food waste apps

Food waste apps: “This is what happened when I ate nothing but food waste for a week”

75% of the food thrown away by restaurants could have been eaten, according to the charity WRAP. Food waste apps, which provide customers with good deals AND prevent food from being thrown away, could be the solution. Here’s what happened when writer Isobel Lewis tried out three food waste apps for a week of meals…

This Stand Up For Food month, I’m calling for a revolution on the lunch break. 

Chains like Pret-A-Manger, Eat and Starbucks have formed a stronghold over the overly-expensive sandwich market, while meal deals continue to be un-filling and covered in single-use plastic. Something has to change.

Amid the growing climate crisis, it’s estimated that one third of all food produced in the world is wasted. Whether it’s a meal deal or cafe, restaurants that sell pre-prepared lunches play a huge role in this, as anything that can’t be sold goes to waste.

This has detrimental effects on the planet, not only due to produce filling up landfill sites, but in the energy wasted producing food that will never be eaten. It’s really not great.

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That’s where food waste apps step in. You may have heard of apps such as Karma, TooGoodToGo and MealPal (if you haven’t, buckle up because you’re about to), which allow companies to sell food nearing its end date for a discount.

The format of the purchase is pretty simple. When a restaurant becomes aware that they may not sell all the food they’ve made for that day, they log the purchases on their app of choice, selling their produce either as individual items (Karma, MealPal) or as mixed bags of goodies (TooGoodToGo).

These will then appear on a map for their customers, who can see what is available near them and buy and pay for what they want within the app. You’re then given a window of time to pick the item up , which will usually be a couple of hours long.

It’s a win-win for both customer and company. As a hungry consumer, you’re getting a good deal on what would usually be a fairly pricey meal, while the brands make money from what would otherwise be thrown away. Score!

In many ways, these apps were designed with me in mind. I am frugal (read: cheap) and a packed lunch obsessive. Buying lunch out leaves me feeling guilty; both for wasting my money when I know how cheap it would be to make my own and also for trading in Tupperware containers for single-use plastic, polystyrene coffee cups and notoriously hard to recycle sandwich packaging.

I’ve converted many a friend and colleague to food waste apps, and having tried pretty much all of them over the past year, so can definitely assess the pros and cons.

They’re not perfect, not by any means. As a vegetarian, dietary restrictions can seriously limit what is available to you, especially if you opt for a surprise bag.

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Additionally, food tends to come up sporadically throughout the day and is most available when most people’s meal times have passed, e.g. at 3pm or 7pm. As they’re fairly new to the scene, these apps are not everywhere yet and while central, tourist-heavy city centres are often crawling with deals, anything further out tends to be quieter and requires a longer journey to the nearest place.

As much as I love these apps and use them for them for odd meals, I’ve never committed further. So what would happen if, for an entire week, I traded in my pre-made sandwiches and homemade snacks for surplus food that would otherwise be wasted?Would I feel healthier, greener or more excited about mixing up my routine? Here goes nothing…

Day 1  Monday

1.30pm: “This is going to be easy,” I tell myself, as I check Karma for the first time on my lunch break. However, within seconds I realise that I have grossly underestimated this challenge, as all the restaurants near my workplace are grey rather than pink, meaning that they no longer have any food in stock. Damn.

Not giving up, I reason that a 20-minute tube ride is no different to a 20-minute walk and head off to Sababa in Soho, which is offering a vegetarian mezze box reduced from £12 to £3.75.

The aubergine tagine is delicious, but the journey is slow and I make it back to my desk, out of breath and sweating, with minutes to spare. I’m stressed, but grateful that the box was made of cardboard and is at least recyclable.

7pm: I manage to pick up a half price halloumi breakfast burger for dinner for £2.40 and as weird as it feels eating something so breakfasty in the evening, I don’t mind. I scarf it down on the train, shooting apologetic looks at my fellow passengers for the smell and set notification alerts on all the restaurants near my office for the week ahead. If they’re selling food, I’m getting it.

`Food waste apps: TooGoodToGo is among a number of apps currently available.
Food waste apps: TooGoodToGo is among a number of apps currently available

Day 2  Tuesday

1.45pm: Having learnt my lesson, I check my phone around 11am for deals and spot some vegetarian nachos from a local Mexican restaurant a 22-minute walk from my work. Pick up time is 1pm-2pm, so I head over on my lunch break, wait for the box to be made up then go.

Unfortunately, when I’m back at my desk and open my lunch, I’m disappointed to instead find some rice, watery chilli and very limp lettuce with not a nacho in sight. Plus, it was still a fiver reduced from £6.95 - that’s not even that much of a reduction. I message MealPal and they quickly refund me; I normally hate complaining about stuff, but there’s nothing more disappointing than a sad lunch.

8:55pm: After work, I meet a uni friend for happy hour drinks and when we head our separate ways at 9pm, the only place still open is Sushimania in Soho. Sushi is always a really really popular dish on food waste apps (due to its short expiration date), but I’ve never been able to stand the stuff.

Luckily, I spot some veggie gyoza and edamame and pay £6.70 for 12 dumplings and a big pot of peas.

I eat most of the latter on the bus and the gyoza when I get home. They’re just how I like them - fried on the side and very ginger-y. Yum.

Day 3  Wednesday

2pm: My phone pings to tell me that a restaurant near me is selling a fresh veggie poke bowl, which sounds incredible. But by the time I attempt to pay on Karma, someone else sneaks in before me and nabs the last one! I mean, I’m glad the app is getting popular, but it does mean you have to move quickly for the good deals, which is hard when you’re working.

Instead, I have a perfectly fine mozzarella, tomato and basil panini for £1.80, which leaves me full, but uninspired. Still, not every meal is going to be mind blowing.

7.45pm: In need of stretching my legs after being sat at my desk all day, I venture up to Notting Hill, where the Paul Rhodes Bakery is offering £10 worth of treats for £3.39. I arrive and watch the baker throw a small baguette, tart, doughnut and cinnamon roll into the bag, the smell intoxicating. They’re all individually wrapped (not very eco), but only in paper, so I’ll allow it.

Shocked to have finally lucked out with TooGoodToGo, I take the food back and proceed to eat every single piece. The baguette – a tangy sourdough with large green olives, is the best I have ever tasted and I promise to go back for it – even if it means paying full price.

Food waste apps: a bag full of baked goods from The Paul Rhodes Bakery proved satisfying.
Food waste apps: a bag full of baked goods from The Paul Rhodes Bakery proved satisfying

Day 4 – Thursday

12.40pm: Still in a bready haze, I allow myself a small lie-in as I’m until working from 1pm-10pm today. While this throws off my eating times slightly, I’m not too phased.

I pay £2.25 for a bagel and 80p (both half price) on the Karma app for a pastry at Wayne’s Coffee, both of which are tasty and do the job perfectly. They’re only a five minute walk away too, which is a real bonus, as it means I don’t have to spend all my time travelling and eating al-desko. If I’m going to eat, I’d much rather it be in the work dining area where I’m not having to check my emails at the same time.

7:30pm: On a high from yesterday’s dinner, I head up to Notting Hill again, but resist the urge to get the same food two days in a row and instead opt for a TooGoodToGo bag from the similarly named Paul UK.

It#s good value: I am given a filled baguette, fruit tart and a bag containing about 20 beignets for £3.59. But this time round, I struggle with finishing everything and end up leaving the sweet pastries in the staff kitchen when I leave work in hope of perking up somebody’s night shift.

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Day 5 – Friday

12:30pm: I start work at 1pm again, meaning that I’m arriving at the awkward time before most savoury food becomes available on the apps. I grab an orange juice (£1) and brownie (£1.50) from just outside my work on the way in and scold myself for having such an un-nutritious lunch.

However, it is a Friday, and I’m five days in, so maybe I deserve a treat.

8pm: Desperate to eat something that isn’t bread - a sentence I never thought I’d say - I see that Planet Organic is offering a chilled box of goodies for £3.99 reduced from £12. It’s an hour round walk from my work, made all the more risky as they say that they cannot guarantee there’ll be something for vegetarians.

I’m so desperate for vegetables that I take the risk and it pays off! The cashier hands me a bag containing a fresh falafel salad, boujie poke pot with tofu and a very fancy vegan yoghurt. The salad is in cardboard (which I rip the cellophane out of to make recyclable) and while the salad and yoghurt are plastic, they’re both study enough that I’ll reuse the pots for future packed lunches - I’m that kind of person. Back at my desk, I devour the falafel and yoghurt, which are absolutely delicious.

Food waste apps: the pizza from The Pizza Room was a hit for the tastebuds and the wallet.
Food waste apps: the pizza from The Pizza Room was a hit for the tastebuds and the wallet

Day 6 – Saturday

2pm: The weekend at last! Sadly, my home in south east London is a bit of a blind spot for these apps; while you can find the odd TooGoodToGo bag, they tend to go very quickly, and individual items are basically non-existent.

I’ve been keeping the food I hadn’t managed to finish this week in the fridge, which obviously isn’t the freshest, but is good enough for me. I have a hearty lunch of last night’s poke salad (delicious), half the pot of edamame (forgot how spicy they were) and the Paul UK fruit tart.

Yes, this might be cheating, but you get so much food in the mixed bags, it can be hard to eat it all. Is this in some ways more wasteful? Maybe, but at least I know it will be eaten at some point and not just thrown away.

6pm: Heading out in the afternoon, I pick up a pizza from The Pizza Room in Surrey Quays reduced from £14 to £5. I wait for it to be made freshly for me and I’m seriously impressed by the smell and taste, wolfing the whole thing down in roughly twelve minutes when I get home (while simultaneously sobbing my eyes out at the Orange Is The New Black series finale!)

Day 7 – Sunday

4pm: It’s Sunday and I want to cook. I enjoy eating out, but I really don’t go out for dinner or get takeaways that much; I like the control of cooking for myself and knowing exactly when and where my food is coming from.

However, the end is in sight, so I turn to my apps for the final time and strike gold, as my favourite local spot, the Lumberjack Cafe in Camberwell, is offering a box.

Pick up time is a little awkward (4.30pm), but when I arrive I am treated to a huge box of salad, two slices of frittata, a small piece of banana bread and some fresh iced tea all for £3.59 (reduced from £10.50). There’s enough food that I can split it between lunch and dinner, eating half now and half in a few hours.

Beginning the five-minute walk home, mother nature decides she’s been kind enough to me and the heavens open, leaving me running back in the pouring rain. It only just dawns on me how lucky I’ve been with the weather this week; had it been raining and not blissfully mild, I doubt I’d be speaking quite so highly about those 50 minute round walks.

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Reflecting on my week, my main feeling is that of exhaustion. It’s definitely not one I regret though; I’ve had an adventure, found new restaurants I would return to at full price (I’m going back for that olive bread in Notting Hill) and done my bit for the planet.

Will I be dropping my packed lunches anytime soon? Honestly, probably not. My lunches are probably already about as cheap as they can be, even if they’re not the most imaginative.

This challenge undoubtedly cost me more money than I would normally spend on food, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The meals were also, for the most part, a lot nicer than my normal food.

I’ve never been convinced by Pret sandwiches, as I know I could basically make it myself for a lot cheaper, but that wasn’t the case with a lot of these. It’s nice to know that if I’m rushed in the morning or the night before work and don’t have time to prepare for the day ahead, I can pick up something tasty relatively cheaply. It’s about balance – time now versus time then, money versus savings.

I wouldn’t recommend a full food-app diet to anyone (you need to give your legs a rest, for one thing) but find me in need of a light bite at lunch and I’ll be choosing the more interesting, greener option.

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Images: Getty, Isobel Lewis


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