Today I’m sharing with you my weekly “zero” waste shopping routine for groceries. It takes less time than before because I’m forced to plan ahead a little more, which greatly reduces stressful last minute trips to the store during the week. Also, we used to drive 20 minutes each way to get to a Costco so I get that time back too. In fair weather we bike to the market and co-op to reduce our footprint further.
I think I’ve said this a thousand times, so sorry if you’re sick of hearing it, but for all the new people: we are grateful to live in a very progressive area with access to a year round, twice weekly, local farmers market and also a fantastic small co-op grocer who offers many package free, organic and fair trade/direct trade foods. For tips on how to reduce your impact without a bulk store, click here. To search for bulk in your area, click here.
Some things are more expensive in bulk, and some things less expensive. I find that it pretty much evens out across the board; and overall our spending is less, because I don’t buy paper towels, garbage bags, ziplock bags, saran wrap, aluminum foil, sponges, and packaged convenience/snack foods. (click here for a post about our zero waste kitchen to learn more). Our philosophy: we’ve always prioritized spending on healthy food above most everything else- we have shifted our habits to allow this (although I do realize this isn’t an option for many). We don’t have a gym membership, cable, Netflix, car payment, or debt. We drive a used 2006 Prius (low gas, maintenance, and insurance cost), we buy almost everything secondhand (including clothing), and our trash + water + energy usage is low = low sanitation/ utility bill. Reusables mean we don’t have many recurring expenses for household items either. Plus, we like having less, which naturally reduces our spending …not that this is the “right” way to do things, I’m just explaining our lifestyle. I personally value health and high quality food as a priority, and I enjoy supporting my local community and farmers. For those of you asking, we spend an average of $150-180 a week on groceries for our family of four (and we almost never eat out, by preference- not because of zero waste). The variation depends on if I buy extras like local ice cream, olive oil, specialty locally crafted chocolate, gluten free bread, pastries.
Zero waste shopping does require planning ahead in order to have everything set for your trip, since you’ll need to have adequate containers and bags for what you plan to get. Don’t be overwhelmed by the length of my descriptions, I simply tried to be as thorough as possible to answer any questions you may have, but it’s really not bad. Here’s my timeline (Saturday is my shopping day) ALTHOUGH in summer I buy less on Saturday since we also go every Wednesday night to the hybrid concert/farmers market for music, picnic dinner, and produce (and have a bigger garden).
the “kit”: I have 2 sets of these cloth bags for produce and dry bulk items, various canning jars (mostly thrifted and/or passed down from my grandma) for wet bulk items, a sturdy basket to carry the jars in, a china marker (currently working through a few old sharpies too) for marking the tare weight, and some canvas grocery totes for carrying it in. One canvas tote holds all the produce bags so they stay together. We also have a wagon that we take to the farmers market sometimes- we buy a lot of produce, so it can get heavy to carry. Also, Vin rides in it. Cash for the farmers market is also essential- I try to bring mostly 1s and 5s to help out the farmers and give exact change.
running list throughout the week: I have a magnetic clip on the fridge, which holds scrap paper thats been used on one side (mostly from my daughter’s school) and a pencil. During the week, if we are running low on something or I remember something I want to get, I write it on the list. As I use and empty jars and cloth bags, I wash and return them to my kit.
left side co-op list, right side farmers market
friday: Make a “clean out the fridge” soup, stir fry, or salad with anything left over in the fridge. This practice has all but eliminated food waste for us. After dinner, I take 10 minutes to wipe down the fridge drawers and surfaces so everything is clean for new food coming in. Then, I grab the list from the fridge, sit down and add anything else I need to round out my meals that week. I don’t “meal plan” per se, but I have a general idea for meals and know approximately what we need to get through a week. I check the pantry, too, to make sure I didn’t miss anything that needs to go on the list. Going through the list, I gather appropriate containers for things I need- spice jars for spices, glass jars for wet items like nut butter, olive oil, vinegar, maple syrup, soy sauce, and cloth bags for dry bulk items and produce. I also round up anything to take back to the farmers from the last week- rubber bands and strawberry baskets, mostly. This sounds like a long process but I promise it really only takes a few minutes, I’m super impatient and can’t be bothered with fussy routines.
saturday: shopping day. Pack the kit in the car (or my bakfiets) and head to the market. Here, I buy as much of our food as I can, as opposed to buying from a grocer. It’s usually cheaper, fresher, and supports the farmer more directly. Plus, you can ask questions and make relationships.
before heading into the market (cart is old from Costco)
I buy enough veggies, fruit, olive oil, nuts, rice, bread, and avocados here to get us through the week. I also buy soap here (a stand makes it from their old unsaleable olive oil) as needed. Any veggies that have ties or rubber bands on, I try to pull off immediately and hand back to the farmer, who always seem appreciative.
after the market: notice the kale that I already took the rubber bands off of. After I took the pic, I took off the asparagus and leek bands too and returned them to the farmers.
Next, we head to our co-op. First, I go to the produce section and buy anything I couldn’t find at the market- which is usually just garlic and onions if I can’t find them, and sometimes imported fruit- mango, banana, pineapple occasionally, although I try not to buy many of them in favor of local fruit.
In the bulk section, I first head to the scale to weigh empty jars (my bags already have their weight printed on the tag) and mark the weight on the jar- this is called the “tare weight”. If I put my jar on the scale, and it says .88 lbs, I mark on the jar T= .88 OR tare= .88 .
weighing my jar, the tare is .88
Check your store’s bulk policy first- call ahead or ask an employee before filling. Some stores only allow bags, no jars. Some stores want you to stop by the customer service desk or cashier to weigh all your empty jars with an employee first. Some stores, like mine, have a scale in the bulk aisle for you to weigh it yourself.
After the tare weight is marked, fill your container and mark down the bin/item code number next to where you marked the tare weight for jars- for bags, I simply write down the bin number on my list next to the appropriate item. Don’t forget the olive and salad bars- they can be great sources of unpackaged foods too.
The things I buy here include: oats, spices, olives, nut butters, maple syrup, vinegar, tamari, dried legumes, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, teas and coffee, tofu, coconut and cacao, the occasional quinoa, other grains and flours, salt. Basically just whatever else I need to round out what I bought at the market.
bulk organic PB
When I am in the checkout line, I put my cloth bulk bags first, in the order of my list with the written bin codes so I can rattle off the numbers for the cashier. Then my bulk jars (which have the bin codes already written on them). Then any other items. The cashier will then deduct the tare weight from the total weight so that you only pay for what’s inside the container.
in the checkout line
Our co-op always asks before they print the receipt, which I say “no thank you” to. If for some reason, I am somewhere that automatically prints a receipt, I simply refuse it with the same “no thank you” or “I don’t need it, thanks” (if your store does this, consider asking them to switch to asking before printing to reduce waste and cost for them).
Next, back home to put everything away! For how I store my food and produce without plastic in my fridge, click here.
Please let me know if you have any questions!
note: For beer and wine, I try to go straight to the source (a brewery for a growler or a winery during “bottling events”) to refill without having to recycle.