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Five Tips for Sustainable Grocery Shopping | Plastic-free, Healthy, Affordable

Updated: Mar 26, 2022

I used to be distraught when I walked into a grocery store. I’m not talking about showing up for a box of pasta, a jar of spaghetti sauce and a bottle of wine for the evening. I’m talking about “grocery shopping trips.” The kind of trips my mom would take to stock us up for the week. The trips that would make me shudder when I walked up to the automatic sliding doors, saying “Where do I even start?”

Meal planning is hard enough as it is, so having high standards for the ingredients of the meals I want to eat makes these decisions even more difficult. When choosing an item I like to ask..

Is this free of plastic packaging?

Are the workers in its supply chain treated fairly?

Are there artificial preservatives or dyes?

Is this free of unhealthy oils?

Are these animal products humanely raised and hormone-free?

Is this produce free of pesticides and chemicals?

With so many conditions and a limited budget, how can I find enough food to provide all the nutrients my body requires to thrive? A zillion hours later at the grocery store, I might make it out alive with only half a meal planned. All my standards are to sustain a healthy planet and a healthy me, but having high standards can seem stressful. The key is to keep it simple. Here are six tips to get you started on creating your own strategy for sustainable grocery shopping:

1. Make the ultimate grocery list! - The biggest move that finally solved my grocery shopping fears was creating an ultimate grocery list--a list backed up by research that I’d write only once. I found recipes and snacks that fit all my standards and put all the ingredients in checklist format on my Notes app. That way I can just uncheck the item when I run out of it and when I go to the store, I can stick to purchasing those unchecked items and stock back up! I’ve now found out this is kind of a thing and lots of blogs recommend it.

To create an ultimate grocery shopping list, I chose a few main recipes to base it on. These recipes are constantly modified by switching out produce according to what’s in season (farmer’s market life!) and swapping proteins. I also always make extra so I have leftovers available when I don’t have time to prepare food. These are the dinner recipes I ended up with after research and still use today:

Pesto Spaghetti Squash I don’t use cheese, I swap out proteins and sauces, and I throw in whatever veggies I have from the farmer’s market. It’s a little different every time!

Vegan Sweet Potato Quesadillas This one fit the bill, except for the fact I’ve had the hardest time finding tortillas not wrapped in plastic. I decided to make my own delicious cassava flour tortillas from scratch, and when I don’t have time I eat the stuffing with rice!

Thai Chicken Curry This one definitely changes each time according to the veggies I swap out. I also eat it with rice or quinoa.

My lunches have always been random. Lately, they consist of snacks, leftovers, eggs and rice, smoothies, or meals out. Ingredients for these are on my ultimate grocery list of course. I have always loved oatmeal so for breakfast, I chose overnight oats ingredients to add to my list. I eat oatmeal for breakfast every morning and just switch up the toppings. It’s been five months, and I actually like oatmeal even more than I did before. If you need more variety find another breakfast idea or two to rotate in. Next on my list, I have drinks, fruits and veggies to snack on, and my favorite finds from the bulk foods section! (Try making your own trail mix with bulk section ingredients!) The list is pretty long but the dry goods, oils and spices don’t run out often, so grocery shopping never takes long. I also put most the veggies into one “fresh produce” checkbox. A longer list might result in more food going bad, so if you love variation try switching out recipes every so often.

2. Fall in love with the bulk section - If you haven’t checked out a grocery store’s bulk food section you’re missing out. Bringing your own jars or bags and filling them up with dry goods, freshly ground nut butters, and coffee beans is a great way to avoid plastic packaging. I started out bringing all jars, but it was too heavy. Now I bring only one jar for the almond grinder and use cloth drawstring bags for the rest. I use cloth bags I saved from some of my favorite sustainable clothing brands (shout out to Eileen Fisher and Soul Space) and had a store clerk tare all their weights. Then I wrote the weights on the bags with a fabric marker so I’m not paying for any extra weight. Check out Onya Life or Eco Bags for bulk food bags with the tare weight already written on them. I also use jars I already had. You can use old sauce and nut butter jars and/or invest in some large jars so you don’t have to refill them as often.

3. Make a few initial investments - Other than jars and bulk food bags, there are a few other things that will make sustainable grocery shopping easier. You can try reusing resources you have at home already. I use any bags lying around for shopping bags and I make my own wax wraps! You can sew cotton produce bags and get creative for food storage containers. Many packaged foods come in containers that can be reused such as peanut butter, sauces, spices, yogurt, ice cream, etc. I love saving a few dollars with ideas like these, but I also try not to forget that purchasing reusable products will save me money in the long run too. Some investments I’ve made are Stasher silicone zip bags, “nonpaper” paper towels, reusable cups, to-go cutlery (here's a fun brand), a Final Straw, reusable coffee filters, and a lunch bag.

4. Create your routine - Where you shop will depend how much time you want to spend shopping. As much as I wish there could be one grocery store in each town with all the needed organic options, the best bulk foods section, and the cheapest prices, I don’t think that will ever happen. I’ve got my routine down to the local farmer’s market, the local health foods store, Albertson's, and the occasional Costco trip. Sometimes I’m stocked in all but a few items and I only need to stop at one store, but if three stops is necessary it is well worth it for the best products and prices!

5. Plan Ahead - I’ve noticed people most compromise their efforts to avoid certain foods or single-use plastic when they don’t prepare well. If you’re going to be out for lunch you can pack a meal or pre-scope out a healthy spot to grab something. If you are going to go grocery shopping or stop for coffee, you can double check that your reusable bulk, produce and shopping bags are in the car and your reusable cup is packed. It’s super handy to travel with a cutlery, napkin and straw kit so you can eat out and not have to use so much trash. It’s even more economical and healthy to pack your own snacks and meals for days out and about!

Bonus tip: Don't give up! I slip up now and again, but I can now say I have regularly been sticking to the high standards I have for shopping sustainably, including shopping completely plastic-free. Shopping in the bulk foods section and buying more ingredients instead of “convenience” packaged foods saves me money and that’s always a motivation. Also, I am hardly letting food go to waste anymore! We all have different lifestyles and diets, so you have to find out what works best for you. It may take some time and trial and error, but it’s worth it!

The journey of shopping sustainably never ends. No brand is perfect, so no way of shopping is perfect. Instead of letting that discourage me, I choose to enjoy regularly learning new ways to improve my habits. We thrive off questions, and we’d love to hear about your own sustainable journey. Comment below or email us. We’re in this together!

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