Tips & tricks for grocery shopping with less waste

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Buying food without packaging has been a major challenge for me. Everywhere I go everything comes with packaging, even fruits and vegetables are now packed in plastic. Although, packaging is meant to keep food fresh, it is not always necessary and it can be avoided. That is why I want to share with you some tips & tricks that have helped me to reduce and avoid unnecessary packaging. My experience comes from my daily life in the Netherlands, but a lot of things I easily do when visiting my family in Mexico or when traveling.

Prepare your shopping kit

Having your kit of ‘reusables’ is going to make your life much easier. You only need some reusable bags and some reusable containers. There is a good chance that you already have everything you need at home.
I suggest you start with:

  • Two or three sturdy bags to carry everything (you can also use a backpack or a basket).
  • Six to ten cloth bags. You can use them for produce, bulk products, small bread, cookies, and even candy. Any cloth bag can work, no special material needed. You can reuse goodie bags, promotional bags, bags that come with shoes or clothes… Or you can make your own from old shirts or bed sheets. Use the lighter bags for things that need to be weighed.
  • A bread bag, just a cloth bag that can fit a bread.
  • Enough glass jars or containers in different sizes. Glass jars with ‘large mouths’ are easier to refill. They will also work as storing containers for your food at home. The best tip is to reuse glass jars from other products you can buy in glass (e.g. pasta sauce, coconut oil, peanut butter, jam, etc.).
  • A couple of small paper bags are good when buying spices. They are easier to fill than glass jars and they are lighter than cloth bags.

Reusable bags

Bread bag

Jars

Make a list and pick a day

When you know what type of food you want everything gets easier; you know how much you need to buy, you know how many reusables you need, and you know where to go. I prefer to make a weekly list of the food I will like to eat and the things I am missing in my pantry. Then, I just pick one day of the week to buy everything. My main grocery shopping is on Saturdays, farmers markets day, here I can find almost everything I need without packaging. There are some few things (spices, granola, beans, pasta and rice) that I buy at different markets on different days. I make sure I buy enough to last at least for a month, so I do not have to go every week. At the end I spend less time buying food, I consume less waste and I eat healthier.

Hit the farmers market and local shops

Farmers markets are the best places to find package-free food, local produce and organic options all at the same place. At least in the Netherlands, I have noticed that almost all the farmer’s markets have the same basic stands:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Nuts, dry fruits, and oats
  • Fresh bread and pastries
  • Seafood
  • Meat
  • Cheese and dairy products
  • Olives, hummus, feta, and some times spices

Market

Besides the farmer’s markets, organic shops are also a good place to find package-free food or at least with no plastic packaging. It is at the organic shops in the Netherlands where I have found milk and yogurt in returnable glass jars and olive oil refill stations. The small (specialized) local shops are also a good place to easily get products without packaging. In every city center of the Netherlands, the most common stores are the butchery, delicatessen, the bakery, the seafood shop, fruits and vegetables, and…. THE CANDY SHOP!

Lastly, at supermarkets, you can also find some interesting things. Package-free options are limited but you can find some plastic-free things. The most common things are rice or pasta packed in carton, Wasa crackers and chocolate packed in paper, dressing and salsas sauces in glass.

The best tip I can give you is that you get to know the type of stores and markets that you have close by. A lot of times you can get surprised by the amount of things that you can buy without packaging. Another benefit is that when you often visit the same places the people behind the counter recognizes you, and it stops being weird or uncomfortable to ask your food in your own reusables.

Jar

Create the habit and be confident using your reusables

It is said that it takes 21 days to create a habit. This will may vary from person to person, in any case, to make a change you have to start with day 1. So, just go for it!

I know it can be scary or it can make you nervous to go and ask the person on the counter to fill your glass jar or cloth bag. Sometimes you get weird looks or even a rude NO! But it is not really personal, they are just not used to it, they are also learning. I have experienced that 8 out of 10 times people are willing to go your way and they do it in a friendly way. Also do not be afraid to leave empty handed, you do not have any obligation to buy something packed in plastic or other material if you do not want to. You can just politely refuse.

I hope you find one or more of these tips & tricks useful. Remember to be kind to yourself; every change you embrace is already making the difference.

Do you have any tips & tricks to buy food with less waste? Share it with us!

Happy Plastic-Free Tuesday!

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About Author

Ambar

Ambar is an ecologist and sustainability consultant passionate about helping people to find their own path on the sustainability journey. Through her career it has been heartbreaking to see how plastic has become one of the biggest threats to worldwide ecosystems. This has been Ambar's main motivation to re-think her consumer decisions and to join the zero-waste movement. She's positive that every effort sums up to create a better world and that initiatives like Plastic Free Tuesday help to bring awareness. Ambar is a Mexican living in the Netherlands, and she is happy to be the Plastic-Free Tuesday Twitter manager and share information and plastic-free alternatives to fighting against plastic waste production one day at a time. Ambar is looking for job opportunities in the Netherlands in the sustainability field.

2 Comments

  1. This is fantastic, basic, useful info for people starting out. I know that legally my farmer’s markets are not allowed to put meats in byo containers (Sydney, Aus). Everything must be pre-packaged off site and you are not allowed to give the market stall your container. However, you can legally use byo containers at a butcher shop. My local bulk buy shop encourages byo containers. You have containers pre-weighed the first time and they can use permanent markers to record the weight on your container for next time, great for glass jars. Personally, I started just with byo bags and only buying plastic free produce at my local supermarket. Changing where I shop and adding more items to my plastic free living came later, slowly, as I found alternatives.

    • Ambar

      Thanks for your comment Mel! Indeed, regulations can vary between countries but it is great to know that there are still options to byo in Sydney and that shops are encouraging customers and helping to make the process easier. I also started slowly. First, buying produce without a bag or reusing the paper bags provided in some stores. Later on, I got some reusable bags and started to find more places to buy package-free alternatives. I also try to keep my eyes open for new stores or alternatives in the neighborhood. So even if it goes slowly it has made me pay more attention to the type of food I buy and to sometimes try things I have never tried before.

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