How to Reduce Waste When Grocery Shopping



Part 1: Save Money. Reduce Waste.

It seems like a hot trend in the food world this year is reducing food waste.  Things like using "ugly" or "imperfect" produce or meal planning are really having a moment, because it we all recognize how wasteful our food system can be if we just let things continue as they are. 

And even though it's a trend, I know that there is something primal and perennial about our desire to reduce waste.  I have heard my clients and students say for years how they hate throwing away unused produce (to the point where they hesitate to buy it!) or that they always take home leftovers from restaurants, however small the portion is, because they hate the thought of food going to waste.

So today, I thought I would dedicate this post to sharing ideas of how to reduce food waste in your life in the shopping decisions that you make.  We think about waste in the moments before the spoiled food hits the trash can, but there are so many decisions that we can make earlier to avoid this situation and it starts with shopping.  I'll follow up this post with one next week on how to reduce food waste once you are at home!  

And even though food waste is a hot topic,  I know many of us are trying to reduce waste across the board, especially with all the packaging, bags, and plastics that often come attached to our food.  So I've also included suggestions here on how to reduce packaging and plastic waste when it comes to shopping for healthy food.  This is something I am not a master of yet, but I'm trying!  I've found the website and nonprofit Zero Waste Chicago to be very helpful in educating me on ways to reduce all kinds of waste in my life.

(FYI in both posts I include a lot of links of items that you can buy in this post to clarify what I'm talking about or show you what I use, but certainly the least wasteful option is to use something you already have or to buy an item secondhand so please consider those options too.)

The essence of reducing waste when it comes to shopping comes down to 2 principles: 1) buy only what you need and 2) limit packaging as much as possible.  

Buy only what you need.

This suggestion is pretty obvious, but it is much easier said than done.  One of the biggest reasons that we waste food or packaging is because we buy something without having a plan for it, and it expires or takes up space until we eventually throw it out.  Here are a couple of ways to buy only what you need.

1. Have a kitchen inventory list. 

There are probably some items like salt, oil, coffee, or almond milk that you like to have always have in the house, regardless of what you are cooking that week.  I consider these staple items my "kitchen inventory" and like to do a quick check to make sure that they are all there before I head to the store.  If anything is missing I add it to my list.  That way I avoid buying double, not having what I need, or driving to the store midweek which wastes both my time and resources.

My inventory list includes items like: extra virgin olive oil, grapeseed oil, tamari, salt, lemons, avocados, parchment paper, and dark chocolate.  99% of people already do this process but only in their heads...and therefore often mess it up!  Put your kitchen inventory down on paper or in an app.  You can keep this in an Excel document or use an app like Google Keep or my favorite, Checklist Again, that allows you to easily reuse checklists.

2. Use a meal plan each week.  

You don't need to be following an intense 21-meals-per-week plan to do "meal planning." Even picking 1-3 items you want to cook for dinners or lunches that week counts as a meal plan, if you do it before you shop and then shop accordingly.  See this post for more details on how I meal plan.

After putting your kitchen inventory items on your grocery list, add the ingredients from your meal plan.  If you hate having that extra half-bunch of parsley or 1 cup of almonds left over at the end of the week, think about ingredients that can do double duty.  Would you mind garnishing this week's tacos and lentil soup with cilantro or do you really need cilantro AND parsley?  Think about the purpose each ingredient serves in the recipe and see if you can get away with something you already have.  If this sounds terrifying to you, consider attending some cooking classes or watching cooking shows to get used to how chefs make these substitution decisions.  It's not any kind of mystical's just experience!

3. Shop in the bulk section. 

One of the reasons I like shopping at Whole Foods or my local health food store the Dill Pickle Food Co-op is because of the bulk section!  If a recipe calls for 1 cup of rice or 1/2 cup of almonds, I can buy just that and not have lots of extra ingredients clogging up my pantry and potentially spoiling later.  If you don't regularly shop at a grocery store that has a bulk section, try going to one once a month.  If you meal plan a few weeks ahead of time (I know this is ambitious!), you can definitely save lots of money and time shopping by hitting up the bulk section just once a month.

4. Split large items with friends. 

If you live alone, and find yourself constantly only using up half of what you buy, consider sharing with a friend.  This works for big economy sized purchases but also for memberships like CSAs or sites like Thrive Market.  Often those extreme coupon-er type food deals are limited to junk food, but you can hack good deals on quality food by splitting with a friend to make sure that the extra doesn't go to waste.

5. Buy the smallest size possible.

Often we are swayed by the Super Size mentality that the bigger quantity is a better deal so we should always buy it.  Don't do this!  If you can't share with friends or aren't 100% sure that you'll use the item, skip the deal, and buy the smallest container size possible.  For pantry items, this is almost always the better deal because you won't have expired jars as often.

6. Buy fresh or just harvested food.

One benefit of shopping at farmer's markets or subscribing to a farm's CSA program, is that your produce was often harvested the day before you buy it, meaning it will stay fresh a lot longer and you'll have more time to use it at home versus produce that has been sitting in the grocery store or a warehouse for a week before you buy it.  Buy freshly picked when possible, shop quickly, and use cooler bags to bring everything home quick.  Proper cool storage extends the shelf life of your produce too so don't dilly dally getting it home.

Reduce packaging, plastic, and bags.

I am by no means a master of this step, but it's something I'm working on. I'm always so surprised when I come home from the grocery store and before I even cook anything, I'm filling up my trash can and recycling bin with produce bags, stickers, and cardboard packaging!  Here are a couple of ideas to ditch some of the packaging waste:

1. BYO shopping bags. 

This is the easiest step ever and cities like Chicago are making it easier for us by charging us for bags now!  I'm sure every family in America has like 40 reusable tote bags at this point, but one thing I like is keeping a small, foldable one in my purse for when I want to walk to a store or pick something up unplanned.  These ones fold into a little carrying pouch that's really convenient.  Try also storing reusable tote bags by the door or in the trunk of your car to make sure that you use them.

2. Skip the produce bag or BYO.

If you are a veggie lover like me, you likely use lots of produce bags!  Skip these whenever possible for ingredients like citrus fruits, potatoes, onions, garlic, or anything else that's pretty sturdy (you'll wash it when you get home anyway).  For more delicate items, try using washable net bags like these or compostable bio bags if you compost.  Very light bags won't add much weight (so you won't end up paying for your own bag when you check out and they weigh your produce).  If you buy heavier bags, write the tare weight on them (exactly what they weigh) so that your cashier can deduct this weight from the total weight when you check out.  Some bags like these, come with the tare weight printed right on them.

3. BYO containers for the bulk section. 

Just like net produce bags, you can often bring your own containers like mason jars to shop in the bulk section.  However, you should definitely check with the store first--unlike produce, they may have more strict rules about bringing your own containers.  You can either have a cashier weigh your containers before you shop (bring a pen to write the tare weight) or weigh them yourself and write down the tare weight if your store is pretty chill about it.  This might seem like a hassle, but if you transfer bulk items to storage containers when you get home, it does seem kind of silly to use and throw away a plastic bag or quart container after like 20 minutes of use!  This is one that I want to try more.

4. Buy glass when you can. 

I rarely--if ever--reuse a plastic container from the store, but I can find all kinds of uses for reusing glass pickle jars or jam jars or bottles from milk or kombucha.  Run them through the dishwasher to get the label off (works like a charm) and use a scouring pad and soapy water to get rid of any remaining residue.  Use these for bulk shopping or at least storage in your pantry for nuts, rice, seeds, flours, etc.

Have any suggestions for reducing food waste when shopping?  Let us know in the comments below!

And stay tuned for next week's post on how to reduce food waste once you are home!