Before we get to the zero waste meal plan, a few notes:
I need you to know that you trying to reduce the waste around food means you’re already succeeding at a zero waste lifestyle. Your zero waste meal plan doesn’t have to be picture-perfect or full of high-priced vegan swaps (likely packaged) to be healthy for you and the environment.
Zero waste starts with refusal which costs $0.
Zero waste changes must be sustainable for you.
Zero waste is more than a plastic bag.
I’ve written extensively about this concept. I myself began exploring zero waste while living in a food desert, without a car, and without stable income. I was producing nowhere near zero waste (and I’m still not because the Mason jar and “zero” waste is bullshit) but I was able to make real changes, particularly when it came to food.
Food and what we eat is probably our biggest trash-maker; conversely, it’s also one of the easiest ways to drastically reduce our waste.
Even when I had no money I made big steps. I walked or took the bus three miles round trip to the grocery store. I stopped buying “treats” that I couldn’t afford and came in plastic packaging. I bought unpackaged produce and extra large bags of rice and beans to make simple cheap zero waste meals. I stopped buying the fresh produce I thought I “should” that just ended up spoiling in the fridge.
Now I’m going to share my most recent shop, zero waste meal plan, as well as some easy zero waste meals.
Tips for zero waste meal planning
Just like regular meal planning, zero waste meal planning is more about being organized than anything else.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Create a theme for the week. While I like variety, I’ve found my meal plans work best and reduce food waste as much as possible when I have a general theme for the week. Having a cohesive list of ingredients helps reduce food waste by allowing you to drop in whatever extra item you have. If you go all Italian-style meals and flavors, you won’t have to worry about how to stuff Chinese-style sauteed veggies into a lasagna.
- Shop local and seasonal when possible. Sure, avoiding plastic is important and getting zero waste ingredients, but so is avoiding food that was trucked or flown in from thousands of miles away. Plan your zero waste meal to include local, seasonal flavors (ie. if you’re in the Midwest, skip the mangoes and water-intensive avocados).
- Use the “Incredible Edible 10” concept. Taking from Brothers Eat Green, I love this idea for creating dishes without always needing an exact recipe. The concept is to create a balanced dish by including 10 elements: Fresh, Protein, Spice, Main Batch, Crispy/Crunchy, Starch, Umam, Herb, Citrus, Pickled. Buying these elements (on your ID-ed theme) and building meals as you go makes zero waste meal planning feel slightly more spontaneous! This is a great method to create meal plans that reuse ingredients!
zero waste meal plan list
Just to make things more realistic/simple for myself, I shopped at Fresh Thyme where I can get zero waste ingredients. While I do have a summer farmers market, it’s only around part of the year (duh), I’m not able to source a whole lot of variety, and it tends to be pricey. So this shop is much more typical of what I usually do.*
As you can see, the ability to avoid waste is almost impossible when in a food desert and lacking fresh produce. Luckily, many people have the ability to get to a full grocery store at some point during the month. You may also be able to get fresh produce at a market or food pantry too. Count it as a win if you’re able to supplement your pre-packaged food with fresh produce occasionally.
*Most of the metal, glass, and paper packaging highlighted above will be recyclable through municipal systems. Unfortunately, many people who suffer from lack of access to unpackaged goods are also boxed out of recycling programs. A few tricks I’ve used: bring them to local recycling drop-offs, toss your recyclables into your work recycling, or find a local business that recycles and drop it in their bin (sketchy, but it works).
And in the interest of full disclosure, I also had some pantry/fridge items that I used. I felt that realistically many people would have a few odds and ends available, so I let myself use them as well. In my pantry/fridge (yes, we really don’t keep much of anything in the house):
- ketchup & mustard
- garam masala
- chili flakes
- half head of cabbage
- vegetable oil
- nutritional yeast
- 1 cup dried beans
$36.11. I’d say this is pretty typical, although on the low end of our weekly budget. As I mentioned in my zero waste grocery shopping tips post, our budget is $35-45/week depending on what we need to stock up on. (We live in Indiana – a low cost of living area – which makes this pretty easy.)
As mentioned above, if we ballpark $4/day per person this zero waste budget meal plan should last us four and a half days. Because my husband occasionally eats lunch at work, this should last us a full 5-6 days.
Zero waste meal plan waste
Not much. Fresh Thyme has a solid bulk section, lots of unpackaged produce, and never cares that I use my own bags/containers. I have everything tared up and ready to go when I check out and have no problems. NB: waste is far more than what comes home with you! Fresh Thyme fills their bulk up from large packages which are either made of plastic or shipped in plastic. Waste is far more than what fits in a Mason jar.
- 1 plastic bag wrapped around cauliflower
- 1 twist-tie
- 2 rubber bands
- 2 tin cans (recyclable)
- bazillion produce stickers
I also saved all the odds and ends of our veggies to be used for stock. After that I’ll compost them. Food waste is also an important part of this equation.
Resources for zero waste meals
This is a list of a few great cookbooks to guide you through your zero waste meal plan making. They have some truly amazing zero waste recipes inside:
- Cooking Scrappy by Joel Gamoran
- The Zero Waste Cookbook: 100 Recipes for Cooking without Waste by Giovanna Torrico
- The Zero Waste Vegan Cookbook by Jessie Stokes
- The Natural Cook: Maximum Taste, Zero Waste by Matt Stone
What I ate
This zero waste budget meal plan is vegan kind of by happenstance but it definitely helped the budget. I’m vegetarian and have largely cut out animal products except for the odd locally-sourced egg or dairy saved from the trash (my husband works in a kitchen). My husband didn’t buy meat this week.
Whatever the circumstances, vegan or vegetarian meal plans are far cheaper when you’re cooking for yourself. Try cutting out meat and replacing it with a plant protein – you’ll be shocked at the savings.
Please don’t take this meal plan as gospel, as I’m not a dietician. This is my fairly (kinda, sorta) balanced food intake for the week. Assume I’m drinking coffee, tea, or water at all meals!
Breakfast: apple and peanut butter with coffee.
Lunch: chopped vegetable salad with oil/salt/pepper dressing and a slice of homemade bread.
Breakfast: banana pancakes with peanut butter and foraged raspberries.
Lunch: leftover chickpea salad, sliced cucumbers with oil dressing, and slices of bread.
Dinner: chana masala and roti (Good & Cheap zero waste recipe).
Breakfast: oatmeal with jam and bananas.
Lunch: leftover chana masala and roti.
Dinner: macaroni and cheese my husband brought home from work plus a vegetable salad.
Breakfast: coffee, too hot to eat.
Lunch: potato salad (Good & Cheap recipe) and sliced cucumber and tomato.
Dinner: golden coconut lentil soup and a few slices of bread.
Breakfast: granola with sliced banana and coconut yogurt.
Lunch: potato salad covered with cauliflower cheese and a salad.
Dinner: leftover golden lentil “quesadillas” on roti.
Breakfast: an apple and peanut butter.
Lunch: golden lentil coconut soup and a slice of bread.
Dinner: sweet potato and garlic pierogis with sliced veggies.
And that’s that. A lot of zero waste meal planning just comes down to knowing what you can get unpackaged, knowing what you actually like to eat, and mixing the two in a way that doesn’t get too boring. Good luck!