Step 4: Rethink Food Shopping
It’s time to change the way you shop and eliminate single-use plastic from food packaging. It is perhaps the highest effort but also the highest reward activity you can take on. This does require planning and having the right bags and containers for shopping and storing, access to the right stores and sometimes getting creative! I’ve simplified the process into a few steps to make it as easy as possible.
It may not be possible to buy everything package free right away - you might not have access to bulk stores or simply the time to get there - so don’t worry about perfection. Maybe you can focus on buying some items without packaging. Every positive change makes a positive impact.
Here’s how to get started with zero waste food shopping.
1. Stock up on jars and tins.
The jar is the icon of zero waste, and there’s good reason. Start by keeping glass and metal jars of different shapes and sizes as you use up the goods. It’s nice to have a mix of glass canisters with lids, wide-mouth glass jars and metal containers. You’ll also need some bottles for refilling oil, vinegar, and other liquids.
Glass canisters with an attached lid are my preference for storing most items. At a glance you can see the contents of a jar, and an attached lid means you never misplace it. I’ve acquired most of my jars by saving the jars I buy food in at the supermarket. It doesn’t make sense to spend money on many new containers if you don’t have to.
2. Move packaged food into their new homes
Next, transfer your existing food into your containers (and recycle the disposable packaging). This is not cheating! This helps you determine how many jars you will typically need. If you don’t have enough containers to fit what’s in your pantry, that’s your indication that you need to gather some more.
You will also see immediately how calming and clean a zero waste kitchen is, and you’ll be much less likely to start buying packaging again when your pantry looks this good. Label your containers if that’s your preference. I use a grease pencil for labelling directly onto the jar when necessary so that this process is also plastic-free.
3. Gather cloth bags.
You’ll typically need 6 to 12 cloth bags for bringing dry food home from the store. Of course, this varies on how much food you want to buy at one time. Because you’re unlikely to restock your entire pantry at one time, a good rule of thumb is to have half the amount of cloth drawstring bags as containers currently in your pantry.
You’ll also want to make sure you have several produce bags and a few large sturdy shopping bags or baskets for carrying your groceries home. You probably have a few totes already, but if buying new, avoid the reusable bags sold at many grocery stores - most of the bags sold at checkout are made from plastic. Instead, look for bags and baskets that are made from hemp or cotton, as these materials are biodegradable and thus even compostable.
Now that you’ve got your gear all ready to go!
4. Make a meal plan (and a shopping list)
Zero waste is a lot easier when you can avoid last-minute trips to the convenience store for an item that will inevitably only be available wrapped in plastic. This is where meal planning comes in.
I used to be intimidated by the idea of meal planning because 1) it involved making a plan (how could I possibly plan Friday night dinner on Tuesday?!) and 2) I was afraid I’d lose the spontaneity of cooking based on my mood.
But meal planning doesn’t mean being rigid: it just means thinking about eating stir-fry tonight and tacos tomorrow-a few meals ahead. By being more intentional about what I buy, I find fewer bundles of rotten, forgotten vegetables in my fridge and my shopping takes less time: it’s condensed into just one or twopurposeful trips a weekfor fresh food and once or twice a month for dry goods.
My approach: While there are many ways to meal plan, I always start with checking what I still have left in the fridge so I can incorporate it into an upcoming meal. Then I spend 15 minutes on Friday (the night before I do my shopping) to decide on dinner for the coming week and jot down the ingredients needed, plus the usual supply of weekly staples like bread, fruit, eggs, nut butters and snacks. It’s that easy.
Sometimes on the nights before I go shopping we have an “eat out the fridge night” and make a creative dinner with whatever we have. Veggie-filled omelettes, roast vegetables and side salads frequently make an appearance.
5. Find places to buy package-free food near you.
Package-free shopping options can include bulk stores, farmers’ markets, health food stores and regular supermarkets. It can be a lot of fun to discover new stores in your area, so scope out your local options! I usually do all my produce shopping once per week at a place where I can get it package free, and I get a big haul of dry goods from the bulk store once or twice a month. And when I pop into my local supermarket for a needed item, and do my best to avoid plastic packaging and opt for glass, metal, cardboard packaging or none at all.
If shopping at your regular supermarket, check out my tips to zero waste shopping at regular supermarket.
6. Lastly, make peace with the things you can’t let go.
Zero waste shopping will naturally push you away from packaged, processed food which typically comes in unrecyclable containers and wrappers and toward whole, cleaner eating. You will find yourself buying more fresh foods without packaging and maybe finding alternatives to snacks you love. But there may just be things you don’t want to live without- like your favorite packaged snack - and that’s okay.
Until there are systemic changes in the way brands package items, give yourself a break. Don’t worry about being perfect, just get started. Every small change sends a signal to brands and adds up to a positive impact on the planet.