To be honest, I buy some of my groceries with packaging these days. In high school it was easy to write this blog as a “perfect” plastic-free website because I lived with my parents and I didn’t pay for any of my ingredients. Now I make minimum wage so I have to shop at No Frills. I avoid waste when I can but I buy regular dairy since the stuff in glass bottles is 5+ times more expensive. I also don’t buy in bulk very often because I look for clearance items at No Frills most of the time. If I want to go to Bulk Barn it’s a further drive and I don’t have gas money. When I’m older I can be more conscious about what I buy but right now I don’t have the money or time to shop at multiple grocery stores. This is actually an informative experience because its showing me how being a “perfect” zero waster is inaccessible to a lot of people. I’m simply too poor. We need more solutions to deal with waste that don’t require average people to bankrupt themselves. Why should I have to pay extra money out of my meager paycheck to compensate for the fact that corporations manufacture enormously vast quantities of waste? Why aren’t they held accountable for that? Maybe they could hire some engineers to design new materials and downsize their packaging. Or maybe they could give grants to poor municipalities to build composting facilities. If you have any more ideas along those lines please leave them in the comments! I am curious to hear what other people think about this. That said, here are some ways that I save time and money these days – and sometimes manage to cut down on waste.
- Make pancake batter and store it in your fridge. I was a baker in one of the kitchens I worked in, and I learned that some batters can be made ahead and stored for a week or even 10 days. So I make pancake batter, store it in empty yogurt containers in my fridge, and fry up pancakes quickly on busy mornings. Yogurt containers are plastic but I like to repurpose what I can. There is yogurt from a biodynamic farm sold in returnable glass jars in Guelph, but it’s $6 which is too expensive for a student budget. So I buy the $2 plastic quarts and reuse the containers. They are actually really handy not just in the kitchen but in general. I will write a post about that sometime.
- Make a big batch of oatmeal and store it in your fridge. If you reheat oatmeal in a pot with a bit of water, you can get it back to the same consistency as hot oatmeal. You can do this in the microwave too. I like doing this in the morning because its faster than cooking oatmeal from scratch. It takes about the same amount of time as making a packet of instant oatmeal.
- Soup is a great thing to bring on the go (if you have a way to heat it up). There are a couple microwaves on campus, so I bring soup from home in a jar and heat it up and eat it here. I like simple blended vegetable soups because they’re easy and quick to make and they help me up my vegetable intake. I’ll post an easy vegetable soup recipe next.
- Hardboiled eggs are another great thing to eat. Eggs are super cheap and if you make a big batch of hardboiled eggs then you can have them ready to go from your fridge. At some farmers’ markets, you can give empty egg cartons to egg vendors and they can reuse them. I’m able to do that in Guelph, but I’m not sure about other places. In some places this isn’t allowed because it’s not considered sanitary. If this isn’t allowed at your farmers’ market, egg containers are compostable and recyclable.
- Cook a pound of of dry beans in a large pot and freeze them in containers for use in individual recipes. I wrote a post about how to cook black beans a few years ago. Cooking times vary from bean to bean, but the cooking process is basically the same for most beans: soak, drain, add to a pot with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Before you remove the beans from the heat, take out a spoonful of beans and check them for tenderness. Wait for the beans to cool then transfer them to jars or containers of your choice. Leave at least an inch of headspace, especially if you’re using glass! Food expands when it freezes and glass jars can explode in your freezer. Transfer the containers of beans to the freezer and thaw as needed for refried beans, hummus or whatever you want to make with them! Making a big batch doesn’t save as much time as eating canned beans, but the significant cost savings make it worth it to do this. A pound of typical dry beans (chickpeas, pintos, etc.) costs no more than $2.50. So when I cook a pound of dry beans, I get probably the equivalent of four to five cans for the price of one! Even if you consider the cost of electricity/gas for your stove and water, this saves money. Last point: I add a strip (1-2 inches) of kombu seaweed to the soaking water and cook the beans with that same strip of seaweed as well. This seriously works to make the beans more digestible.
- Carry fruit with you. This sounds like pretty straightforward and simple advice, but I’m serious. If you have fruit with you, you’ll be less likely to make an expensive packaged vending machine impulse buy of candy or chips. Sometimes if I’ve been studying for a while, I get bored and I just want to eat something for the sake of it. Eating out of boredom is a bad habit, but eating fruit is generally pretty harmless.
- If you buy cheese, shredded cheese is more expensive and has more packaging. A brick of cheese is packaged in plastic too but it’s less plastic and its cheaper for the same amount of cheese. I like to buy cheese on sale then shred and freeze it.
Wonderful post which, unfortunately, hits the real issue: consumers are often forced to buy packaging they don’t want. I live north of Atlanta in a small town, and although I’m a member of a CSA, I still have to buy from grocery stores that use lots of plastic packaging for produce. So frustrating!
Thanks for your post.
You make lots of great points here, including demonstrating really well that by having confidence in the kitchen and thinking ahead you can save a ton of money, in addition to cutting down on waste. Also something that I sometimes forget, that just because I’m not doing the zero waste thing perfectly, anything I can do is better than not even trying. Life is a compromise for sure. And I did not know that about pancake batter! I’d have thought 2 days tops! Is that still using fresh eggs and milk?
Yes I use fresh eggs and milk!
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great post. A chef told me 24 hours only for pancake batter, due to the eggs. I trust him because sometimes I would be unsure if something was still safe to eat and he would give me a disparaging look and say, of course it is! In other words, he is only cautious where caution is due.
When I was at university (nearly 30 years ago) I took a food thermos everyday with my soup or veg stew in it – no need to find a microwave to reheat! All these years later I am still carrying my thermos to work. My colleagues are jealous of my lunches!
On the subject of pre-grated cheese, I recently read that it contains wood pulp to prevent the cheese sticking together. Another good reason to grate your own. Weirdly grated cheese is often cheaper now in our supermarkets, but I won’t be buying it.
Mostly importantly, don’t feel guilty for what you cannot afford or achieve. I used to turn myself inside out trying to be completely zero waste/ethical/organic/local etc….Now I do my best but put pressure on those who are creating the system and the waste in the first place – manufacturers and supermarkets for example. I regularly write letters, and when I was your age sometimes posted the packaging back to companies – eg for sanitary pads with the peel off strips and individual wrappers!
PS Jack Monroe at Cooking on a Bootstrap always has great, cheap recipes. Her back story is very inspiring.
Great post. It can be difficult sometimes to do things “perfectly” but even making any effort at all is better than none! I have found a place here that sells large blocks of organic cheese (2 lbs), so I only need one every 2 months or so, saving a lot of packaging. Same applies to another guilty pleasure: potato chips. I calculated that buying the largest possible bag of chips (crisps) reduces packaging by 90% compared to buying several of the smallest bags! https://greenstarsproject.org/2017/09/08/potato-chips-snacks-sustainable-compostable-packaging/
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This was really helpful! Would it be possible to see your pantry essentials?
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Great post.I liked the healthy lunch ideas without use of harmful packaging.Since I’m a graduate in chemistry I can relate to the harmful effects.I think that would be better if you decrease the use of microwave to minimum by opting more for lunch options which don’t need microwave heating afterwards such as freshfruits,pancakes etc since microwave has its own harmful effects.
Love this! We as individuals can do our party but exactly, what about corporations and even businesses? We need small and big ideas, agreed!