Published on FoodUnfolded.com in October 2021.
Have you ever stood in front of a well-stocked kitchen cupboard wondering what you should cook for dinner? Incorporating a nifty stock rotation technique adapted from professional kitchens into your meal planning could help you cut down on food waste while ensuring food safety.
First Expired, First Out (FEFO) is an adapted form of the “First in First Out” method – popularly known as FIFO – used in food manufacturing, retail, and professional kitchens to make sure that food items that are stocked first get used up first. Both of these methods aim to ensure that all ingredients are used up while they are fresh and safe to consume, helping to minimise food waste and spoilage.
THE FIRST EXPIRED, FIRST OUT (FEFO) METHOD
FIFO helps to minimise the time for which foods are held in stock by food retailers before being used or sold, but has one major flaw for everyday consumers: it assumes that the items which come in first expire first. While this is often true when managing batches of canned or packaged food at an industrial scale, or in professional kitchens with regular menus and fast turnover of ingredients, the FIFO technique needs to be modified slightly before we can apply it in our kitchens at home. Instead, FIFO’s more practical cousin FEFO – First Expired First Out – is a better fit for home kitchens. Instead of relying on the date of purchase, the FEFO method instead aims to use items with the earliest expiry dates first.1
HOW TO SET UP A FEFO SYSTEM AT HOME
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to set up your very own First Expired, First Out (FEFO) system at home, and cut both your food waste and food bills in the process.
STEP 1: ORGANISE
To set up a First Expired, First Out system in your kitchen, you must start by streamlining your food storage. Dry ingredients like rice go with other dry ingredients like lentils, pasta, and grains. Canned and jarred foods can be put together. Within bigger categories, similar items should be paired: for instance, beans go with other beans and sauces go with other sauces.
Organise your fridge and freezer as well. You can make categories such as vegetables, dairy products, meat, and fish. If you store a lot of food at home this task might feel overwhelming, but having an organised food storage system will make waste-free meal planning and grocery shopping easier in the long run.
STEP 2: LABEL
If you store foods in the packaging they come in, you can skip this step, but if you prefer to transfer foods from their packaging into jars or boxes, you will have to invest some time in making labels.
The purpose of a label in a FEFO system is to indicate what is inside a jar and when its expiry date is. You can find this information on the packaging of the product so be sure to give it a glance before discarding it. There’s no need to invest in fancy label-making tools if you don’t want to: masking tape and a water-proof pen do the trick, or you can cut out parts of the packaging that indicate the name and expiry date and tape them to the jar.
For fresh produce like fruits and vegetables, write this information on a notepad or whiteboard and stick it to the door of the fridge. Some foods, especially loose foods like fresh fruit and vegetables or bread from the bakery, may come without an expiry date: for these, you should set a tentative ‘use by’ date yourself based on how long they usually last.
STEP 3: ARRANGE
Once all products are organised and labelled, it is time to arrange them in the right order. Allot a section of the cupboard, refrigerator, or freezer for each product category, and start by placing products with the farthest expiry dates at the back. Arrange identical products in single file, placing those with the nearest expiry date at the front.
When you’re done, you should find your foods arranged with their expiry dates in ascending order. The purpose of this arrangement is to allow you to easily grab the products that are set to expire the earliest first. Seeing everything you have at the front in one glance also makes it easier to plan your next meal based on what needs to be eaten first. Remember that pull-out trays and boxes can be helpful here if you’re working with limited storage space.
Tip: When feasible, use storage containers of the same shape and size, as will make arranging them easier. Using transparent containers made of glass or food-grade plastic allows you to see what’s inside and can be useful when you need to take stock quickly.
STEP 4: REPEAT
Your FEFO system is now ready to be used! To keep it functioning, you just need to repeat steps 1 – 3 every time you buy new groceries. To make this easier, whenever you use an item be sure to shift consequent items forwards to make space at the back for your new shopping. Before placing new items at the back, however, be sure to check their expiry date – the most recent thing you’ve bought might still expire before something you already have in stock!
Tip: Food products on discount are likely to have an earlier expiry date compared to regular products. This means that a discounted product will often have to be placed at the front of the shelf and not behind.
ADOPT FEFO, REDUCE FOOD WASTE
It is estimated that more than 500 million tonnes of food is wasted at the household level every year.2 In developed countries (where consumers have access to refrigerators and food products come with clear indications regarding expiration) this is mostly preventable.
The food industry has successfully used the FIFO method for several decades now and with a few modifications, it can be used at home to minimise food waste too. Getting into the habit of storing your food according to FEFO is an adjustment, but once the system is in place it is likely to become an effortless habit that not only reduces food waste but also makes your meal planning and grocery shopping easier, helps ensure the food you eat is safe, and saves you money by avoiding throwing away ingredients that would have made for a delicious meal.