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Let’s not waste lunch... Stem & Glory founder suggests low-cost, low carbon, low-hassle options



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Did you realise that potentially 131,000 pieces of single-use packaging are discarded in Cambridge in a single average lunchtime? In the first of her new monthly columns for us, Louise Palmer-Masterton of Cambridge vegan eatery Stem & Glory discusses a better way.

Louise Palmer-Masterton at the new Stem and Glory at 50/60 Station Road, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Louise Palmer-Masterton at the new Stem and Glory at 50/60 Station Road, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Let’s look at low-cost, zero waste vegan on the go. As our Cambridge restaurant Stem & Glory is right next to Cambridge railway station, I’ve always been struck by the sheer volume of people that head out for lunch in that small area every single day.

Now obviously some of these people do find their way to our restaurant for lunch, but the overwhelming majority are heading to a store or takeaway to grab lunch on the go.

Their takeaway lunch will undoubtedly utilise some kind of single-use packaging, and with the supermarket ‘meal deal’ being an attractive proposition for people watching their budget, lunch could well involve three or more separate items of single-use packaging.

Let’s do the maths on that - there are an estimated 280,000 people of working age in the Cambridge area. Statista tells us that 39 per cent of working people will buy lunch out of home twice a week (I have a feeling in the area around Cambridge station this might in fact be five times a week), that is a whopping 11.3 million lunches bought on the go in a year - or 43,600 every single day.

If you take our meal deal example above, with three or more items of single-use packaging in just one persons’ lunch - that is potentially 131,000 pieces of single-use packaging discarded in one single lunch time. Just in the Cambridge area (scaled up over the UK it is a staggering 15 million).

School lunches have now also sadly gone the same way. No longer does food get served hot onto a plate, instead it’s mostly grabbed from a fridge and wrapped in packaging. Then onto sixth form and university students, and it’s the same story - meal deals and Costa sandwiches, all wrapped in single-use.

Add to that more than seven million single-use coffee cups discarded every single day in the UK, and the packaging that is delivered from restaurants and food outlets in the evening and weekends, and we have a mind-boggling amount of waste - every single day.

Lentil beans
Lentil beans

We seem to think we have got ourselves off the hook with biodegradable packaging, but compostable is not the answer. Compostable, recyclable containers are widely made from virgin materials, which increase the carbon footprint of the product, and do nothing to solve the issue of mass disposability.

The sheer energy to create this packaging, and to recycle it, not to mention the fact that sadly most of it never does end up being recycled.

There are many examples of reusable cup and box swap schemes, which are laudable in my view, and at Stem & Glory we have spent quite a bit of time and energy on this. But the sad fact is that there is less than five per cent take-up of reusable coffee cups, and even less for lunch boxes.

We really hope this will change in the future, but in order that it does change we need a significant shift in mindset. Our modern lifestyles rely on mass disposability, convenience trumps responsibility, and fast busy lives are an excuse for this dependence.

If we could just limit our reliance on grab and go and packaged meals to occasional, rather than the norm, then this small change will have a significant impact. And it’s not only in our planets’ interest - if you think about it, a plastic wrapped, chilled sandwich, made by strangers’ hands, accompanied by a packet of crisps and a plastic bottle of juice or soda, is pretty poor nutritionally.

Consuming chilled food generally is not good for your body, and the opposite of mindful eating is eating a sandwich whilst doing something else like walking back to the office, or whilst at your desk with an eye on your laptop.

But how do we make simple, cheap and nutritious meals on the go, that won’t take hours in the kitchen, or hours shopping? Top of the ingredients list are of course plant-based wholefoods, which are not only quick and easy to prepare, they are also by far the most nutritious, and planet-friendly type of cuisine.

Below are a couple of low-cost, low-carbon, low-hassle lunch hacks to pimp up your lunchbox and make you the envy of your co-workers

A lentil dish
A lentil dish

Warm lentil salad

The idea of a ‘warm’ salad is that it is prepared hot, then eaten at room temperature and does not consist of chilled raw vegetables. Vegetables can be added to hot grains/lentils and they then par cook or ‘wilt’ when mixed. Dressing the salad while warm is all important here, and allows the lentils to soak up flavour.

Once you get the hang of this, then pulses plus raw or cooked vegetables, seeds, herbs and generous amounts of dressing is an extremely versatile formula that can be adapted to suit the seasons, and whatever you have in the fridge.

Experiment with dressings – Asian-style with soy and lime works fabulously well with raw vegetables and nuts (you can even mix peanut butter into the dressing). Tahini, miso and lemon is another favourite, as is a simple balsamic dressing in the recipe below.

Ingredients

Makes 1-2 lunches

  • Half a cup whole dried lentils (any whole lentil will work here – look out for British-grown green or brown lentils)
  • Half a red onion finely chopped

Choose:

  • 1 cup of finely chopped/shredded raw vegetables (ie pepper, spinach, mushroom, gem lettuce, white or red cabbage, tomatoes); or
  • 1 cup roasted vegetables (many veg will work here – courgettes, finely sliced fennel, mushrooms, aubergine tossed in oil and roasted with sea salt and pepper for 20-30 minutes)

Dressing

2 tbsp oil (olive, sunflower or rapeseed)

Half tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp agave syrup – or another type of sweetener

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

  • Step 1: Cook the lentils (20-25 mins in boiling water), drain, then immediately add the finely chopped red onion and the raw veg if you are using (you want them to wilt in the heat of the lentil mix, so small pieces are best). Mix well and allow to sit with the lid on for 10-15 mins.
  • Step 2: While the lentils are doing their magic, mix all the dressing ingredients in a bowl.
  • Step 3: Add the roasted veg, if using, then while the lentil/veg mix is still warm, add the dressing. Mix well and you are done. Serve into your lunch box with some salad vegetables and extra dressing.

You can vary the proportion of veg to lentils as you wish, and now you have the principle of the ‘warm salad’ you can use grains instead of lentils, or grain and lentils mix. You can try all kinds of different cooked and/or raw veg, you can also experiment with different dressings. Things like fresh herbs, sun dried tomatoes/olives/capers are also a nice addition.

Stem & Glory can be found at 50/60 Station Road, Cambridge. Call 01223 757150 or visit stemandglory.uk/cambridge.



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