10 Grocery Shopping Tips for a Zero-Waste Kitchen

Nearly 30% of all food is wasted. That equates to a $165 Billion in wasted food a year. For an economy stressed about money, our retirement, world hunger and preserving the Earth, that statistic is not only astonishing but sickening.

That gave me pause, and I decided it was time to take a good hard look at what I was throwing away each week. I always cringed when I threw away uneaten leftovers or the spinach I bought for the salad I never made. I hated being wasteful, but now it felt like watching actual money hit the trash can.

In 2002 the Zero Waste International Alliance put standards in place to aid in achieving a zero-waste world. They define zero-waste as follows:

“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”

Before you get overwhelmed and stop reading, the goal of this article is not to enforce a zero-waste lifestyle. That is simply not achievable for everyone. But we can be more educated, and therefore mindful, of our decisions.

The best way to do this is by starting with your own kitchen. A conscious shift in what you’re buying, what you’re using, and most importantly, what you’re throwing away can have a significant impact on the environment, and your wallet.

1. Designate 1 Vegetarian Day (or more) per Week

A zero-waste kitchen is about more than just what is thrown away. It starts with the energy it requires to initiate production of that food. Agriculture accounts for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the global transportation industry, and it takes an enormous amount of water to raise animals for food. For example, 2,400 gallons of water yields 1 pound of beef. That’s compared to 244 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of tofu.

Designating one day a week to be “meatless” will go a long way for both the environment and your health. Also, try to eliminate beef from your diet as much as possible. Cattle raising puts the hardest strain on the environment requiring more land, food, time and water to raise for food, and has been linked to increased risks of heart disease.

I’m a huge supporter of the Meatless Monday campaign.

2. Avoid buying produce wrapped in plastic

The fact that fresh produce is ever wrapped in plastic, and worse wrapped in plastic on a styrofoam plate, is ludicrous but it happens often. Avoid over-packaged produce completely. Additionally, skip the plastic bags in the produce section. The broccoli does not need to be placed in a plastic bag, only to be bagged again. We all go home and wash it anyway, right?

3. Have a meal plan

One of my favorite sayings: “Have a plan or plan to fail.” We don’t begin a road trip without a map, so don’t try to navigate a zero-waste kitchen without a plan.

It’s simple (note I didn’t say easy). Look at your week, take inventory of what you already have, and what items need to be used first. Now search for recipes that call for those ingredients. Decide what you still need, and make a list. Then stick to the list!

I’ve created a Zero-waste kitchen planner to assist you, which you can find at the bottom of the article.

4. Start with what’s already in your refrigerator

Picture of woman looking in refrigerator to plan a zero-waste meal plan

Meal planning should start with what you already have in the fridge because the food there will be the first to perish. Begin with the leftovers. They aren’t always exciting, but with a little creativity can be reinvented into something new and delicious. For example, leftover rice from Chinese takeout can become veggie burritos. A fried egg on top of leftover quinoa is a quick and easy breakfast.

Then look at your meat, cheese and produce. Determine what needs to be used first and start building your recipes from there.

If the goal is to reduce waste, start with what already heading that direction, and save it!

5. Practice restraint

If there was a tip 4.5 it would be “Don’t Go Shopping Hungry”. Restraint comes easier to the fed. Having a plan and sticking to a list is the best way to accomplish this, but supermarket temptation is everywhere! Like the “Buy 2 get 1 Free” ads or the grocery store samples with tempting coupons. And the damn chip aisle! You get the point.

If you didn’t need that box of cereal when you left the house, you absolutely do not need 3 of them. If you don’t like jam, who cares if it’s 50% off. And unless a bag is on your list, avoid the chip aisle!

6. “Eat what you can. What you can’t you can.”

This was my dad’s favorite dinner time quotes. That and also, “Eat all your carrots and pea on your plate.” You may need to say that one out loud to really appreciate it.

It’s a play on words that never got old for my father, but a good rule to live by for a sustainable kitchen. Some dishes don’t come in small portions, i.e. lasagna, soup, casseroles, etc. But they all freeze and reheat well. Tonight’s lasagna just became crazy weeknight’s dinner rescue!

7. Have a backup plan

We all go into the week with the best intentions. Then work, kids and freakin’ life happens. How many times have you walked into the house dreading the “meal” you had planned to cook only to order pizza? A week later the spinach is wilted and old.

Meal planning doesn’t have to mean having a home-cooked meal every night. It simply means buying smart and with intention. Don’t plan to cook 5 new recipes at home knowing very well you have a late work meeting on Tuesday and parent-teacher conference Wednesday.

Instead plan for 3 home-cooked meals, 1 night for take-out, and 1 night for leftovers. Look at your schedule and be realistic. Plan the new or extensive weeknight meals for the nights you expect to have more time and energy. Plan take-out and leftovers for the busy or late nights.

Also, it’s important to use the freshest and most perishable foods first. For example, if you buy chicken breasts on Sunday, it should be cooked Monday or Tuesday. By Wednesday it will have gone bad and then thrown away.

Use the Zero-waste Kitchen Meal Planner below to help organize your week.

Find some Amare recipe favorites here.

8. Frozen vegetables are your friend

I always have frozen vegetables on hand. They are an excellent way to sneak vegetables into practically any dish and can be useful in achieving a zero-waste kitchen. And don’t be concerned about the nutritional value. Frozen vegetables have been proven to be just as nutrient-rich as fresh vegetables. Bonus, eating frozen vegetables allows you to eat your favorite fruits and vegetables outside of season. Add frozen vegetables to almost anything for a quick, easy and nutritious meal.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Add frozen veggies to spaghetti
  • Make veggie tacos using leftover tortillas
  • Cook a quick stir-fry with frozen veggies, tofu, and soy sauce

9. Eat leftovers

Mason jars filled with leftovers to promote a zero-waste kitchen

We are all guilty of letting the leftovers end up in the trash. As good as those enchiladas were Sunday night, by Wednesday they are old news. Suck it up. Americans spend over $100 a month on fast food. That means we are spending $1200 a year when there is healthier, more eco-friendly, and tastier option in the fridge. Make leftovers your go-to lunch option when available.

10. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Compost

The golden rule of environmentalists: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Many of us already do the best we can to reduce what we buy, reuse (repurpose) the items we can, and recycle. But, many of us don’t apply the same creed to food. It’s either consumed or thrown away.

Apply this principle and greatly reduce your waste to consumption ratio. Reduce food waste by simply buying only what you need and avoiding bulk food. Reuse ingredients already in your fridge and eat leftovers. Recycle the packaging the food comes in. And, if you want to take it one step further towards a zero-waste kitchen – compost.

Want more? Learn how to be a more mindful eater with Intuitive Eating. What is it and How to try It.

Example of the Zero-Waste Weekly Meal Planner
Zero Waste Meal Plan Example

To start planning a zero-waste kitchen today, download the Free Weekly Meal Planner here.

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