Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Too Good To Go: How to reduce food waste and get cheap meals

How can you get cheap restaurant food and bargain bakery deals?

Many of us like a bargain and in these strange times a lot of people are struggling financially. It’s a well known supermarket shopping tactic to go at the end of the day when they are reducing their items that are close to use by dates - known as ‘yellow stickering’. But did you know that there is - in the UK at least - another way to get reduced food not just from shops but also from cafes and restaurants?

A while back a colleague told me about an app called Too Good To Go. The idea is to help shops and dining establishments to reduce food waste - and help customers save money at the same time. You can buy a ‘magic bag’ for a couple of quid - usually between £3 and £4 - with the items inside worth at least £10, often a fair bit more. The only thing is - you don’t know what you will get, as these are mystery bags! They all contain food that needs using quickly and might be at its best before date already but still safe to eat.

How does the Too Good to Go app work?

You can set the app to your local area - eg near home or work - and each day see where there are bargains to be had. But you have to be quick! Each offer goes live at a certain time - which varies according to the shop and I’m not sure it’s the same every time even then. I haven’t been able to figure out a way of discovering when is the best time to secure one of the magic bags - though if you are interested in a particular shop or restaurant, keep an eye on the app as it will tell you what time the bags sold out each time, and you can use that to get an idea of when they might have been released.

 The bags must be collected at a certain time and this can be a little tricky - for instance a cafe might want to sell what is left over from their lunch rush but you need to collect it between 2 and 2.45pm. Or a restaurant will ask you to collect between 9 and 9.30pm. But what’s ok to eat at 9.30pm should still be ok to eat the next day and don’t forget some things can be frozen - so in my opinion it’s definitely worth doing.

As the contents are a surprise you can’t factor in allergies but Too Good To Go says that if you pay for and collect a bag and find it has something inside you are allergic to, to get in touch with them. If you have certain dietary requirements like you are vegetarian, you can filter your search.

I’ve never been able to take advantage of the app before due to the timings and my commute but now that I’m working from home, suddenly it is accessible. There aren’t any restaurants in my local area taking part - the nearest being a ‘chicken hut’ 3km away where I would have to go at 10.30pm. There is a nice sounding Italian deli a similar distance with collection at lunchtime so one day if I don’t have meetings I might see if I can fit it into my lunch break!

But happily the local garden centre five minutes away takes part in the scheme so one day last week I managed to go into the app at the right time while there were still some bags available, and snagged myself one.

What I hadn’t realised was that the delivery time stated was for the next day, but that was fine and I could still manage to go. You pay via the app or by card and it tells you where to go in store - in this case it was the deli counter where they had the bags ready and waiting, I held my phone out for the app to be scanned and was handed the bag and that was it - in and out in five minutes.

What do you get in the Too Good to Go bag?

I couldn’t wait to look in the bag when I was home and see what I’d got! My haul consisted of: a large bloomer loaf (which stayed fresh for a few days), a packet of mixed heritage tomatoes which still had several days to go, a packet of two jam doughnuts (which for eaten the same night), a packet of four vegetable spring rolls and a fresh ready meal of monkfish kebabs (to serve two), both of which had use by dates that same day and I had already defrosted something for dinner so they went straight in the freezer. They looked very tasty and a premium item - I think the whole bag was probably worth around £12-£15 and I paid £3.99 for it.

Last month Too Good To Go saved more than 100,000 meals from going to waste. I have also seen internet articles about people getting £30 worth of food from their local supermarket for just over £3 on this app, which is especially good for those finding money a bit tighter than usual at the moment. For me personally, the magic bag was more of a treat (I must say I had been expecting more bakery items, ie cake!) at a bargain price and not something I would have the time to do regularly - but I really like the surprise element as I wouldn’t have thought to buy monkfish kebabs.

If you live (or work) in a big city you are more likely to find places taking part in Too Good To Go, and it seems like the range is growing all the time - so it’s definitely worth taking a look. Let me know if you’ve used it before and what was the best thing you got in your magic bag!


Sunday, 6 September 2020

Floral letter decoration for girl's bedroom

My daughter is now two and a half and during lockdown we decided to redecorate her bedroom. She has a lovely mural on one wall (a giant decal sticker) and a bookcase full of books but other than that we hadn’t much much effort in, as she doesn’t really play in her bedroom yet apart from a few minutes after going up to bed. We decided it was about time we made the room nicer and somewhere she might want to play, plus she needed more toy storage as she has so many toys!

 I had been browsing photos of girls’ bedroom styles on Pinterest etc for inspiration and decided to put up a couple of shelves with pretty decorative items on them. I’d seen a few things I liked, in particular the child’s initial either in a picture frame or three dimensional and covered with flowers. It looked easy to make so I thought I’d have a go, and got everything I needed from Hobbycraft.

They sell wooden fillable letters (£4.40 each) many of which seemed to be out of stock online so I signed up to be emailed when they were back in stock. The first time I had such an email the letter I wanted was already sold out again by the time I went online so second time I was ready and made my purchase while I was getting up in the morning!

The flowers are fabric wired rose heads, I used three packs at £3 each - each pack is one colour. I used most of the packs to fill the letter and only had a couple of flowers left over. I cut and shaped pieces of florist oasis to put into the wooden letter and stick the flowers into, alternating colours and making sure there was no gap.

The oasis seemed firmly in place so I didn’t glue it in as I had intended but this would make it more secure. Hobbycraft also sells a small wooden stand (50p) which will help if you want the letter to stand up on a shelf.

I’m really pleased with how this turned out and how simple it was to make - once everything turned up from Hobbycraft it took about ten minutes!

Friday, 28 August 2020

Socially distanced lunch with toddlers at the Greyhound, Carshalton

The last time I took my daughter out to a restaurant for a meal was at a Harvester last November for her cousin’s birthday. S wouldn’t sit still for more than five minutes, so members of my family took it in turns to occupy and accompany her as she explored the pub, which already had its Christmas decorations up.

 So with lockdown and the continued need for social distancing it’s perhaps not surprising that I wasn’t in a hurry to take my daughter to a restaurant again. But my local mum friends - who have become a fantastic support network and good buddies since we met at baby massage two years ago - suggested meeting up in the park and then having lunch at the Young’s pub across the road and I didn’t want to say no and miss out.

I’ve reviewed the Greyhound in Carshalton before (see here) but hadn’t eaten there in a few years. This time I didn’t even set foot inside the pub - it was a lovely day and we sat in the courtyard area.

The pub is near a busy road so not ideal for small children to run around as the courtyard isn’t fully enclosed, and it doesn’t have a play area of any kind - but the outdoor booths are particularly good if you can get one of those.

At the moment due to COVID-19 the pub is asking you to pre-book, which worked really well as we were able to book one of the booths. They have comfortable padded bench seating enclosed on three sides by walls, with a roof over the top, and a nice big table that we could easily get six of us - three adults and three toddlers - around while maintaining social distancing (for the adults at least).

Tips for entertaining children during a meal out

My best tip for keeping children to sit still while you have a meal is pretty obvious - take things to occupy them! We had a selection of books, sticker books, a puzzle and two kids’ Kindle Fire tablets. They kept the other two children absorbed for the duration of the meal - and my daughter for about half the time after which point I was having to accompany her around the courtyard as she explored. But that was better than the last time we had a meal out!

How is the food and the service at the Greyhound, Carshalton?

Service is very quick at The Greyhound the moment which helps when you are eating out with children. You can download the Young’s app and use that to order and pay, so no waiting around for a server to come and take your order. I wonder if social distancing also means they have fewer customers to serve, but the courtyard outside was almost full and I didn’t see inside.

There isn’t much of a children’s menu unfortunately and the portion sizes are much more the sort of thing an older child would eat - I could have ordered just a side order of fries for my 2.5 year old but I wanted her to have more of a proper meal. The choices on the children’s menu were a burger, sausage and mash or fish and chips - I went for the latter thinking it would be easiest for her to eat.

The fish was a fairly sizeable portion in batter, served with chunky chips, a pot of mushy peas and tartare sauce. The food was extremely hot - the chips were much hotter than the French fries that came with my smoked salmon and cream cheese baguette, I expect because they had been in a deep fat fryer. So S ended up having my French fries - and unfortunately didn’t want any of the fish at all so most of that was wasted, though I did eat a bit of it myself. My sandwich was very good and having something cold that I could eat with one hand was also a bonus!

The food wasn’t cheap especially as the child’s portion was quite big, but the food was good, I liked the booth we were seated in and it was really good to be able to catch up with my friends for the first time since before lockdown.


Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Easy chicken enchiladas - cooking for a crowd

What can you make when you are cooking for a crowd, and don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all night?

 My go-to dish for when we have had friends over (pre-lockdown of course) has become chicken enchiladas. They are easy to prepare, can be made in large quantities and a lot of the prep done in advance. You can also dial up or down the spice depending on preference.

 My recipe is more a guideline than a list of exact quantities, but that’s another beauty of this dish – you can add all sorts of things.


Easy chicken enchiladas

You need:

Soft tortilla wraps – allow one per person

Chicken – either breasts or boneless thighs, again allow 1 per person if breast, 2 per person if thigh

Packet of fajita seasoning

1 onion, diced

1 red pepper

1 green pepper

1 de-seeded and finely chopped red chili or ½ tsp of dried chilli flakes

500g box of passata (sieved tomatoes)

About 150g grated cheese


Fry the chopped onion, peppers and chilli and then add the chicken – this can be done in advance to save time. I sometimes use a packet of fajita seasoning or you can use your preferred spice from a jar, such as Cajun chicken seasoning. I usually fry the chicken but you could also cook in the oven. Allow to cool and shred the chicken and set the chicken and vegetables to one side or refrigerate if using later.

 Preheat oven to 180C.

 Take a large baking tray with deep sides – I usually use a roasting tin. Grease lightly (I spray with Fry Light) to make sure the tortillas don’t stick. On a plate or chopping board, spread a few spoonfuls of the chicken, onion and pepper mixture down the centre of the tortilla and roll up. Place at one end of the roasting tin.

 Repeat with the other tortillas until the tin is filled. Pour the passata over the top, making sure all parts of the tortillas are covered. Sprinkle cheese over the top, and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

 Cut into squares to serve. This goes well with potato wedges and a green salad.


Monday, 27 July 2020

A socially-distanced pub lunch in London: The Paternoster review

Which pubs are open in London during lockdown? How do you have a socially-distanced pub lunch? Can I meet up with my work colleagues?

These were all questions running through my head when it was agreed we would go back in to the office last week to pick some belongings up.

I work in London - though I'm not sure if I should now say I used to work in London, as it seems a lifetime ago! At some point we will return to the office and I will have to get used to commuting again but at the moment I'm enjoying the time at home. Lockdown for me currently feels very different now my daughter is back at nursery, compared to the first three months while my husband and I were trying to work and look after a two-year-old - but I've definitely been luckier and had it easier than many.

So fast forward to July and I was looking forward to seeing my colleagues again, but with some trepidation. Thankfully I could get to the office by overground trains and didn't have to take the tube, and was able to avoid rush hour when I travelled. So there was only a handful of people on each train - though I was dismayed to see a few people not wearing masks. Of course, you can't tell if they are exempt or just refusniks - but my gut feeling said the latter.

My boss and I had arranged to meet for lunch, so the first challenge was finding somewhere that was actually open. There are a few articles online about which London pubs are currently open, but they tended to pick out certain venues with large gardens or in touristy areas - and what I needed was one close to the office. Luckily the pub companies have all updated their websites showing which of their locations are open, and what coronavirus measures they are taking.

The Paternoster, a Young's pub on Paternoster Square, was open and seemed ideal. It was very quiet on a weekday lunchtime so there was no difficulty finding somewhere to sit more than a metre apart from other tables - and we had a big enough table that we could sit a metre apart from each other. The pub asked for contact details for one of us on arrival, and encourages the use of their app to order and pay for meals. The server wasn't wearing a mask but put our food and drink down at one end of the table for us to reach across to get our own, which seemed very sensible.

Other than that, the whole experience didn't seem very different to usual - though I can imagine going for a drink in the evening is not like it used to be.

For lunch I had a fishfinger sandwich - for some reason I never think to make that at home but I often choose it when having a pub lunch! The fish was cod pieces in a beer batter (i.e. not the kind of fishfingers you have in the freezer at home) in lovely doorstep slices of bread, though the bread fell apart a little before I'd even got part way through the sandwich. Tartar sauce and lettuce were the perfect accompaniments and the proffered side order of chips made this a very satisfying lunch. Not as satisfying though as actually being able to eat out with someone for the first time in four months!

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Flamingo birthday showstopper cake

I celebrated my birthday during lockdown this year and it wasn’t too bad at all - I’m at home with my husband and two year old daughter who makes every day special. I had some nice presents, including an Instant Pot which I will blog about once I’ve used it a bit more, enjoyed a takeaway lunch from a nearby cafe and a takeaway dinner from a local Italian. My husband and I both took the day off work as well and it was nice not juggling working from home and looking after a toddler for the first time in a while!

This year my birthday cake was a chocolate cake from the supermarket - the first time in many years I haven’t made my own. But I had no free time before the big day and didn’t really want to spend hours in the kitchen on my birthday so was happy enough with a shop-bought cake.

But I’ve realised that I never actually shared the cake I made for my birthday last year, so here it is! It was a milestone birthday so I had an extended celebration, including a visit to my family, a weekend in a hotel with my husband and daughter followed by a weekend back in my home town with my school friends where we had a professional photoshoot, did an escape room and went out for dinner.

I made a cake to take with me as we were staying at a friend’s parents house while her parents were out of town (it’s like we were 16 again!). I settled quite quickly on a flamingo theme - I prefer llamas but I thought flamingos might make for a more glamorous cake!

One of my friends I was getting together with is vegan so I looked online for a suitable cake recipe and used this one from One Green Planet:


It was really moist and delicious and the perfect cake. 

Here’s how to decorate a flamingo cake:

To start with I covered the cake with buttercream but realised the sides were quite messy (I never understand how people get perfectly neat sides!). So partly to hide it, and partly for a fun nostalgic throw-back, I added a cake banner, if that is the correct term. We had one made of foil as a child that was put on every birthday cake for me and my sister year after year, and carefully cleaned and put away again – I can remember exactly what it looks like. I had some flamingo print wrapping paper which I used to the same effect, but of course as it’s paper it can’t really be cleaned and reused!

For the top of the cake I knew I wanted the centrepiece to be a flamingo. You can make one from flower paste or even a fat 3D one from fondant, but as I was in a bit of a hurry I decided to cut a flamingo shape out of cardboard. I did however make the wings, by melting white chocolate and adding a little pink food colouring. I placed a piece of greaseproof paper on a board and using a silicon brush, created the wings by sweeping the melted chocolate in the shape I wanted and leaving them to set. I did a few layers so the wings would be thick enough to pick up when they had dried, and I was able to stand them on the top of the cake to represent the flamingo’s wings just as I wanted.

For the final decorative touches I added mini meringues – again you can make your own and if you want this whole cake to be vegan (which makes sense given the recipe is vegan!) you can actually make vegan meringue. Did you know that? It’s actually quite surprising given meringue is usually made with eggs – you can make a very good substitute meringue from aquafaba, which is the liquid you get in a tin of chickpeas!

I also used some white chocolate buttons (which were vegan) to fill in a few spaces on the top. I was quite pleased with this cake as it delivered a lot of bang for its buck – it looked fairly impressive but didn’t take a huge amount of time to make or decorate and tasted delicious, so I’m glad I’ve been able to share it with you at last!

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Elderflower and white chocolate cake: Free Cakes for Kids

Think back to when you were a child and celebrated your birthday. I’ll bet there was cake, and you can probably remember some of your favourite cakes as a child, right? I was obsessed with Sarah Lee Double Chocolate Gateaux and often had one of those for my birthday but I also remember very clearly when my mum baked several loaf cakes to make the shape of the number 14, decorated with chocolate icing. I have a feeling I remember a hedgehog cake with chocolate buttons when I was younger as well!
Some children aren’t lucky enough to get a birthday cake, for all sorts of reasons - money is tight, they are living in temporary accommodation without the facilities to easily bake a cake, their families have got a lot on their plate due to illness or disability or maybe the child is a young carer themselves and deserves a treat. Free Cakes for Kids is an organisation that links up local amateur cake makers to provide birthday cakes for underprivileged children and makes sure they get a homemade treat on their birthday, which makes them feel special.

I’ve written about Free Cakes for Kids before as I’ve been involved with the group for a little while. To find out if there is a local group in your town check out the website.
For a little while now my local group has been baking a cake once a week for an Age UK tea party at a residential care home. I was just about to go back to work after maternity leave (yes, there’s been a bit of a delay in posting this!) and knew I wouldn’t have much time to bake any more so signed up to do one of these as it fell nicely into my last week off when my daughter was doing half days at nursery, so I could bake the cake and deliver it while she was there.

I wasn’t doing any grocery shopping for the next few days and rather than make a special trip out (which is not as quick as it used to be before I had a one year old in tow) so decided if at all possible to use ingredients I already had at home. I knew I had an unopened bottle of elderflower cordial in the cupboard and that I had seen recipes for elderflower cake somewhere.

I made Lynn Hill’s elderflower cordial cake with white chocolate ganache from the original Clandestine Cake Club book - you can find part of the recipe online here though to see the whole thing you will have to buy the book!
I found it interesting that the cake itself doesn’t use butter; it seemed to give a light texture to the finished cake but of course I didn’t get to eat any as it was for Age UK!
The white chocolate ganache was a little tricky as first it was too thick to spread (I left it too long in the fridge) then it was too runny. I wasn’t happy with the finish and decided I needed to decorate it but not in a way that would be too time consuming.
I loved the idea of piping ‘hello’ on the cake, since this was for a tea party and wasn’t a birthday cake, so I used some melted milk chocolate and a tiny piping bag. I then got out my special flower piping nozzles that make beautiful shaped petals of different kinds - you don’t have to have any special piping skills as the nozzles do all the work! The purple flowers were a bit darker than I would have liked as I used a bit too much food colouring but overall I was happy with the effects and hope the residents of the care home enjoyed their cake!