Going to the grocery store when you’ve decided to embark on a waste-free lifestyle can feel a little bit like, well, being a vegan in the middle of a steakhouse. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it always seems like once you’ve committed to eliminating something from your life, in this case, unwanted plastic and packaging, it turns up everywhere!
Let’s face it, we live in a society that appreciates convenience and sees excessive packaging as a “safety” measure, rather than the persistent environmental pollutant. But, considering the fact that this mindset has dug us into a pit of plastic packaging about 13 million tons deep, as Green Monsters we simply can’t justify continuing on, business as usual. Or rather, packaging as usual.
So, while entering the grocery store and only shopping for items that are package-free might take a little extra pre-planning and some creativity, knowing that in so doing you are keeping packaging out of landfills is sure to ease your mind. Not to mention, this is hardly the only benefit you will see from shopping in this manner. In fact, by buying items that have minimal-to-no packaging waste, you’re also probably going to purchase more whole foods that are much more nutritious than their pre-packaged counterparts.
In effect, when you grocery shop waste-free, you’re doing a kindness to both the planet and your body at the same time. We can get on board with that!
Now that you’re on the waste-free train, here’s a simple guide to help you navigate the grocery store like a health- and eco-conscious pro.
1. Make a Plan
The first step in eliminating waste from your grocery routine starts in your very own kitchen. Before you make a run out to the store, take inventory of what you have in your cabinets so that you know you are only making a list of things you truly need (Remember, food waste is another major environmental scourge!). When you’re looking to minimize packaging waste, take this into consideration when pre-planning. For example, if you normally eat a pre-packaged granola bar for breakfast, think about how you could make a waste-free alternative. Maybe instead of eating a processed bar, you choose to make your own with items you can find in the bulk bins. Or ditch the bar altogether and pick up some fresh fruit for your morning meal.
Go through each meal and think about where in your routine you opt for pre-packaged, processed foods for the sake of convenience. To help you get started planning for quick, whole foods meals and snacks (that are naturally waste-free), check out this awesome guide or this helpful article. You might need to step outside of your frozen burrito comfort zone, but once you do, we promise you’ll be the better for it.
Once you’ve got your list planned, take stock of your trusty reusable grocery-holders. If you are planning to do a week’s worth of shopping, be sure to come prepared with enough reusable bags or glass jars for produce and bulk items. If this is just a quick trip to the store, only bring as many reusable bags/jars as you need, this will help to keep you from straying from the list and ending up with a whole cart of snacks. (You can also cut down on buying extraneous items by limiting yourself to a basket rather than going for the cart.)
2. Fresh Produce is Your New Best Friend
Most grocery stores are laid out so the first thing you see when you step through doors is the produce section. Considering that this section will become your new best friend in your waste-free lifestyle journey, it is always a great idea to hit the produce first.
With a little prep work, fruits and vegetables make great snacks when you’re on the run. If you usually snack when you’re in the car or in between meetings at work, you’ll want to select fruits and vegetables that you can hold in your hand and require minimal peeling. Apples, pears, and bananas are great choices. Chopping up carrots (buy them loose and avoid baby carrots that come in plastic bags), peppers, broccoli, and cucumbers and carrying them with you in reusable snack bags or jars can be a great way to get an extra serving of vegetables in your diet and avoid processed and packaged foods altogether.
Adding a Boost of Nutrition to Meals
Packing your sit-down meal times with produce is also a great way to add more variety to your plate and avoid processed sides (yes, we’re guilty of supplementing empty plate space with fries too). Fresh produce should ideally make up 75 percent of every meal, so getting creative with how you prepare these foods can make you forget all about processed sides.
Because fresh produce will spoil more quickly processed foods, plan to check in on how much you’ve used mid-week. If your vegetables are starting to look worse for wear, chop them up and store them in the freezer to extend their life. Frozen spinach and peppers are great for making quick stir-fry meals!
3. Anything Packaged Foods Can Do, Bulk Items Can Do Better
Anything packaged foods can do, bulk items can do better. Repeat this mantra in your head while you make your way through the always tempting processed junk food isles and bee-line to the bulk bins. There is really no need to ever buy pre-packaged nuts or dried fruit when there are a plethora of options available (which also happen to be WAY cheaper) in the bulk bins. If you’re prepared with small reusable bags or jars, the bulk bins make shopping waste-free a breeze.
Seeds and Nuts
Seeds and nuts are wonderful sources of healthy, plant-based fats and protein. Nuts are a great source of omega 3s, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and other nutrients your body needs. Instead of reaching for a bag of chips or cookie in the afternoon, a handful of nuts mixed with sunflower or pumpkin seeds can satisfy your craving for crunch and fat – without all the guilt or packaging.
You can also easily make your own nut butters and vegan cheeses with the raw nuts found in the bulk bins. Some stores have grinding machines, so if you come prepared with jars (remember to have them tared at customer service first!), you can skip the packaged nut butters and still get your fix.
You can also stock up on beans in the bulk section. Instead of buying canned chickpeas, navy beans, or white beans, try getting loose dried beans. Not only will you save yourself from a BPA-lined can, but you’ll also skip the added sodium and preservatives. If you’ve never cooked with dried beans before, check out this article for easy tips.
Have you been overpaying for pre-mixed packs of ancient grains or medleys of rice? If you’ve been buying them at all, then the answer is yes. Skip the packaging and look for bulk bin long grain rice, quinoa, amaranth, farro, and millet. These healthy carbs will help keep you from snacking on things like packaged crackers or processed noodles and breads. Plus, unprocessed, bulk grains are naturally low-glycemic and packed with nutrients, so you can feel good about getting your carb fix.
A Healthy You and Even Healthier Planet
The benefits of skipping highly processed, packaged foods are really endless. Not only can you be sure that the foods you’re putting in your body are packed with nutrients and free from hidden sugars, additives, and chemicals, but opting for whole foods also saves a significant amount of energy and resources that would typically be expended to make processed foods. And the icing on the cake, whole foods often come without any packaging, so they can save a ton of wrapper waste from ending up in landfills and waterways.
It’s wonderful how making one shift to better yourself or the planet can come with so many peripheral benefits. Whether you want to shift away from overpackaged processed foods for the sake of your health or the planet, either way you’ll get to both!
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