Laurann O'Reilly: Top tips on how to increase the lifespan of your foods

Laurann's column in this week's Nationalist

Six top nutrition tips for boosting your immune health with Laurann O'Reilly

Laurann O'Reilly

We’ve all been there where we’ve bought our lovely fresh ingredients, then to realise a couple of days later that they’ve gone bad and need to be thrown out.

Here, nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, explains the best strategies for maintaining the lifespan of your food from saving money, food safety as well as maintaining the quality and nutrition of your ingredients.

1) Why We Need To Consider Food Lifespan: Whilst there are many reasons, here are some of them...

- Clean Eating: If you’ve ever looked at the ingredient listing of processed and many of the high shelf life foods you may have noticed a long list of ingredients, some of which you would almost struggle to pronounce. That’s because many of them contain artificial ingredients such as sweeteners, preservatives, flavourings and colourings. Also keeping our fresh foods at their highest quality can help to maintain the valuable nutrients within them.

Tip: A good way to know if an ingredient has a naturally long life span or if it’s processed is by looking at the ingredient listing. Whilst there are some natural foods which have a long life span such as dried pasta, rice, salt and honey. A long ingredient listing is always a good indication that a food is processed, whilst pure foods will only contain one or two ingredients (the less ingredients, the cleaner the food).

- Saving Money: Our money is hard earned so why not try make some savings by preventing food waste. Wasted food translates directly to wasted money too, as according to the EPA “Irish households throw away approximately 150kg of food a year at a cost of €700”.

- Preventing Food Waste & The Environment: According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Ireland generates approximately 1 million tonnes of food waste annually, 53% of which is generated by households”, of which 60% is avoidable. This can have an impact on our land, our waters and the air we breathe.

2) Understanding Food Lifespan: There are lots of different tricks and strategies that we can use to keep our foods fresh whilst maintaining the taste and quality. Whilst there are some fresh foods which will need to be used within a short period of time, there are also some pure staple food products that we can store in our kitchen cupboards that have a longer life span.

- For Fresh Food: It’s important to note 1) Best Before Date: Also known as the ‘date of minimum durability’. The FSAI describe this as “the date until which a foodstuff retains its specific properties when properly stored” and applies to “canned, dried, ambient and frozen foods where quality is an issue rather than safety”. So, whilst the quality of the food may deteriorate after this date it doesn’t pose a health issue if eaten past this date.

2) Use By Date – Unlike the best before date, it’s important to consume these food products within this date as they can become a health risk. These foods according to the FSAI are “highly perishable and require refrigeration” and include products such as “milk, minced meat, fish and ready to eat salads”.

- For Long Life/Cupboard Foods
0-1 Years – Dried Fruit
1-2 Years – Canned Fruit
1-3 Years – Unopened Jams, Tomato Sauce, Most Teas (if kept in an airtight container), Cooking Oils, Oats, Dried Pasta
3-5 Years – Tinned Tuna, Pickled Foods (unopened), Spices
+ 10 Years – Rice, Instant Coffee, Maple Syrup (up to one year once opened), Honey, Vinegar, Salt, Dried Beans & Lentils

3) How To Store Your Foods: Knowing how to store your foods can be a game changer in helping them last that little bit longer.

Storing Long Life or ‘Shelf Stable Foods’
*Shelf stable foods such as dry goods and canned items should be stored in a cool and dry place, such as your cupboards or pantry.
*Once opened, check labels to see if the food needs refrigerating.
*Some canned goods will need to be transferred to an air-tight plastic or glass container and stored in the fridge after opening to keep the food from spoiling. Tip: never store tins in the fridge).
*Never buy or use canned items that are dented, leaking or are bulging at the ends.

Storing Fresh Foods
- Refrigerate: It’s important to note that the refrigerator does not kill bacteria that spoils food, but the cold helps to slow down their growth (they will eventually begin to spoil). According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), “The temperature of all fridges and chill storage cabinets should be between 0°C and 5°C” (you should have a thermometer in your fridge).

Tip 1 (Butter & Eggs): Should be stored on the refrigerator shelf, where it’s coldest, not on the inside door.

Tip 2 (Use by/Sell by): Remember to note the ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ on products when purchasing and storing and use the oldest products first.

Tip 3 (Leftovers): The FSAI also recommend that “leftovers should be kept covered in the fridge and used within 2-3 days”.

- Freezing: To get even longer out of your food, it may be best to freeze if you can’t eat it right away. This goes for meat, fish, poultry, fruit, berries, vegetables and even some dairy products. Tip 1 (Refreezing): Do not refreeze raw food once it has been defrosted! Tip 2 (Recipe Ideas): Frozen fruit are great for making juices and smoothies, can be added hot cereal or mixed with yogurt (They can be frozen whole or chopped in zip-lock bags). Tip 3 (Cooking Defrosted food): “Once the food is fully defrosted it is best to cook it straight away. Once cooked it can be stored in the fridge again (for 2-3 days) or frozen” (FSAI).
4) How To Store Specific Ingredients: If we really want to increase the lifespan and quality of our foods it can be helpful to understand the best storage conditions for individual ingredients.

Onions and Garlic
Always choose firm, unblemished bulbs with dry skins
Onions and garlic are members of the ‘allium’ family and can be stored together
Don’t refrigerate.
Store in a cool, dark place with low humidity (they are easy to keep fresh if you keep them away from moisture, which makes them spoil faster)
Allow some air circulation (never in a plastic bag or airtight container)
Keep separate from potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
Don’t refrigerate.
Store in a cool, dark place with relatively high humidity.
Allow air circulation.
Keep separate from onions, bananas, and other ethylene-producing items.
Note: Ethylene is a gas that some foods naturally produce which cause them to ripen faster

Other Roots and Tubers
These include foods such as beetroot, turnips, carrots, parsnips and ginger
Being quite ‘hardy’ as don’t release much ethylene gas, you can store root vegetables next to more gas-sensitive produce like leafy greens, cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower without any problems
Remove any leafy green tops (as they pull moisture out of the vegetables)
Refrigerate in a zip-lock bag or airtight container for the longest life.
For a shorter term (up to two weeks), store loose in your crisper drawer.

Refrigerate in sealed containers.
Uncut heads can be refrigerated without a bag.
If space is an issue, you can cut the leaves and store in a zip-lock bag or an airtight container.
This way they should stay crisp for up to two weeks

Other Leafy Greens
This includes veggies such as lettuce, spinach and kale
Refrigerate unwashed.
Once opened seal in zip-lock bags

Apples and Pears
Refrigerate in a zip-lock bag.
Ideally, use a crisper drawer that you’ve designated for non-ethylene-sensitive fruit, such as strawberries, blueberries, oranges and raspberries.
Citrus Fruits
Store on the countertop for up to a week or refrigerate loose for longer storage
You can store citrus fruits out on the countertop (so you remember to use them) or keep them fresher longer in the fridge
Oranges and grapefruits aren’t ethylene-sensitive, so you can store them with apples and pears
Lemons and limes need to be kept separately as they are ethylene producers.

Berries can last in the fridge for about a week. It’s a good idea to eat as soon as possible so they don’t spoil (you can also freeze them to keep them for longer)

Poultry, Meat & Fish
If not using right away, it is best to freeze meat, fish and poultry after purchasing.
storing in the fridge, keep foods in their original packaging and place on trays at the bottom of the fridge. This will prevent juices from the raw meats from coming in contact with other fresh foods.
Fridge Storage: According to Bord Bia “Fresh meat will keep 3 - 5 days in the fridge and cooked meat for 5 - 7 days” (however please note the ‘use by’ packaging on fresh meat)
Freezer Storage: Tip 1 (For Meats): For frozen meats Bord Bia state that “uncooked meat can be stored up to 6 months in the freezer. Larger cuts, like steaks and roasts, can be safely stored for up to 6 months. Smaller cuts, such as beef steaks, should not be frozen for more than 4 months, and minced meat should not be frozen for more than 3 months”. Tip 2 (For Fish): Fresh white fish can be frozen for a maximum of 6 months. Oil-rich fish is best if used within 3 months.

Milk & Dairy Products
Store milk products like butter, cheese, milk, and yogurt in the coldest part of the fridge (not the refrigerator door) Note: Always check they ‘use by date if storing fresh dairy products in the fridge.

Butter, cheese and cream can be frozen (always thaw frozen milk products in the refrigerator). Note: If frozen, the quality of the items may be different once thawed (for example, hard cheeses are very crumbly after they have been frozen) but they should still be fine to cook with.

Fresh herbs can be stored in the refrigerator, kept dry and bagged, or stored in a jar or glass of water. Note: If you do decide to store them in a glass of water, make sure to trim the ends before you do

For further information contact Laurann at or see 
Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified and experienced nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin.

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