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Update 10/5/16 - Shelf Life - An App for keeping track of the food in our kitchens

Food is often wasted in the home when it's lost in our overloaded shelves forgotten about until it's too late. There's an app for that.

Photo of Kerrin McLaughlin
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UPDATE 10/4/16

Thanks to everyone here I've gotten tons of helpful feedback. For my refinement I've decided to incorporate some options based on the feedback and focus on how Shelf Life can be adjusted to a plausible app for today that would (hopefully) one day work up to its full potential as an automated system based on RFID.

I'd appreciate feedback you have on this update! 

Phase 1 - Manual entry…sigh..

So avoiding manual entry is a key component to my concept. My research has shown that existing "tracking" apps fall short partially because of this immense load on the user - it is tedious and time consuming. But the most realistic option that can be implemented RIGHT NOW is to allow manual entry as an option and strive to make the process as user friendly as possible. So imagine adding a feature for manually adding a food item, but with auto complete to quickly select products and all that goodness, and a database of information like nutrition, expiration, and other important details that are auto-added when you add a food item.

Other, slightly better options: Photo recognition or QR codes.

Photo recognition is becoming more and more accurate and API’s like Google’s cloud vision api ( Make it assessable to developers. What if you could just snap a photo of each item as you put it away and have it added to your inventory?

Then there’s QR codes. It’s possible we’ll be seeing QR codes present on more food items soon (See the Smart Label initiative( , which claims “More than 30 major companies have already committed to using SmartLabel™ and the number of products providing ingredient information in the consistent SmartLabel™ format will continue to grow to more than 34,000 by the end of 2017."

So scanning in food items with QR codes can also be an option.

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HOWEVER both of these solutions are ignoring my research that 1. people dislike manual entry and 2. people will forget to remove items once they put them in, making the system inaccurate

so phase 2 attempts to bring my RFID idea into play and hopefully make this system plausible and as hands off as possible.

Phase 2 - Implementing RFIDs, various methods

As you can read below, using RFIDs is ultimately where I’d like to get with this app because it allows the user do as little work as possible and get a full inventory of their kitchen. We can’t jump into the RFID idea right away because they’re just not on products. So the RFID integration plan would be:

Step 1: Manually add tags

Manual entry sucks! But it’s the best we can do right away. When users bought the “Shelfies” for their kitchen, they could also buy a sheet of tags. Scanning the tag would prompt the user to enter a food item, and then they stick the tag on their food. Still slightly annoying to start, but then whenever the food is taken out it’s logged automatically.  If you buy a new version of that same product, the tag can be transferred to it. The tags are cheap enough so that if they get thrown out with the product it’s not a huge deal, but they could also be reused. 

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A new feature 

My teammate, Jonathan came up with another great feature that could make the tag step worth it. Rather than have to select ingredients for a recipe in the app, the user could also scan and take out the ingredients they want to use and have recipes suggested to them.

Step 2: Buy in from grocery stores

I got a lot of feedback suggesting ways to integrate receipts from the grocery store. After all, it’s a list of all the products you’ll be adding to your pantry later. What if you bought a sheet of RFID tags with a QR code that you could scan to “log” all of the tags. Then on the bottom of the receipt, there would be a QR code you could scan. Your phone would then map products to available tags, so it would say “Put tag number 13462 on Honey Nut Cheerios. Put tag 13463 on Mozzarella String Cheese”. Still involves some manual work but it eliminates the need to manual scan every tag and enter the names of the product, which could save some time.

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Step 3: Buy in from brands

The best option is to have the tags already on the products, ready to go. It could start with a few brands and hopefully expand to many. No work on the user’s end. Benefit to the brands because users will seek out their products for the Shelf Life compatibility.

The last two steps need a great deal of business deals with big organizations, not my strong suit. That’d be the biggest hurdle to getting where Shelf Life needs to go.

What do you all think?


Original Post:

So this project is actually the product of my senior thesis I presented this past spring. I took a design thinking approach to solving how consumers could waste less food in the home, doing many interviews and secondary research. I found that consumers often forget about the food hidden away in the back of their cabinets until it is too late. People also overbuy if they can't remember what they've bought, leading to more waste. The result of many iterations and prototyping was Shelf Life - an app and physical device that work together to keep track of the food in your kitchen.

Through my research I found that many existing apps for food tracking had one big flaw - manual entry. Having to enter all the food items you bought at the store in an app, and then remember to remove them when the item is gone was a major prohibitor for use.

So I started thinking about how to make the process of entering and removing this info seamless, invisible even. What if every time you took items in and out of your cabinets or fridge their barcodes were scanned just like at the supermarket checkout?

With Shelf Life, little companion devices called "Shelfies" hang out in your kitchen storage and wait for items to past by, adding and removing them from a database connected to your phone. Once you've got access to this data, the possibilities are many. This leads to a real life kitchen inventory that can store information about your food, like when it goes bad, what you need to buy, or what recipes can be made to prevent waste.

I built out a real, working prototype of this system for my presentation. Because barcode scanners are hard to hack and are limited in their information (it's really just a number, and there's not complete, open database that connects this number to the product it represents) I used RFID tags. There has been evidence in recent years that are making RFID tags a favorable, smarter replacement to barcodes. Another option is Smart Labels.

We could also work out a program with a supermarket to add the RFIDs directly to their products in exchange for their products being used with our app, or something else.

You can check out my full report here:

Obviously this is still a little futuristic, but the prototype represents a real product that could exist a few years down the line. 

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

My existing prototype could be set up in homes. We'd have to manually enter information for different food items since there is no database currently with this information, but it would be interesting to see if putting RFID tags connected to the app on the most common wasted food items prevented waste.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Feedback on my idea, ways to move forward with today's tech

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm a UX designer with a background in visual design, front-end development, and design thinking. Happy to contribute to other's ideas that could use help!

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

How far along is your idea?

  • It’s launched and we’re working on gathering more feedback – it’s existed for over 6 months

How would you describe this idea to your grandmother?

It's an app that keeps track of the food you have in your kitchen by scanning smart barcodes as you move things in and out of your cabinents

[Only for launched ideas] How does your idea differ from what you're already doing?

The "plausibility plan" is completely new - I haven't integrated manual entry or the "buy your own tags" method

How is your idea unique to the space?

No other existing app uses RFID to automate the process of inventory management. My idea addresses the time consuming, tedious, and off-putting process of manually adding food items to an app inventory that current apps include. It also addresses the issue of removing food items the manual entry poses - sure users might be able to keep up with manually adding their food every time they shop, but they'll be even less likely to remember to remove it.

Who needs to play a role in your idea in order to make it successful?

Really need to form relationships with product manufacturers and retailers to get them on board with adding RFIDs to their products or QR codes to receipts

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

Identify prototype households, measure current waste production, implement the prototype, and see how waste productions has been affected. then scale!

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

I want to start running prototypes of Shelf Life using manually added RFID tags in a few different living environments - single people, shared apartments, families - to test the effectiveness of waste reduction and iterate the design


Join the conversation:

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Though the idea is nice, but there are already numerous apps on this issue. This one MyKURA is extremely nice and does almost every thing you have proposed. May be it is worthwhile to assess MyKURA before investing thousands of dollars in an app that is already on the shelf!

Photo of Marcella Lie

Hi Kerrin McLaughlin ,
As a busy young professional/student living in a shared house, I definitely need and will use this.
What happens a lot is that, I bought loads of groceries, and it gets difficult to keep track what I have and also their expiry dates.

Feel free to interview me (if you need to) or please let me know once this idea comes to life!

Photo of Lubega Joseph

Kerrin McLaughlin This is really an awesome idea.
However, sensitization is key to success of the whole idea.
Advertisements have to be made to inform the uninformed.
supermarkets have to be partners in this issue aswell as other food stalls in the community to ensure that people are aware of the availability of the app and its use/importance in helping to reduce food waste.

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Welcome to the Refinement phase Kerrin! We've added new Refinement questions to your original submission that we'd love for you to answer. Please check out the Refinement Phase Toolkit for instructions on how to answer the new questions and other recommendations we encourage all idea teams to consider in the upcoming weeks.

Refinement Phase Toolkit:

Lastly, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 09/28" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

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Hi Kerrin, we updated the link to the Refinement Toolkit. Please use this new link instead:

Photo of Aryel Cianflone

Love the idea and the designs! I was just out in my garden this morning thinking about your idea, what will you do for homegrown or farmers' market food?

Photo of Kerrin McLaughlin

Hi Aryel! Sorry for my delayed response...yes that is a challenge, I thought about having some blank RFID tags that could be programmed by the user if they wanted to included leftovers or home grown food. Perhaps their could be a crowd-sourced community for the nutrition and expiration info on these non brand products...thoughts?

Photo of Ezgi Sengun

Hi Kerrin , 

If no RFID available, could you possibly manually enter these products in? You could create an option/tab for homegrown produce. This would allow for this items to be differentiated from the rest. 

Photo of Veronica

I really like this idea! I especially like how you took an idea that already exists and improved upon it to make it better for the consumer by eliminating manual entry. When you say that there isn't a database for barcodes, do you mean that this is private or just not standard? One suggestion I have is to add a grocery list feature to the app. It would be nice to have this feature so that the entire grocery shopping experience is in one place. Also, the RFID tags seem like they would add cost to products. Would QR codes work in this case? I was looking through some of the other comments and I came across one about the issue in logging food from farmers markets. One possible solution would be to have an option to input food manually. This way even if there is food that doesn't have barcodes or the RFID tags, all of your food could be logged. Overall I love your idea and the look of the app is so cute and attractive! I would absolutely get this app!

Photo of Kerrin McLaughlin

Hey Veronica, thanks for your comment! When I say there isn't a accessible database I mean that if they're is one, it is private. I'm sure supermarkets and manufacturers have a huge database of barcodes but they're privatized for sure. It could be possible to make a deal to get access to that information, but it doesn't eliminate the manual entry. RFID tags would add a cost but not much, hopefully it would be a matter of pennies. QR codes are a good "stepping stone" in between the current state of things and RFID technology, especially since with  initiatives like Smart Label ( they might soon be on products. I'm imaging ways to bridge the gap between my vision and the current situation and will hopefully be posting an update soon based on all the feedback I've received. Manual entry should definitely be an option for those situations when there is no RFID or QR code. Thanks for the feedback, glad you like my idea!

Photo of Taylor Collins

I love your idea! Not only does it look very aesthetically pleasing, but it seems extremely user-friendly! I think using the RFID tags would be a great way to make it easy and hassle free! With that said, have you put much thought into what these would cost or getting these started with the aid of sponsorship? Also, I scanned over your comments and noticed that some people mentioned adding in a setting for people to enter in their food items manually? This could be a great way to get people interested in your app and build up an audience that would support your RFID tag products! Lastly, I really liked that you had recipes included in your app, giving people the opportunity to get creative with some foods that may be close to their expiration date! I hope your idea continues to gain support, it's well deserved!

Photo of Amber Matthews

What if they could also tell you where you can donate your food? Like connect them community centers or food shelters.

Photo of Eric Steiner

This is my favorite idea. I love it! Any thoughts about seeing if you could just link your app to grocery stores and just have whatever the consumer buys directly onto your app?

Photo of Kate Rushton

Congratulations one being one of the forty ideas in the refinement phase. 

Do you know how restaurants and cafes monitor what is in their kitchens?

Photo of Hannah Butland

Hi Kerrin McLaughlin,

I greatly enjoyed reading your OpenIDEO on using a tracking app to lessen food waste. I have found myself many times in the hannafords isles forgetting if the yogurt expired, if I used up all the milk or if I have enough chips left for my guacamole; so this app idea would be perfect for me along with many other forgetful shoppers. The food waste issue is a serious problem around the world but it’s something I don’t keep in mind when I’m shopping. This app would help transform my mindset, helping me shop smarter and cook to conserve. I appreciated the thoughtfulness you put into designing this app such as making it easier for consumers to log what foods they buy since everyone has a busy life and also suggesting recipes to use up certain ingredients before they go bad. I noted that you said this idea is very futuristic and there’s a potential problem with the codes used to scan the item into your fridge; but I believe through collaboration with stores eventually you can make something like RFID codes a tool to aid your app. I would like to offer you my suggestion for what could work now. What if you created an app that you are able to take a picture of the receipt of what you bought and it logs everything on your phone. It could offer all the options you mentioned in your proposal such as, recipe options, expiration dates and food inventory but when you finish an item you go on and mark it as empty and be transferred onto a shopping list for when you next go out (this would be easy since most people have their phones readily available all the time). Your idea is more advanced and more convenient seeing as people wouldn’t have to track their food, the scanner would do it for them. This is just a starting suggestion until the scanning code issue is worked out. I wish you the best of luck with this app and hope one day to be using it myself.

Thank you,

Hannah Butland

Photo of Kerrin McLaughlin

Hi Hannah, thanks for your thoughtful comment! I've considered the receipt idea and the shopping list integration, both are interesting add-ons! I was thinking of possibly making different "tiers" of the app - maybe the receipt upload could be a first step for people who don't want to go through installing scanners in their homes just yet. there could be many add on features like shopping lists or recipe creation..just want to keep it from getting too complicated. Thoughts?

Photo of Ellen Oh

Great idea to tackle on food waste from early stage. I also like the interface as well. The app would work really well for food business and it would be great fit with my idea as well.

Photo of Jonathan

This is a great idea and so exciting to see it actually working. I could use something like this at the local restaurant where I work. It would be great to track all the food in the pantry. 

One thing to think about in that regard, how do you enter if say you only use half the box of noodles? That would be a next level feature!!

edit: I found your other project 

you just think of everything :) Very inspiring work. Thanks for sharing.

Photo of A Bin


this is very brilliant, you are focusing on education rather than fixing the whole system that companies (sellers of food) and buyers are not convinced it is a big issue because one part is making a lot of money and the other prioritize convince over waste. Abosololity great idea, I would use the app.  

all the best 

Photo of Lorenz

Kerrin McLaughlin Can you integrate gas sensors that recognize if something is about to go bad? and then shoots a push notification?

Photo of Mitul Sarkar

Gases dissipate. Unless each perishable is stored in a fairly-well-sealed space (which has its own cons), could gas sensors stay useful across various fruits, vegetables, etc in the kitchen?

Photo of Lorenz

I guess it would already be interesting that something is going bad
...assuming anything not-perished doesn't emit perishing gasses Mitul Sarkar , do you agree?

Photo of Mitul Sarkar

"In my research I found that people tend to forget to remove products after they're used so I wanted to make that step automatic. If people forget or find it tedious to take products off their lists they might stop using the app, any ideas how we could overcome that?"

@Kerrin, I think that in the case of tagged/labeled products, you could implement the equivalent of an "exit interview" in the form of a tag reader installed on/beside the trash can. 
BTW, I skimmed through some of the projects on your website - they looked good!

Photo of Hayden

An app to know what you already have at your house? I see two very positives that people will like. One: People are saving themselves money and they will realize that, two: People are stopping wasting food. This idea has many benefits and I think the whole idea is great, it is a little bit of a stretch but if you get the eye of someone who has some money and believes in your idea, in a couple of years this could be the new grocery shopping. The app is just very handy, everyone uses smart phones these days so everybody is looking down on them and getting use to the scanning part of scanning your food couldn’t be that hard, it would be different but very worth it on your next grocery adventure. People do often overbuy food and then never use it so that generates a lot of waste if you think about everyone in the world buying one extra can and they never use that can, that’s a lot of food wasted. I believe this idea could definitely lower the food waste and on a extra bonus, save people money.

Photo of Gurdeep Aujla

Your app I'd purchase as it's clever and I believe there is a genuine need for this, your idea is great, I hope you can give me some feedback on my idea,
ILUM-A-FRIDGE, your feedback would be a huge help as I want to know what people think of my idea and many opinions is better than one as Ill know more in terms of what people think about this.


Photo of An Old Friend

Hi Kerrin McLaughlin , 

This is a great idea... I've been inspired by your idea to look at how a smart app using machine learning FudAnt - The app for the ants among us (Update: 8/20/2016)  can be designed to solve the problem of expiration date eXpire: Food Expiration Dates 2.0 (Updated:8/19/2016) 

Just some thoughts:
1) One challenge with RFID is that it can make some products a lot more pricey. Why not use a QR code that links up to a database that has the required information?
2) Have you thought of partnering with retail stores so that the information is captured along with the billing. This way we eliminate the inconvenience of double entry..


Photo of Kerrin McLaughlin

Hi Toijin, I'll go take a look at your idea!

I agree that RFID can be expensive and impractical. I think for my refinement I will focus on QR codes, either on individual products or the receipt. There's actually a new initiative in the US called "SmartLabel" which seeks to add QR codes to products linked to additional information on an online site and aims to be on over 34,000 products by 2017. So that could provide the information needed

The one hurdle I'm still trying to figure out is removal of products from the app. In my research I found that people tend to forget to remove products after they're used so I wanted to make that step automatic. If people forget or find it tedious to take products off their lists they might stop using the app, any ideas how we could overcome that?

Photo of Matt Healey

Kerrin McLaughlin is your idea mainly focused on the cupboard (and therefore) packaged items? Just thinking about fridge based items and things that don't have a package (e.g. fresh fruit)?

Photo of An Old Friend

Kerrin McLaughlin 
I think the removal part is challenging....

Here's a thought....Based on the expected rate of consumption ( which can be a function of total food in the pantry, number of members in household, past information ) you can have gentle popups for each product. You can either 'dispose' it or 'snooze' it so that it remains in the pantry..

Photo of Souvonik D

Kerrin McLaughlin To solve the challenge of removal, maybe an idea could be to suggest recipes based on the food items by matching against existing online recipes.
You could develop the UI such that the consumer can add how many people (adults + kids) they are cooking for, and the app would subtract appropriate proportions from the total supply. This way, removal of products is taken care of.
e.g. If someone bought 400g of pasta, and as per online recipe, used it to create 2 meals for 4 ppl (assuming 50g each serving size), then no more pasta left :)

Photo of Emmo Kuipers

Great idea.  And besides pop ups connecting it to your shopping proces would be nice.  Most people shop at the same time and day a week.  So you could help them to signal it at the right time.  Even further i tegration with ordering apps from supermarkets would be nice. If you pick an item to buy you get to see your (prognose)  current stock.  Even get some alerts that certain products are running low. Kerrin McLaughlin Souvonik D 

Photo of Emmo Kuipers

Maybe you could team up with a supermarketchain that delivers. Two ways i can see that happen.  You orderen digitaly so the apps connect and al de food is uploaded.  Including expiery dates.  Or on your receipt there is a qr-code with which you can import al foods at once.  That would at added value to us as a customer. 

Photo of Andrew Pun

Hey Kerrin, 
Really cool idea - and great work on the presentation. I had a similar idea to yours, but could not get over the hurdle of manual entry as you pointed out. RFID chips may be the way to go, but would you need to tag each food item?

This led me to more of a scientific approach and ways to upgrade and ways to improve the fridge with an addition. Would love to get your thoughts on it!


Photo of Andrea Zelenak

Wow- oops! I posted almost the same idea without even knowing! I always use the App at my supermarket and it already tracks what I buy! It would be so easy!

Grocery Store App Modification: Show Purchased Items and Expiration 

Photo of Mush'ab Nursantio

Hi Kerrin McLaughlin ,
This is really a great idea! I have similar idea like yours. So last February I attended Design Thinking workshop in 1 week student conference about food security in Germany. During the workshop, I teamed up with 2 other participants to find solution in food waste and got an idea to make an apps to reduce food waste in consumer level. After conference, back to my home country I continue working on the idea with my brother who is programmer to compete in Global challenge about Open data for food system (We only went through semifinal). The apps design that we made is called "Cupboard". Overall it's really similar only we have some additional features such as:

1. We use cloud based data that once you check out from register, the product detail and expiry date automatically can be accessed through user's account
2. We use adjustable reminder that user can set how many days before the expiry date user will get notified. It gives users sense of emergency to execute their inventory immediately (based on our survey when we validate the idea)
 3. To execute/process the inventory, users have 2 ways to do it. First, gather possible recipes based on user's inventory just like your apps do. Secondly, for users who don't have time or their recipe don't require particular item in inventory, they can share it to their circle based on location or friends. So other user can complete their recipe and they can get their ingredient for free instead of buy it while at the same time save those foods (We surveyed this and people more engaged to the platform because it's kinda like game when you completing task and stuff). Or other people who need it can collect them.

I'm about to submit the idea here and then I saw your contribution. I'm so excited when I see your demo and illustration, it is so well executed I really like it.  Maybe if you consider to add those features above feel free to use it or please reach me out if you are interested to collaborate. 

All the best,


Photo of Kerrin McLaughlin

Sounds awesome, Mush'ab! How does the information get to the user's account at checkout exactly? I've heard many variations of how to do this, like rewards card/membership, or scanning a receipt. Curious how yours does so.

Adjustable reminder is definitely helpful, i can see how users would feel rushed to use a product if it's expiring right away and feel overwhelmed.

I also think the gamification/ingredient sharing is a great way to make the idea community driven and fun while finding more uses for the ingredients, love it!

I will be on the look out for your post and maybe reach out for collaboration once I start refining!

Photo of Mush'ab Nursantio

Actually the barcode in packaging already contain all the information needed to display picture, product description, and expiry date. So partnership with retailer is needed to store its database in cloud. User later can have barcode in their apps so before check out can be scanned and get access to their purchases.  

Photo of mitch Lee

Hi Kerrin,

Love the idea. I think your understanding around the need to automate and digitise information is the crux of creating a seamless bridge between transactions to transmission. 

However, I have two questions: (1) could you break up the idea from a first principle perspective?; and (2) have you looked at whether any barcode companies are partnering with a technology partner (e.g., google...). If that is the case, you may want to consider the timing of your offering to align with that innovation. 

All the best, 

Photo of Kerrin McLaughlin

Hey mak david and Eroteme ? , thanks for your comments! I've replied to both of your ideas, you should check out each others since they are also similar, maybe we can all collaborate. The gears are turning in my head...

Photo of mak david

Hey Kerrin, I was thinking along the same lines and here is what I have in my contribution: 

So, it basically uses roughly the same technology as you have outlined, but have thought about having one consolidated QR code scan from the supermarket receipts instead. Wondering if it could help smoothen out the "work-flow"? 

Awesome idea you have here by the way! 

Photo of Eroteme ?

Hi Kerrin, nice to see you have built a prototype around this. I am interested in your thoughts about extending your idea into what I have outlined here: