What factors are most important when you’re planning our your meals for the week? Do you shop seasonally or have a set list of go-tos? Do you purchase everything from the same market or branch out to specialty stores?
Regardless of how often you personally restock, there’s a lot of waste involved in the process of grocery shopping; from the abundance of single-use packaging to the portions and products we choose. With growing attention on the aesthetic of idealized zero waste living, transforming our plastic-dependent habits can seem daunting, time-consuming, and out-of-reach.
However, many of the most impactful ways to embrace sustainable change involve small changes in our daily routines. This allows you to work towards a profound cumulative effect through a more fluid transition that won’t suddenly impact your budget or schedule.
The majority of American families don’t have access to local markets or bulk food stores that fulfill all of their nutritional needs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t align something as universal as grocery shopping to uphold our low-waste goals. We can all significantly reduce our waste footprint by opting for minimal, reusable and/or biodegradable alternatives and striving to learn more about the origin of the products we are consuming.
#1 : GROCERY GAME PLAN
According to the United Nations, one third of our annual food supply — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes each year— is discarded. That’s equal to nearly 350lbs of food waste and a loss of nearly $140 per person!
Contrary to a common misconception, making informed sustainable choices can save your family time and money. So, what can you do?
- Inventory what you already have in your fridge, freezer, cabinets, and pantry to avoid unnecessary or repeat purchases.
- Incorporate those items into your meal plan for the week.
- Donate excess nonperishable goods that aren’t being consumed in your household to a local hunger-fighting agency or organization.
- Stick to what you know you’ll use and enjoy when planning your new purchases.
- Ensure that foods are consumed before their expiration. Hone in on those tricky dates before discarding— use, enjoy, best, and sell by all indicate different suggestions. To be on the safe side, you can store most foods in your freezer (raw or precooked) to extend their freshness for future meals!
#2 : START FROM SCRATCH
The most straight-forward way to avoid excessive packaging in your food purchases is to prepare more home-cooked meals from simple ingredients. According to some nutrition informatics data collected at the University of Washington; home-cooked meals are more affordable, less time-consuming (especially when you meal prep in bulk), and healthier for American families. Such families have been proved to experience reduced likelihood of obesity, enhanced performance and personal confidence, as well as less substance abuse within the family.
Here are some action items to inspire and kickstart your success:
- Replace pre-cooked and/or frozen fruits and vegetables with their raw, package-free version. More often than not, this will get you more product for the same price! Freeze any extras to use in the future, just as you would the pre-packaged kind.
- Challenge yourself to mimic the flavors you enjoy in something that’s usually pre-cooked/prepared. One of my favorite home-cooked alternatives is tomato sauce: chop some juicy tomatoes and allow them to simmer at a low heat with a couple of your favorite herbs or seasonings. The longer they cook, the deeper the flavor! On pasta night, your savings can be (almost as) endless as the flavor possibilities.
- Treat your palate to a new plant-based recipe each week. Experiment with ingredients you haven’t tried to embolden the flavor of legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains … as an added plus, this will supplement your diet with more diverse nutrients!
#3 : DODGE PLASTIC PACKAGING
According to a study conducted by the University of Georgia, 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions. To put that stat into perspective, that’s the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the world. Nearly half of all plastic that’s ever manufactured has been made since 2000. With that said, 40% of plastics are simply used for packaging, used once and quickly discarded.
Are you ready to combat the plastic waste crisis?
- Avoid food products packaged in plastic; opt for cardboard, glass, or aluminum packaging when possible. These materials are more widely acceptable and efficiently recycled.
- Embrace the “bulk-buying” mindset—buy a larger container (not single servings) to save money and reduce packaging waste. Schedule your meals accordingly to avoid creating unnecessary food waste! Seal and store extras in the freezer or pantry for later use.
- Look for containers you could potentially reuse. I wash and re-purpose mine to pack lunches for work, store homemade sauces, portion out bulk purchases, or organize homegrown herbs!
- Bring your own reusable produce bags and shopping totes. Sometimes we forget, and that’s okay! On those days, you can take your produce loose (you’ll wash it at home) and ask your cashier for paper bags.
#4 : DIG A LITTLE DEEPER … than the grocery store!
In addition to providing nutritious package-free produce for your meal prep, home gardening has been proven beneficial to human health. The increased exposure to vitamin D and associated physical activity has been proven to reduce cortisol (hormone linked to stress) levels, soothe anxiety, boost seratonin (neurotransmitter that contributes to happiness and well-being), support healthy sleep and sharpen fine motor skills!
Home gardening will save you money, eliminate a lot of packaging waste, encourage your family to consume more fresh foods, and bring about a rewarding sense of home-grown accomplishment!
To be quite honest, I’ve never had the greenest of thumbs. BUT, I’ve succeeded in my home-gardening endeavors by keeping it simple! My best tips are to check out suggestions based on the season/climate and pair your choice(s) with some naturally pest-repelling plants such as lavender, thyme, marigolds, mint, or basil —did someone say organic?
How to get started:
- If you have a bit of yard space, choose something that thrives in your climate/region and appeals to your taste. Learn about the conditions that are best for that crop and draft a schedule for watering/transplanting as needed. Get your friends and family involved!
- If you have limited space, try out a potted plant that can thrive in partial sun or on a windowsill. Green onions are a super simple starter; just save the bulbs and suspend them in water in a small bowl (or even an up-cycled, punctured egg carton)!
- If there’s a particular fruit or vegetable your kitchen always needs to be stocked with [we all have that one must-have item], try your luck planting some of the seeds directly from the store-bought item. I’ve tried this with bell peppers, and they’ve quickly spouted in a sunny corner of my backyard!
For long-term sustainable progress, we need lots of people committed to building seemingly-small, collectively-profound Earth-friendly habits. Living life a little greener can be as simple as asking for paper bags at checkout or rinsing, getting creative with the ingredients you’ve already got stocked in the back of your pantry, or rinsing and reusing the container that once housed your all-time favorite hummus.