7 Starter Steps to Zero Waste

food preservation helps prevent food waste

Adjusting to a new shopping/cooking/living routine took us a few months. We had to figure out which stores had the best bulk options—and which would allow us to fill up using our own containers. We had to plan ahead more. Gone were the days of running to the store for a plastic tub of sour cream (today we make it but do need 24 hours for it to culture). With our closest farmer’s market running only once a week, we had to get more organized. If we missed it, we’d have to rely on store-bought—and often overpackaged—produce that doesn’t taste nearly as good. We had to figure out replacements for toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo and more.

And actually, those steps were all fairly easy to do where we live. Fun to figure out too. But if you’ve just ventured onto the zero-waste path, all this change can overwhelm you (especially if you have a family that doesn’t share your zeal). To ease into this new lifestyle, start with one or more of these steps:

1. Bring a bag

For a first and painless waste-reducing step in the kitchen, buy or make some simple cloth produce and bulk bags. I make mine out of whatever fabric I have sitting around—old sheets, scraps from other projects, fabric I’ve had for years but still haven’t used. If you do make some, just make sure you use lightweight fabric. You don’t want to pay for the weight of a heavy bag when the cashier weighs your food.

I use at least 10 bags a week. That adds up to 520 plastic bags replaced every year. As a bonus, the cloth produce bags make your food look much more appetizing. Stash them in your reusable shopping bags so you always have them ready to go.

Stitchology kit
Bags to buy
bread in a bag
Bags to make

2. Cut the processed snacks

Not ready to cut all processed foods? You can start small. How about eliminating snacks? If you cannot live in a world without Oreos, Goldfish or Nutella, you could try making homemade versions. Search online for a recipe. This is why Google exists—to find recipes for homemade Twinkies. Yes, homemade versions require more work than buying but consider that a silver lining in the junk food cloud—you’ll eat them less often. After all, these are occasional treats not diet staples.

3. Compost

Even if you do save your scraps for broth, make candied orange peels and fry your (organic) potato skins, you’ll still accumulate scraps and bits of food. Compost them. If you don’t have a yard, perhaps a neighbor will let you toss your food scraps onto their compost pile. Community gardens in your area may also accept your food scraps. My boss used to take hers down the street to a community garden before her HOA set up composting for her condo. Several readers have told me they have indoor worm bins.

4. Get a pressure cooker

Although I don’t like to advise people to buy more stuff, consider getting your hands on a pressure cooker IF you’ll use it. (Speaking of pushing stuff, I’ve decided to keep my blog ad-free for now. The minuscule amount of money I would make is not worth prostituting myself.)

I love, love, love my pressure cooker. If it were a man, I would marry it. It cooks soaked chickpeas in 3 minutes, whole pie pumpkins in 8 minutes and whole beets in 15 minutes. Food also tastes delicious cooked in a pressure cooker. If you go plastic free and zero waste, you’ll cook more from scratch. You may also reduce your meat consumption and eat more beans and legumes. Meat is so difficult to find zero-waste and beans and legumes so easy (at least where I live). A pressure cooker cooks them in no time.

pressure cooker and tea kettle
Second-hand wares: tea kettle (left) and pressure cooker (right)

5. Look for second-hand stuff

I have found so many good kitchen wares at our thrift shop, including my beloved pressure cooker. I go regularly and almost always find something. I have found several bale jars, an All-Clad tea kettle, glass bottles, a tablecloth—all sorts of stuff. And I’ve paid pennies on the retail dollar for all of these things, while reducing the need for manufacturing more stuff. I buy clothes, towels, pillow cases and sheets at my thrift shop too. (When I recently told my ex that I buy second-hand sheets and he said “Eww!” I asked him if he has ever stayed in a hotel…) On my birthday last month, I bought a new-to-me pair of jeans that look brand new and fit perfectly. Why did I ever pay retail?

6. Try stuff

I am not a trained chef and that is the point of my blog. Anyone can do what I do. I think most people used to do what I do. If you’ve never fermented sauerkraut for example, you don’t have much to lose in trying—a head of cabbage and some salt. But if it turns out (and it is almost foolproof), you’ll have gained so much: gut-healthy probiotics, a sense of self-sufficiency, a new skill, delicious food. Plus sauerkraut looks pretty as it ferments in its jar on your shelf.

The most scenic spot I've ever given a sauerkraut workshop in
The most scenic spot I’ve ever given a sauerkraut workshop in

7. Remember: Perfect is not an option

I think people can find the “zero” in “zero waste” intimidating. It sounds so absolute and unforgiving. As my boss likes to say, perfection is the enemy of progress. If you aim for perfection you may feel too paralyzed to start. Better to start and fail miserably than to never try.

If you studied calculus, you’ll remember that you never actually reach the limit of zero, you only approach it. But you may not be ready to do derivatives. You may have forgotten your times tables. Think of this post as the precalculus of zero waste.

15 Comment

  1. Julie says: Reply

    I agree with you that the pressure cooker is an essential tool for zero waste cooking. I’d probably never cook a dried bean without one. I love mine! It also make speedy work of cooking brown rice. I’ll never buy another can of pumpkin puree after following your directions for cooking a whole pumpkin in the pressure cooker. It was so fast and easy! I can’t wait to try it with other winter squash varieties as well. Great list!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Julie,

      OMG I haven’t made rice in mine :O I made brown rice last night in a standard pot and it does take a while. Thank you for the idea! How long do you cook rice for? Someone on my IG commented yesterday that she owns FOUR pressure cookers in various sizes and uses them simultaneously! I’m glad you liked the pumpkin. I’m going to cook another one tonight. It’s SO easy and delicious. I am going to go winter squash crazy at the farmer’s market this week. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

      1. Julie says:

        I think I cook brown rice for 20 minutes once it comes to pressure, but I can’t say for sure. When I bought my pressure cooker (long before I become an advocate for zero waste living), I bought Lorna Sass’ “Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure.” It’s my pressure cooking bible. Her charts and methods are spot on. The pumpkin in the pressure cooker was ingenious!

      2. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        Thank you! I will look for that book!

  2. Laura Routh says: Reply

    I love your approach, Anne Marie. I’m certainly not at the perfection part 🙂 We don’t have access to bulk foods in our community. And I just subscribed to a grocery delivery service as many of the foods I need for my health aren’t available here. Yikes – all those plastic produce bags! I’m going to have to rethink this, but I’m wondering if I can contact the company and be that voice of change. Sometimes at our local grocery store, the organic produce is packaged in plastic, but the conventional isn’t. Hmm. One of the items I buy from them is high quality ricotta, and I noticed you have a recipe for that. Maybe that’s the next part of the plastic-free journey to work on, since the milk we order comes in glass. I couldn’t live without my slow cooker, but I haven’t tried using a pressure cooker. Thanks for all the helpful ideas!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Laura. I have it pretty easy with lot of bulk bins near me. Perfect is overrated. I’m not there either. I’ve heard this before–that the organic produce is sheathed in plastic but not the “conventional.” It’s a bit crazy. Homemade ricotta is SO good. You won’t be able to go back to store-bought. Nice you can get milk in glass. It even tastes better to me. I like my slow cooker too but have to admit I have negelected it in favor of my pressure cooker :p ~ Anne Marie

      1. Laura Routh says:

        I’m actually hoping to move 🙂 The community I have in mind has more options. So, for now, I’m going to be a squeaky wheel with my delivery service – in a polite way, of course! Thanks, Anne Marie.

  3. Becky says: Reply

    For a great resource on making some of your own ‘junk food’, check out “Classic Snacks Made From Scratch” by Casey Barber. It’s got goldfish and cheez-its recipes among others.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks so much Becky. My daughters would love that. ~ Anne Marie

  4. birgit says: Reply

    Could you explain how it works with a pressure cooker and the pumpkin ???? I have one but i am afraid to use it

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I was afraid of my pressure cooker at first too. I just put the whole pumpkin in (it was a small pie pumpkin, maybe three pounds), added some water, turned the heat to high and when the regulator started to sway, turned the heat down a little (but not so much that the regulator stopped moving). After about eight minutes, I turned off the heat. When the safety valves on my pressure cooker indicated it was safe to open I did so. Here’s a post on the pumpkin (I forgot to link to it!): https://zerowastechef.com/2016/11/01/how-to-cook-a-whole-pumpkin-in-a-pressure-cooker/

  5. Ironically (and sadly), I can buy packageless meat easier than packageless legumes 🙁 Bulk shops are not established in Ireland yet, I only know of only one which is on the other side of the island. (It is my dream to open such a store one day though…) 😉

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Sigh. It seems like every area has its own zero-waste Achilles heel. Where I live it’s cheese. It’s going to drive me over the edge. I hope you fulfill your dream one day and open your store 🙂

  6. Catherine Sultana says: Reply

    Anne Marie, very good job!

    Recently, I was talking to a floor manager at my co-op and he’s seeing bulk get some attacks in the vendor publications or organization meetings he attends, particularly bulk peanut butter. Our co-op has it already made in buckets to scoop from, there is a lid but it is stored at room temp. Other local bulk places apparently cannot guarantee cleanliness or use the nut grinders which are difficult to keep hygienic over course of the day so nay stop carrying the products. I believe it was salmonella or possibly e. coli he mentioned, not sure which. Ages ago, I had heard of a mold which grows on exterior shell so I tend to keep our intake of peanuts (whole, shelled or as peanut butter).

    All this to say, consumers need to challenge their vendors so bulk remains available. Also, I always wash my hands at the store before doing business in the bulk area as a good preventive measure and to be mindful that I am handling food (even when just scooping from a jar).

    1. Catherine Sultana says: Reply

      ^^ keep intake LOW, (pardon typo, writing on phone)

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