One of the most important things about buying food zero waste is learning how to store that food. I’ve definitely had some major successes on this journey – and some major failures. Usually the second comes before the first. But fear not – there is always a solution! There are still things I’m figuring out, and I’ve been doing research into zero waste living for almost a year now. I wanted to make you guys a sort of “cheat sheet” and share some of my learning experiences with you.
Produce is generally a pretty easy one. As I’ve said in previous posts, bringing your own produce bags makes picking up apples, oranges, broccoli, etc super easy and plastic-free. I wanted to focus on some of the trickier fresh foods I’ve struggled with and share tips to keep them fresh longer.
My local co-op, Weaver’s Way, has a bin of loose baby spinach, so I can just put it right into my produce bags. The problem with spinach, however, is that it is usually stored in a bag with lots of moisture to prevent wilting. Spinach has a relatively short shelf life no matter what, so it makes sense that buying it loose adds some extra problems. My first try was to wet the produce bag and put it in the fridge, but the bag quickly dried up and got stuck to the shelf. My spinach was even a little frozen. After doing some more research, I decided to wash the spinach first, wrap it in a wet bag or napkin, and place it in a bowl with a bit of water at the bottom. This keeps the napkin moist and prevents it from sticking to the shelf. I’ve had beautiful results with this method so far!
Carrots are another vegetable that is usually stored in a bag with lots of moisture. My first time purchasing carrots outside of a bag was a disaster. I thought carrots would last a long time (they usually do) but when I laid them in my produce drawer without any added moisture they lost their crunch and got all wiggly very quickly. The solution to this problem is actually to cut the tip of the carrots and place them upright in a glass of water. This allows the carrot to keep sucking up water like a plant and stay fresh much longer. An alternative to this option if you don’t have the shelf space is to just chop the carrots up the day you buy them and keep them in a container with a bit of water. I reused an old yogurt container to store 4 big carrots chopped up. This works well for me because I usually eat carrots raw, but I can chop them up finer if I need to for a recipe.
I wasn’t really sure what to label this section. By “half-used” I’m referencing any produce (such as onions, lemons, squash, etc) that you’ve used a portion of and need to save for later. I almost never need an entire onion or lemon for a recipe. Previously, I would put these items in a ziplock bag to keep them fresh for the next recipe. Now, I use my beeswax wraps! They’re great for wrapping up produce and are 100% natural so I don’t have to feel weird about plastic leeching into my food. If you haven’t read my post on beeswax wraps, check it out here. I’m hoping to do a more in depth tutorial post soon as well. 🙂
Bread & Other Carbs:
I usually get my bread from the bakery (Panera bread is a good cheaper option) and get them to put the bread right into a cloth bag. This website gave me a lot of inspiration when I was looking into how to get bread zero waste and includes info on how to make your own bread bags. If they ask you if you want it sliced, I would suggest saying no. Sliced bread goes stale faster, so if you want it sliced you should probably stick half the loaf in the freezer to keep it from drying out. When I get home with my loaf of bread, I put the whole bag in a big metal tin. I reused one of those old Christmas popcorn tins for this – I’m sure you know someone who has one laying around. The tin keeps fresh air from getting to your bread and keeps it fresh for longer. Just don’t forget its in there!
An alternative option if you don’t have a bakery near you is to buy your bread from the discount section at your grocery store. This bread is usually close to its expiration date, so if you know you can use it in the next few days or plan to freeze it, you can prevent it from being thrown out. I’ve purchased bagels and rolls like this, and yes, they’re in plastic, but preventing the entire thing from being thrown out is more important than what its packaged in. 🙂
I purchase my pasta in bags as well, and I usually just keep it in the tin with the bread. Pasta doesn’t go bad as quickly, but I usually buy a lot so it’ll last me a while. The good thing about buying it in a bag is that it can fit in the bottom of the tin and doesn’t take up much space. I wouldn’t recommend buying pasta in a solid container, because you won’t have room for very much. The bag will take the form of whatever kind of pasta you’re buying and is much more convenient at the bulk bins, in my opinion.
Rice, quinoa, and other grains I usually purchase in a canister, jar, or tupperware container. These things last a lot longer and can just be put in the cabinet.
I haven’t had to store meat since coming back from Denmark, since I decided to stop buying it to cook at home, but last summer I faced some challenges with storing meat. First, you have to find a store that is okay with filling your glass container from the case. Usually these will be smaller, family run stores or co-ops or butchers. These stores usually get their meat from local sources, meaning it will have a lot less preservatives – yay! – but go bad quicker – not yay. So make sure if you’re buying meat that you have a plan to eat it that week or freeze it. The great thing about the glass containers is that they do really well in the freezer so if you have enough containers, it might be a smart idea to just stock up at one place and freeze some if you don’t have time to grocery shop every week.
Cheese is one of the easiest dairy products to get, although it’s not fully “zero waste.” I go to the deli counter and get it sliced like you normally would, but just have them weigh my container instead of putting it in a plastic bag. Like the meat, you should use this within a week. The reason this isn’t really “zero waste” is that it comes in a big plastic-wrapped block, so even though you’re not throwing away any plastic, someone else is. This is pretty much unavoidable in most cases though – usually you’re just removing the middle man.
I have yet to find a source of milk zero waste near me, but I’m not a big milk person anyway. I prefer almond milk because it’s better for my cholesterol and doesn’t support the agriculture industry. Almond milk can actually be made at home, and my roommate and I did it recently with pretty good results! (Check out this recipe if you’re interested in making your own) The best part is that all of the ingredients can be bought without plastic at our local bulk store. The downside is that it goes bad faster than store bought – it lasts for only about 3 days. We haven’t made it since, and I honestly don’t use milk for anything since I haven’t been eating cereal for breakfast, so it hasn’t been a big issue.
Dairy in general is probably the category I’ve struggled with the most. It’s really hard to get it zero waste without making your own, which is usually time-intensive and doesn’t last very long due to lack of preservatives. This is why the vegan lifestyle goes really well with the zero waste lifestyle. As I’ve said before, I’m not ready to make that step, but I have definitely been reducing how much dairy I eat and try to be conscious about how I buy it. For example, I have a weakness for cream cheese and yogurt, so I’ve been buying them in plastic, but always in containers that can be reused or recycled (i.e. the yogurt container for the carrots pictured above). The cream cheese tubs are really great for little snacks from the bulk bins at Weaver’s Way. Of course, after a while I know these things will add up and I’ll have way too many containers. I’ve been offering them to my friends who don’t have reusables as well, but eventually I know I’ll have to recycle them.
This is only a temporary solution, but it works for me right now. The most important thing to remember when you’re trying to reduce your waste is that reusing something even once, or preventing single-use plastics from entering landfills by choosing to buy things that can be recycled, is already a huge step. Nobody is saying you have to give up yogurt if you want to save the planet. Baby steps, guys, don’t worry. Every little bit helps!
Let me know in the comments if you have tried any of these methods and how they went for you. And as always, if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask!