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Supermarkets scrapping dates is all well and good, but we need advice on using food past its best

We don’t trust our judgement, but by freezing fruit and saving soggy leaves we can cut food waste drastically

August 2, 2022 4:36 pm(Updated 4:37 p.m.)

I do feel for the people behind “best before” dates. It could have been such a simple concept, but instead its meaning has been muddied by the numerous too-similar approaches to food dating. Now we have generations of shoppers as frigid as floppy carrots when it comes to relying on their own senses – and good sense – to decide whether to put something in their mouths or not. The result? £6.6 million tonnes of household food waste per year, three quarters of it edible, according to waste campaigners WRAP, which metes out to around £60 per family each month.

This week Waitrose announced that from September it’s scrapping best before dates from 500 of its fresh produce items, including citrus, cucumbers, grapes, root vegetables and house plants. It follows M&S, which announced it was binning best befores from 300 lines – 85 per cent of its fresh produce – in mid July. Earlier this year, Morrisons recommended the “sniff test” to gauge the freshness of milk when it ditched use-by dates.

“Removing dates on fresh fruit and veg can save the equivalent of seven million shopping baskets of food,” said Catherine David, WRAP’s director of collaboration and change. “We urge more supermarkets to get ahead on food waste by axing date labels on fresh produce, allowing people to use their own judgement.”

But our own judgment is the problem, because it’s been eroded to almost nil by insidious marketing and wrong-footed regulations. With so many contradictory messages about food freshness and safety, it’s become harder and harder to trust our own guts. I know plenty of people who won’t look at a yogurt that smells slightly sour, as all yogurts should. Others throw away whole loaves that have hardened slightly.

Confusing labelling, much of it designed to get us to buy more, has undermined our ability to squeeze and smell for freshness. Even our most obvious sense – sight – can easily be tricked into binning decent food by the label on the packet. It’s like needing a satnav to find our own front door. It’s time to relearn this innate wisdom, something toddlers and children display more readily than most adults.

soft fruit

The ways to save soft or discolored fresh produce vary, and mostly depend on whether you have time to repurpose them on the spot, or a spacious freezer. Waitrose suggests putting apples in a crumble, but that’s not an everyday dish. For a healthier pudding, you can halve, core and bake them with a squeeze of honey or maple syrup. Or gently boil down to a purée with a squirt of lemon and a spoonful of sugar, and stir through porridge or yoghurt at breakfast. The alternative – you guessed it – is to puree or slice then freeze for later use. Bake, puree, freeze or blitz other soft fruits for smoothies, puddings or lollipops.

Citrus fruits are past their best when their peel goes thin and hard and they feel less plump and juicy, desiccated with age. Act swiftly and freeze slices or wedges for future drinks, or juice and store in small tupperwares or ice cube trays.

Roughly slice softening potatoes for home fries, or grate and fry in rounds as rostis. Most root veg – carrots, parsnips, beetroots, turnips – roast well when past their best and freeze well whether whole or mashed.

stale sourdough

If mold has set into bread, it’s probably not a great idea to eat it. I salute those who do, but will get a call from the food police if I recommend it here. Catch it as it goes stale however and you can blitz it into breadcrumbs or soak in sugar, milk and eggs for bread and butter pudding, French toast or eggy bread. Expensive heels of sourdough must always be rescued into a panzanella – chop into chunks and soak in vinegar to soften. Please make this now while British tomatoes are ripe and ready.

Save soggy leaves

The easiest way to save soggy leaves is to throw them straight into the freezer for future soups or smoothies. Frozen spinach, brassica and herbs are all ideal for curries and stews. Chop onions and garlic before freezing. No need to defrost, they can all be thrown in the pot directly. If you do have time on the day, wedges of lettuce and spring onions braise nicely in stock. Look for recipes for petits pois à la française for a classic method. I often make a poor man’s pesto with any old greens, cheese, garlic and oil which is good as a sauce for any meat, fish or roast veg.

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dog’s dinner

Certain you’ve neither the time, freezer space or appetite to rescue that limp cucumber? Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables make excellent snacks for dogs. They’re good for dental health and keep them busy for a few minutes. Check for toxicity first – grapes, alliums and avocado are all off the menu.

The cynic in me wonders why the gesture from big retailers to decrease food waste comes now, when the specter of genuine food shortages through the winter looms, with the possibility our access and supply chains won’t return to pre-Brexit levels for years. They have crafted, over many years, a population that expects round, shiny, unblemished produce, so they can push more on us. Suddenly they’re asking us to save it from the compost. At least it’s a win-win situation – trust in that wilting watercress and you’ll save pounds as well as the planet.

Sophie Morris is a freelance journalist and university lecturer

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