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How labelling and storing your food can help to avoid coronavirus panic buying

We’ve seen the headlines, the photos and videos. Lines of panicked buyers that snake across massive carparks. Bare shelves and buying restrictions on everything from toilet paper to cleaning supplies and long life milk. Elderly people waiting nervously for early opening hours and supermarket executives urging us not to panic. But we are panicking – wondering if we’ve got enough food, but then thinking, how much is enough? We’re told that our binge buying is making a bad situation worse, but we stockpile anyway.

And sustainability? That’s the last thing on our minds. Just a few weeks ago, my 2020 pledge to create a more sustainable kitchen seemed pretty simple, but now everything has changed and efforts to be more sustainable feel like a relic from a pre-Covid 19 world. 

Actually there’s never been a better time to be sustainable. On some level, most of us know that hoarding food and creating a personal stockpile isn’t helpful, but it’s more than that – it simply isn’t sustainable. 

So what can we do? If you haven’t already, make an inventory of what you’ve got on hand. Start with your store cupboard staples – rice, pasta, tinned food. I’ve placed a small whiteboard inside my cupboard so I can keep track. It’s helpful because at a glance, I can see quickly any gaps (or surpluses). It’s also a great opportunity to check and ensure all your dry goods are stored in airtight containers, to prolong shelf life.

Do the same for your fridge and and while you’re at it, check your appliance’s temperature. According to WRAP – the not-for-profit organisation that works with governments, business and consumers to encourage sustainability – only about 30% of our refrigerators are operating at the optimal temperature (0-5º Celsius) while a whopping third of them are running at 9º Celsius or above. WRAP says that keeping our refrigerators at the proper temperature could prevent 200 million tonnes worth of food waste per year – critical when we can’t afford to waste a single bite. 

If you’ve got a freezer, do a food audit too. Your freezer is your new best friend, but if things aren’t properly stored and labelled, you’ll have no idea what you’ve got to cook and eat. If you have a large freezer (lucky you), you may want to batch cook and freeze fresh vegetables, store nuts (which can go rancid easily) in the freezer, and definitely freeze surplus herbs before they wilt. Prioritise cooking foods that have been in the freezer the longest and try to have some kind of system so you know what’s stored where and to reduce the amount of time your freezer door is open, wasting energy.

And before you ever step into a supermarket, make sure you know how to read a food label. In the frenzy that is shopping today, it might seem like the last thing you’ve got the time (or energy) to do but it’s critical for smart shopping. Unfortunately, deciphering a food label can make you feel like you need an advanced science degree (or at least a secret decoder ring) to understand what it all means. It’s tempting to ignore the fine print, but don’t, because the more you understand what’s on the label, the better buying decisions you’ll make. 

Start with something as basic as “Use by” and “Best by” dates. “Use by” is for foods that are highly perishable such as meat, fish, ready meals and the like. Picture a “Use by” date as a red traffic light – it’s non-negotiable. If you’re going to freeze food (the label should sport the snowflake icon), then do so as soon as possible. Think of freezing as hitting a pause button; as soon as you take your salmon fillets out of the freezer, the clock starts ticking again. And no, you can’t pop your green Thai chicken curry ready meal in the freezer after the “Use by” date, cross your fingers, and hope the freezer will kill any nasties.

“Best by” is the date you’ll find on most food packages. While “Use by” is about safety, “Best by” is all about quality and taste. It tells me that the penne ziti rigate I just bought will hang out happily in my cupboard for more than two years and still taste like – well, like pasta. As long as I keep it in the original package, don’t open it up, and store it properly (i.e. in a cool, dark place), I can whip it into a batch of three-cheese baked ziti today or in two years, without a second thought. 

WRAP says that 40% of packages in 2009 confusingly carried both “Use by” and “Sell by” dates on the package. Thankfully, by 2015, that number dropped to only 3%. As well, WRAP encourages retailers to either scrap “Display by” and “Sell by” or banish this to the back. If you do see display or sell by dates, you can ignore them – they’re used for stock control and aren’t telling you anything about either food safety or quality. 

Fresh whole fruit and vegetables (i.e. not pre-sliced or salad mixes) don’t need a date label. You can use your eyes to see if a banana is green, ripe, or brown and oozing and now a candidate for a loaf of banana bread. Once home, most fruit and veg will last longer if stored in the fridge but I find the cold zaps the flavour and texture in foods like tomatoes and never refrigerate potatoes, whole onions or garlic. 

Why is date information so critical? Because everything you buy at the shops should be eaten and not binned because it’s gone mouldy or past its use by date. So when you pick up a pack of beef mince or ready to eat avocados you need to think about when you’re going to eat it. If you’ve got extra fresh fruit and veg, then consider brushing up on your preserving skills. A nice neighbour shared some surplus plums and a couple of cucumbers so I made a plum and honey compote and some quick cucumber and onion pickles. You’ll find recipes online or consider investing in a preserving book. The Book of Preserves by Pam the Jam has lots of easy to make recipes. 

All of these might seem like small steps but that’s okay. They’re things we can do today to make a difference. And that’s something that really is sustainable.   

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