Updated: Jul 19
In my first post of this series, I discussed ideas for cleaning and dealing with waste in the kitchen. This time I will attempt to tackle which foods you should be buying (or growing!) and how to store them to maximize shelf life and reduce waste. It's a big topic, so let's get into it!
Before I get into specifics, it's worth restating a phrase you've probably heard a thousand times already, but with one major modification:
Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle
Yes, even in 2022 it's still helpful to use this phrase as a guiding principle for all things waste related, but by adding 'refuse' to the list, we can cut off the production of waste at its source. It can be more than a little awkward to refuse straws, bags, and containers from stores and restaurants that are just trying to provide services for their customers, but every time you do, you're keeping one more piece of trash out of the landfill.
The other three terms, 'reduce', 'reuse', and 'recycle' should be followed in approximately that order, with recycle being your last resort when nothing else can be done with a product or material.
I recently wrote another blog post on what type of diet has the least impact on the environment, which you can check out here. That post covers mainly agricultural and manufacturing sources of waste, including transportation, energy, and water use. What it doesn't cover is food waste produced in the home. According to a 2020 study, the average American household wastes 31.9% of the food they buy. That's totally unacceptable! We know we can do better, but how?
Step 1: Eat what you have
Before you go shopping, consider whether or not you actually need to. If you're like most families, you probably have lots of food in the house, but maybe you are running low on staples or have something in mind that you'd like to cook. That's fine, but inevitably we end up buying more than we expected whenever we go shopping, and over time, pantry goods start to accumulate. I'm betting you have some unused spices or boxes of pasta at the back of your cupboard, or perhaps there are some mysterious jars or containers hidden away in the depths of your fridge and freezer. Bust that stuff out! It's time to get creative.
Of course, you'll want to check the expiry dates on things, but as I've mentioned before, those exist mainly to indicate quality rather than safety. A better method is to check the smell, texture, and colour of each food. If it seems off, don't risk it (I should take my own advice here). Some foods basically last forever, no matter what it says on the package. Honey, for example, has been found to last centuries or even millennia without spoiling.
I like to lay out all the neglected foods on the counter and start brainstorming about what I can make with them. Even if you aren't a great chef (I'm not), there are four things you can make with just about any combination of meats, vegetables, and spices: Soups, stews, chilli, and curries. I'm talking one pot meals where you throw everything in and forget about it. Here are a few hundred recipes to get you started. If you have a slow-cooker, this will be easy. Even if you don't, it's still pretty straightforward. If you're not feeling confident in your ability to combine peculiar ingredients, get your friends involved. My wife and I used to participate in a fun annual "MasterChef" type event with friends and neighbours where we brought together all our leftovers and unused ingredients, assigned teams, and then spent the afternoon cooking and eating a big pot-luck meal. You can make it as competitive or casual as you'd like, and best of all, things get used up. If anything is left at the end of the evening, people can take what they want home with them.
Step 2: Grow it or make it yourself
Producing your own food is a guaranteed way to ensure that packaging and waste are not involved in getting the food from the ground to your mouth. If you aren't a gardener or don't have the space, start small with some balcony or window herb boxes. If you're ready to take on a bit more, start growing a few rows of potatoes and onions in your yard. These are low-maintenance plants that can grow in most places without a lot of issues. You can also grow value crops to save money, which will vary depending on where you live. For me, garlic and tomatoes are among the best crops to grow. If you want a challenge, try growing fruits like strawberries, blueberries, or even tree fruits like lemons and apples. These require more care and attention, but have the added benefit of producing for years.
You can spend years learning how to grow your own food, but inevitably, you will start looking for ways to preserve those abundant harvests during the short time that they are producing. This leads to my next point, which is to make things yourself.
Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, peanut butter, salad dressing, and even vinegar can be made at home. You'll need to invest in a good immersion blender, and it may take you a few tries, but you'll know exactly what's in your food and you can tailor each item to your own tastes. Creating these condiments at home results in healthier products and avoids the use of plastic bottles. Start saving jars from other foods and use them whenever you want to make something. Make small amounts at a time until you know what you're doing, as the lack of preservatives means your homemade foods won't last as long as the store-bought stuff.
Once you start making sauces and condiments, you'll find that almost anything you can buy in the store can be made at home, often at a fraction of the cost. Some things probably aren't worth your time, like pressing your own oil or grinding your own flour, but if you're really dedicated or curious, I say go for it!
Step 3: Shop with a plan
Okay, so there's no food in the house and you don't have what you need in the garden. It's time to go shopping. Before you go, take the time to scout out the fridge, freezer, and pantry, and then make a shopping list. That way you don't end up with a bunch of food you can't finish. For the same reason, try not to go shopping when you're hungry (again, I should take my own advice).
Once you're in the store, I challenge you to purchase only foods that have no packaging at all. No boxes, wrappers, or bags allowed. Nothing. What I think you'll find is that you're stuck in the produce section, and even then, your choices are limited by what isn't already bagged or boxed. Lots of stores will insist on bagging products at the cash in order to weigh or tag them as well, nullifying your efforts. Obviously this isn't a very realistic or sustainable way to buy food.
The simple exercise above demonstrates just how much packaging is really present in our stores, and will no doubt frustrate you to no end. All hope is not lost, however, as there are places that specialize in this type of shopping. Buy directly from farms or farmers markets, where they are much more likely to accommodate (and even appreciate!) your requests for minimal packaging. Look for bulk food or zero waste stores in your area that encourage customers to bring their own bags and containers, too. You'll want to invest in some reusable shopping bags that you can use at the store, like these organic cotton drawstring bags for grains and dried beans, or these ones for fruits and vegetables. Make sure the bags themselves are made of natural, recyclable materials or they too will end up being permanent garbage one day. Once you get your purchases home, you'll want to store them in something else (more on that later). As for meats, a butcher shop is your best bet as they will often use butcher paper instead of plastic. You can use your own containers here, too, in which case glass is probably best.
Most likely you'll end up at the regular old grocery store eventually, and that's fine, but you can still make choices that will minimize waste. As a general rule, avoid plastic at all costs. Metal, wood, glass, and paper are all good options that can be composted or fully recycled. Keep as many glass jars as you can handle, especially if you have a garden or like to preserve things. I also love metal tins as they are extremely useful for storing things like tools, toys, and snacks. Watch out for individually wrapped products which may not be obvious from the outer packaging. Similarly, composite packaging materials, like bags with foil linings or layered cartons, should be avoided as they are extremely difficult to separate and recycle.
Of course, don't forget your cloth shopping bags so you don't get stuck fumbling with individual items after you leave the store. If it's summer or you know you won't be able to get home right away, put a cooler in your trunk and store your refrigerated goods in there temporarily.
Step 4: Store your goods properly
As a good rule of thumb, store foods at home the same way they keep them at the grocery store. While it's generally true that foods will keep longer in the fridge, some of them will taste better if you don't. Here is a list of things you don't need to refrigerate. Of course, the temperature and humidity in your home will influence whether or not you decide to keep foods on the counter.
You can keep vegetables like onions and potatoes in sacks, bins, baskets, or crates in a cool, dark place. If you're crafty or into DIY, weave your own baskets or make wooden crates from scrap wood to save money.
The hardest things to store are leafy greens like lettuce and fresh herbs. Here is a guide on how to keep your herbs fresh for as long as possible, which can be roughly applied to lettuce as well.
Instead of using plastic bags and plastic wrap for storage, use silicone bags like the ones made by Stasher or Zip-Top instead. I recommend the flat bottom ones as they are much easier to store, and more importantly, wash/dry. I also prefer the larger bags as I find the small ones too tiny to be of much use. Similarly, we use silicone covers like these almost every day, for both storage and microwaving leftovers. Just place a cover directly on the pot, cup, or bowl you didn't finish and put it in the fridge. No need to use a separate container.
A quick note about silicone, since we're on the topic of waste. Silicone is not plastic. It is a polymer derived from silica - the main component of sand. However, it still shares some features with plastics, the most important one being that it doesn't readily break down in the environment. That said, it is extremely durable and resistant to temperature extremes, and can last years if properly cared for. Furthermore, it doesn't leech chemicals into your food and doesn't easily stain, so it's a good option from a safety and aesthetic point of view. It's certainly not perfect, but it's a far better alternative to plastic.
Before you run out and buy a bunch of expensive storage containers, consider what you already have. Is there an unstable mountain of mismatched Tupperware stashed away in one of your cupboards? I'm betting there is. Even though glass, metal, or even silicone are better storage materials for a number of reasons, it would be incredibly wasteful to toss out those all containers and replace them. Same goes for your old appliances that may not be as energy efficient as a newer model. You should only replace something when the old item can't be repaired or reused in any way.
Step 5: Preserve it
Prevent surplus foods from going bad using tried and true techniques like freezing, canning, and fermenting. We freeze a lot in my family, and could definitely freeze a lot more if we had a chest freezer, but I have to admit that we are novices when it comes to other preservation methods. We make jars of tomato and pesto sauces, pickles, and syrups. We even made miso a few years ago, but everything goes in the fridge or freezer as we don't have the proper containers for canning. That said, it's something we'd like to do more of, and it's a worthwhile skill to have, especially if you plan to grow a lot of your own food like we do.
Step 6: Waste
If you've done everything you can up to this point, there shouldn't be much in the way of garbage. Still, some waste is to be expected. If it's biodegradable, compost it, as mentioned in my previous article. If not, recycle or dispose of it appropriately. Take advantage of collection programs in your community, like plastic and metal bottle cap charity drives, and cardboard collection days (if you have them).
That's it for this week! I hope you found this article helpful in some way, no matter where you are at on your journey to a zero waste lifestyle. Expect future articles on zero waste living in the coming weeks. Until then, thanks for reading and subscribe if you'd like to be kept in the loop!
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