How to zero waste meal plan like a pro

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. That’s why creating a zero waste meal plan can be really powerful.

But what is meal planning? Really, meal planning doesn’t mean anything; or more accurately, it means what you want it to mean. It can mean just preparing lunches to take to work, writing out what you want for the week to stay organized while shopping, or creating and freezing all your meals ahead of time.

A zero waste meal plan attempts to save time, money, and help you be very mindful about what you have in your kitchen so there’s less likelihood something goes to waste.

Let’s talk about the different ways a zero waste meal plan can be executed.

Prefer video? Here’s a video version of this post! It answers the questions:

  • What exactly is meal planning?
  • How do I meal plan without time?
  • How do I stop wasting food?

Zero waste meal planning by level

Your level of meal prep will depend on factors like time, space, and – let’s be honest – interest in the whole process! Luckily, there are plenty of different ways to meal prep. Choose which one works for you!

Level 1

Level 1 is all about theoretical planning. All that means is you plan everything out on paper (or online – see below for an example of my zero waste meal plan spreadsheet) without actually cooking anything ahead of time.

This is great for people who may not have much fridge or freezer space to store pre-made meals or who don’t have one large block of time to devote to meal prepping. Luckily, the planning stage helps you stay focused and aware of what you’ll need for the week ahead.

Level 2

Level 2 is having time (and space!) for the building blocks. This is usually how I cook: getting the big stuff out of the way. This means preparing the basic items like rice, beans, broths, etc. while leaving the toppings and sides to be cooked day-of.

This is great for people who may have some time to devote to longer cooking items they won’t have time to do during the work week. This is also a great level for people who like to have some guidance, but want to remain flexible on the exact meal (ie. the rice could be spiced with chili and put into tacos, flavored with soy sauce with a stir fry topper, etc).

Level 3

Level 3 is the most intense, full meal prep experience. This means literally preparing, cooking, and portioning out all the meals for the upcoming week. 

Level 3 is right for people who can carve out a single block of time to prepare or may not have much down time during the week. (When I worked 12-16 hour shifts this is what I did!) This takes a lot of early effort but makes the rest of the week a breeze!

How to zero waste meal plan like a pro - PollyBarks.com

Tips for a zero waste meal plan

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

My meal planning very flexible since I know myself well and the idea of planning out all my meals exactly just won’t work. (If we refer back to the meal planning level concept, that puts me somewhere between a two and a three!) I like to have things to fall back on when I’m lazy, but also have flexibility to feel like I’m not locked in.

Here’s the spreadsheet I use to plan my meals:

PollyBarks.com meal plan

As you can see, it’s nothing fancy but does include all of the vital things you need to succeed at zero waste meal prepping.

  • Meal outline: as planned or unplanned as you think you need to be. As you can see, I leave stuff blank for flexibility.
  • To buy: a list of things I need to cook all the meals for the week. This also forces me to audit my fridge and pantry to see what I have.
  • To use: things that are coming up on the end of their life and must be incoporated this week so they don’t go to waste!
  • Go-to meals: if I don’t feel like making a particular meal or want something different, these are the basics I always turn to. The highlighted items are what I have all the ingredients for.

An easy, cheap sample zero waste meal plan - PollyBarks.com

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:

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!