9 Little Ways to Be More Sustainable with Your Groceries
Published on October 27, 2021
By Kate Bratskeir
Becoming more environmentally sustainable with your food choices doesn’t have to mean growing all your own vegetables or going vegan overnight — although that would be pretty impressive. Instead, there are tons of simple, small (but effective!) tweaks you can make to your grocery shopping habits that go a long way towards bettering the environment.
In my book, A Pocket Guide to Sustainable Food Shopping, I open by quoting one of my favorite zero-waste pioneers and cookbook authors, Anne-Marie Bonneau (aka the Zero Waste Chef) who taught me that the earth doesn’t need ten people doing sustainability perfectly, but hundreds of thousands of people doing sustainability imperfectly. I try to remind myself of this pertinent wisdom when I fail to bring my tote bag to the grocery store, or when I give in to the enticing smell of coffee in a plastic-lined cup.
So, where to start? Here are nine realistic little ways to be more sustainable while grocery shopping.
1. Store your perishables better
I don’t make the rules, but they exist. Tomatoes don’t go in the fridge; potatoes want to hang in a cool, dry place; once an avocado softens, you better eat it ASAP (or, at the very least, stick it in the refrigerator). By becoming more familiar with produce guidelines, you’ll find yourself wasting a lot less of it. One general rule to live by: Store your produce dry, not rinsed — with the exception of vegetables and herbs like asparagus, cilantro, and parsley, which can be stored like flowers in a vase in your fridge. Also, scallions are happiest thrown in a vase full of water and left out on your counter. In fact, if you change the water every couple of days, they’ll keep growing and you can have a never-ending supply of scallions ready to go at all times.
2. Freeze your bread
Bread is up there — along with fruits and veggies — as one of the most wasted grocery store items. Freezing your bread, whether fresh challah loaves or packaged English muffins, greatly extends its shelf-life. If you like having fresh bread on the counter, consider freezing half your loaf. And if you have no problem with finishing bread before it goes bad, ignore this advice altogether.
When you want toasty bread, you can easily defrost the frozen bread in the oven or toaster and enjoy within minutes.
3. Ditch pre-cut produce
Yes, pre-sliced produce is convenient, but when you stop buying it you stop buying the plastic wrap that comes with it, which is really unnecessary waste. Besides — pre-sliced produce costs up to three times more than the unsliced kind! Even worse, pre-cut fruits and veggies are exposed to more surfaces by the time they get to you, which means they’re more likely to carry germs. (And yes, this call-to-action includes bagged lettuce, too; if you can, try grabbing a full head instead!)
4. Shop with (or for) your neighbor
Cut back on emissions by carpooling to the grocery store, or do a neighbor a solid and shop their list for them. Who knows what kind of difference you could be making in their life with either option?
5. Buy less of what you waste most
Cutting back on your personal food waste can feel pretty satisfying, and it’s a smart place to start when it comes to eating better for the planet. You can perform a waste audit, which is literally going through your garbage and taking stock of what you see. It sounds silly, if not gross, but seeing what you waste most can help inform your future buying decisions.
If you find that you’re always tossing a head of lettuce at the end of the week, buy less lettuce at the grocery store. I think a lot of us — myself included — are guilty of aspirational buying, meaning we buy tons of perishable foods with big plans to eat them during the week. And then… life gets in the way.
When you buy less, you’re likely to waste less.
6. Buy a little less meat and dairy
People always groan at this suggestion, but the truth is, cutting down on your meat consumption is one of the greatest individual contributions you can make in the name of the planet. Instead of looking at it as an ask to give something up, consider it an opportunity to try something new. Eating less animal products means you get to try out new recipes, dishes, and products that you would otherwise overlook.
Maybe you’ll find that oat milk adds better flavor to your morning coffee and it doesn’t bother your stomach as much. Or that a well-seasoned pot of beans is far more filling, delicious, and inexpensive than you thought. And if you haven’t tasted the joy that is crispy tofu dressed in a Thai peanut sauce, let this be your sign to give it a go.
7. Buy in bulk — selectively
Bulk purchases can help you save money and ensure that you rarely have to go without. But it’s important to be selective when it comes to what you decide to purchase en masse.
This trick isn’t really a trick at all: just be reasonable. How likely is it that your family will finish that five-pound box of strawberries before the fruit turns? If the answer is “very,” then more power to you. For the most part, however, I’d recommend sticking to shelf-stable goods and pantry staples that your household relies on. Taking advantage of your store’s bulk nuts and seeds section is another great place to save, as these are almost always less expensive than the packaged kinds, they last long, and they come plastic-free.
8. Demand better from brands
If there are products you love that are packaged nonsensically or are made with ingredients that don’t float your boat, speak your mind. Write to the companies (social media’s good for that) and ask for better. While your note alone might not force them to change, it’s very likely that there are folks out there that want the same changes that you do. Companies will surrender once enough people take their money elsewhere. Really.
9. Inspire your friends and neighbors
Talking about your eco-friendly efforts doesn’t have to sound preachy. You might be surprised to discover how contagious your desire to do good can be! When you tell a coworker about your new love for growing your own scallions in your kitchen, they might just get excited and try the same. It almost feels like magic — and it definitely feels like hope — when you watch the ripple effect of sustainability in real time.