Zero waste grocery shopping can seem mysterious to some. After creating such strong consumption habits over many years, it can seem almost impossible to break away from our typical grocery lists. Still, if you have some access to fresh produce and a little bulk access (or even if you don’t!), you can drastically cut down on the packaging you bring home.
Plus, bulk shopping actually isn’t necessarily more expensive than regular shops.
So yes, on $35-45/week, I feed my husband (meat-eater) and I (vegetarian) at least two meals each day. Plus our cat Lunch Box gets her kibble of choice. Our shops are almost 100% unpackaged since we have great bulk options and we try to buy local products as much as possible.
Let’s dive into zero waste grocery shopping on a tight budget, but with decent access to bulk and unpackaged produce.
What I buy when zero waste grocery shopping
As I’ve talked about before, everyone’s consumption experiences are different because we’re prioritizing ethical options differently than others. It doesn’t mean one person’s wrong and the other’s right – it just means what makes sense for me, might not make sense for you.
For my personal zero waste grocery shopping trips, I keep a general list of must-have items. Before I head out to shop, I make sure I’m stocked up on each area; if I’m not, I make a note to refill during this trip.
- 2-3 types of grain. Oats (for breakfast and baking), rice, and pasta. I’ve tried to get into quinoa but I hate it, so rice it is. I also bake my own bread. I know grains aren’t the best for you, but I tend to eat a very grain-heavy diet because bread is life.
- 3-4 types of protein. My main sources of proteins are beans, chickpeas, local eggs, and the protein that comes along with leafy greens.
- 2-3 types of snacks. Perhaps the most important part of my zero waste food routine is being prepared with snacks to fight off temptation. We usually have a stock of wasabi peas, dried fruit, nuts, or some sort of sugary treat.
- 4-5 types of fruit. Fruit is really variable based on what’s available. Ideally I’d buy local all the time, but the reality is local fruit is either just not available or costs way too much for at least 5 months out of the year. Most fruit is used for smoothies.
- As many veggies fit into the budget. My go-to veggies are broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, kale or spinach, onions, and whatever might be on sale. All of these items are cheap and easily sourced unpackaged locally, my main two priorities.
As a subset, I’m also all about buying herbs once and then regrowing them. Herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill, and more are amazing ways to make your food more exciting but can be A) expensive over time and B) hard to find unpackaged. Buy them once, grow some roots in water, and replant for future use!
NB: my husband eats meat but he only buys it around once or twice a month in large quantities. We also eat animal products, but all milk and cheese is recovered from his workplace. Eggs we buy locally when possible. All of this is pretty infrequent so doesn’t factor into a typical shop. Here’s just one of the reasons I don’t eat meat.
The trash I make
Actual trash. Our zero waste grocery shopping trips produce very little in-hand waste. The most trash I produce in a typical shop is a few twist ties and produce stickers. If we buy eggs, we have cardboard containers which we typically save up and hand off to local sellers. If my husband buys meat, it usually comes in a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. We try to reduce our food waste to basically nothing.
Of course, we may occasionally buy things in packaging but that’s not on a regular basis. Big ones off the top of my head are tofu (for me), mayonnaise (for my husband), and an occasional bag of chips.
Beyond what we take home: a whole world of trash. It’s important to remember that zero waste isn’t zero. Even if you’re not bring home physical trash, the creation and transportation of your food comes with plenty of waste. Travel miles. The packaging your bulk items came in. The emissions from the processing factory. Waste is there and it’s something to be aware of.
Tips for planning a zero waste grocery trip
Here are some general guidelines for getting started on your zero waste grocery shopping trips:
Match containers to your list
Duh, but also weirdly easy to forget. Before you go, make sure you have all the totes, produce bags, and glass/plastic/metal containers you need to get everything you want. I’m the queen of not bringing enough jars so I have to skip peanut butter or maple syrup for the week. It gets easier as you shop unpackaged longer, but going through the list of what containers you’ll need before heading out the door is key!
Decide on your focus
Before you get into shopping as unpackaged as possible, choose a focus. Do you want zero packaging above everything? Are you restricting your budget? My focus is on unpackaged and on budget – I set a budget of no more than $45/week (usually closer to $35) for my husband and I and get what I can within that. If I’m no longer able to meet that budget, I’ll reconsider.
Consider your food miles
While I’m certainly not able to source everything locally (or even kind-of locally), it’s important to reduce food miles whenever possible. You can read more on why food miles are so dangerous to the environment here. So buy local when possible, and then try to gauge by distance after that. (For example, I’d choose Michigan apples over any other because they’re much closer and more likely to be shipped by truck, which has less of an impact than air shipping.)
Think critically about A) whether you really need a product and B) whether a small bit of packaging may be less harmful than the food miles incurred. A zero waste lifestyle does not start and end at packaging.
Make sure your groceries are cohesive
AKA eradicate food waste. While it’s tempting to sometimes buy a cool exotic ingredient or something for just one specific dish, that’s the surest way to leave a sad bit of food languishing at the back of your fridge. I like to mitigate this by creating general themes for my week. It can be something broad like “hearty soups” or something a little more specific like “Indian flavors”.
Shop the heavily discounted produce
Not every store has this, but my local store has areas where produce is heavily discounted since they’re almost gone past. This is where I pick up exotic items – like avocados or bananas – that I wouldn’t normally buy. I assume most of it doesn’t get bought and ends up in the dumpster, so I have no bad feelings about picking them up.
Low-waste cooking resources
There are a few resources I refer back to consistently when I want low-cost recipes that don’t highlight cheap, heavily-processed/packaged foods. I love following along with Instagrammers but the constant slew of things like mango, avocado, and other high-end add-ins just aren’t realistic.
These resources great if you’re feeling stuck or uninspired (even if you’re not on a tight budget).
- Good and Cheap: this started as a capstone project for Leanne Brown’s MA and turned into a valuable resource. All recipes are designed to be made on a $4/day budget AKA the average daily SNAP budget per person. This doesn’t take into account people’s limited kitchen appliances (she notes that in the introduction) but does provide unique, accessible meal ideas.
- Budget Bytes: I love the ethos of this site. It believes “you can create meals that you’re proud of, meals that make you feel full and healthy, meals that make you want to brag on social media, meals that will make you want your leftovers… you can have all of this without spending your whole paycheck, buying a bunch of fancy kitchenware, or spending all day in the kitchen.”
- BrokeAss Gourmet: if you have a little more time and like to experiment, here are more elevated recipes without spending more money. The meals are always under $20 so some may not fit the SNAP-guidelines budget, but most will. I like that the total cost of the meal is listed at the top of each post, so you can get a general idea of what it’ll cost you.