cracked, don’t eat it. Or you could pop the whole egg in a glass of water to test its freshness: if it floats to the top, it’s stale.

Two days past the use by, give it a sniff. If it seems all right, have a tiny sip. Labuza says that milk will smell and taste bad long before it makes you sick. He recommends using any milk that’s gone over the date as soon as you take it out of the fridge.

If it has gone three or four days over the use by date but tastes OK, yogurt should be fine, whether you eat it straight or use it in a smoothie or yogurt cake. Mouldy? Bin it.

As a rule, with any hard food it’s safe to remove the mouldy area and eat the rest. But gone-off soft cheese such as brie should be thrown away at once. Susan Whittier, associate professor of clinical pathology and cell biology at Columbia University Medical Center, explains: ‘Even though you pull it out, mould still has roots in soft food and it’s just going to grow back.’ This means that even if you can’t see it, mould spreads through soft foods, spoiling the whole batch. Mould can’t penetrate dense, hard foods such as parmesan. As for blue cheeses such as stilton, the visible mould is a different, non-toxic variety, so it’s safe to eat.

Don’t worry if your chocolate has developed a white bloom. This is the effect of fat melting in the chocolate and rising to the top. It’s fine to eat.

Salad leaves
Scientists at Berkeley University tell us that there are no health issues with respect to eating lettuce when the edges have discoloured (and it doesn’t indicate nutritional losses, either). Known as tipburn, discolouration occurs when the leaves are bruised or cut and exposed to the air. While certain bacteria and fungi can also cause browning, Berkeley experts say these rarely pose a health hazard. You can reduce the risk of browning by keeping lettuce in the fridge, away from moisture or fruits such apples, pears, peaches, tomatoes and melon, all of which produce high amounts of the chemical ethylene, which speeds up the ripening process.

Chicken and fish
Don’t mess with these when it comes to use by dates. It’s true that manufacturers and producers build in a margin of safety to their dating system (this means if you’re in robust health and have stored and cooked chicken correctly, you may survive unscathed if it’s a day or two past its date). But best not to risk it. With fish, the smell will let you know if it’s off.