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My Journey Toward Zero Food Waste

Food is one of those things that is easy to waste, often for the sake of convenience. These tips will help you cut back and better the planet.

Written by
Laura Beiler

Living in a house of six, it is way too easy to make a lot of waste. However, having a large family also has its perks, such as forcing my husband and I to have a strict budget. And, along with that, meal prep. By meal prepping, we have cut down significantly on our food waste, eat healthier, and save money.

Below are some of my top tips to help you get started in your zero (or close to zero) food waste journey, too.

How to Move Toward Zero Food Waste

1. To Bulk or Not Bulk?

Buying bulk is always one of those tricky things. At times, it feels like it is totally worth it and we are saving money. Other times, we walk out of a club store and think, How did we spend so much money on just this? So my husband and I talked about the pros and cons of buying in bulk, and what was worth it.

It pays to shop around and look at unit prices to determine if you are really getting a good deal. Some things—like Fair Trade coffee, granola, household items, meats, and grains—we found worth buying in bulk. Where we live, there aren't any bring-your-own-containers, low packaging waste, buy in bulk stores. However, if you have one in your area, it might be worth looking into to buy items by weight in reusable containers.

Also, remember to be realistic. Are you really going to eat eight pounds of summer sausage? Probably not.

2. Plan, Plan, Plan

Admittedly, as much as I like to plan, I don’t always like to meal prep. But it never fails that when I don’t, we buy things we don’t need, or things that don’t really go well together for a meal... and waste money.

For a family of six, I can usually pick out six dinners for the week, at least one breakfast for the week (aside from the usual oatmeal/cereal routine), and lunches, all in about an hour. I then fill out the list with the remainder of things I know we use each week, such as bread for sandwiches, meats, fruit, oatmeal, etc.

3. Look at What You Already Have

One thing that causes food waste is not using up what we already have in our fridge, freezer, or pantry. Things get tossed into the back or forgotten, and then we end up throwing things away. So, before you prep for the week, look at what you have that you can already use.

Have some broccoli that has gone a little limp and dull? Roast it. Apples that are bruised and picky eaters (insert my children here) don’t want the bruised ones? Cut them up and use them in oatmeal or a pie. Have a can of diced tomatoes about to expire and beef you bought a few months back frozen? Start a chili. Sometimes you have to get creative.

My husband and I will occasionally have those weeks when everything is so busy we haven’t had time to go grocery shopping, so we have an “empty the pantry night.” It takes a little creativity, but with staple food items in place, it usually turns out pretty good!

4. Keep Staple Items on Hand

Many staples have long shelf lives and are great for rounding out a meal. By keeping things like rice, flour, sugar, and pasta on hand, you can easily come up with an idea. Sometimes I make a quick bread for a simple soup, or easy spaghetti carbonara. Being creative and trying new things will break you out of the mindset that you can “only” make certain things with the ingredients you have.

5. Learn to Make Things Yourself

The easiest way to cut down on food packaging waste is to learn to make things for yourself. Save your vegetables scraps (carrot peels, potato peels, celery or onion ends) in the freezer to make a vegetable stock. Use fresh vegetables for your own marinara sauce. Buy or grow potted herbs. You will always have fresh herbs on hand and less plastic waste.

Another tip: keep the stems of cilantro, parsley, etc. After finely chopping them, put them in ice cube trays with olive oil (or water) and freeze. You will have instant flavor cubes for your next recipe.

6. Coordinate Meals

When I say coordinate meals, I am talking about looking at common denominators of the recipes. Don’t try to make six different dinners with completely different ingredients. You will end up with a lot of waste. Instead, find recipes that use similar herbs or vegetables.

For example, who honestly eats one bunch of celery in a week? Not our family, unless the kids want it for a snack or we have at least two recipes that call for it. So if I buy celery, there needs to be two recipes that need it, or that is marked as the kids’ snack. Easy. Also use the celery leaves in your next recipe that calls for celery. The flavor they bring is amazing.

7. Leftovers Are Your Friend

Remember how earlier I said I meal prep six dinners and some lunches? That’s because we always have leftovers. And we eat them. I know there are a lot of people that don’t like leftovers, but sometimes it really does taste better the second day. Also, eating leftovers reduces waste, cuts down on your planning/prepping, and leaves you an “out” on that night of the week when you just don’t feel like cooking. It’s a win-win.

These are just a few tips to help you get started. If you compost, remember that your peels can be composted to help you grow more lovely vegetables (if you don’t want to freeze them for stock). When you do have to buy something packaged, check to see if it is made from materials that can be recycled.

And remember, it doesn’t have to be a drastic, all or nothing kind of deal. Start with small steps. Create habits. Pretty soon you will look back and see how far you have come in cutting down your food waste!