Planning Ahead: Grocery Shopping

Over the next few months, I'll be writing a little more about how to stay zero waste when you're out and about, otherwise known as mastering that fine art of planning ahead. A reader (hi, Maxine!) asked if I'd write about what I bring to the grocery store so that I can be prepared to avoid bringing home any foods in packaging. I've gotten my routine down over the last few years and it makes prepping for a shopping trip a breeze. Here are my tips...

Make a list. You won't know what types of bags and jars you'll need to bring unless you know what you want to buy, so before you leave the house, jot down a list of what you want to purchase. I like to keep my list flexible so that I can purchase what looks freshest, is locally grown, or is in season, so I often just write down notes like "3-4 random veggies." That helps me figure out that I'll need to bring 4 produce bags for vegetables, without needing to nail down exactly what I'll purchase ahead of time.

Pack what you need. To shop zero waste, you'll need to bring reusable cloth produce bags (to use in place of those clingy plastic ones that come in rolls), containers for purchasing food from the bulk aisle (glass jars, cloth produce bags, stainless steel containers - whatever you have works!), and of course a few larger bags to carry your groceries home in. Scan your grocery list to ascertain that you've included enough containers for what you plan to buy.

...And then some. No matter how detailed my list, I typically end up picking up something else that's not on it. Maybe I see that the mushrooms are locally grown, or black beans are on sale, or I realize that I want to make a cabbage slaw and will need cilantro. If you always pack an extra produce bag or two as well as an extra jar, you'll be prepared for the inevitable spontaneous purchase.

Keep your bags packed. Storing your zero waste grocery shopping supplies together - ideally in the bags you use to shop - makes it easy to grab your supplies, add or remove a few things, and get out the door quickly. Your kit might look like mine, above, or more like this one. Whatever works for you is the way to go!

And keep your jars tared. It's a pain to have to tare every jar every time you go to the store. Instead, try coming up with a system so that you don't have to. You could use the same three sizes of jar and memorize their weights, make reusable labels for the lids, or write the weight on the bottom of the jar using a grease pen or marker.

Lastly, what do you do if you need to run to the grocery store but don't have your zero waste shopping kit with you? I try to keep one reusable bag with me at all times - the kind that folds up small and can be tucked in my desk or purse. If I find myself making an unexpected shopping trip, I lay that bag flat on the bottom of my shopping cart or basket and pile all of my produce on top of it, without any other bags; this method keeps the produce clean (ish), and I give it another good scrub when I get home, too.

Most of these ideas are none too revolutionary, so if you have any more tips that you swear by, please fess up! And, if you're looking for where you can find bulk, package-free goods near you, you can find a guide here

Zero Waste Snack Ideas

On my recent trip to California, I planned ahead and brought some package-free trail mix bought in bulk, as well as a few pieces of fruit so that I wouldn't need to purchase packaged snacks for our camping trip. But my oh my did I underestimate how much snacking I do! So, I wanted to corral a few ideas for zero waste, package-free snacks that work at home, at the office, or on the go.

Convenience is one of the hallmarks of a tried-and-true favorite snack, so I've listed mostly options that are just as easy as reaching for a bag of pretzels or a prepackaged protein bar. (Or, even easier, because you won't have to take out the trash at the end of the week!). Additionally, switching to package-free snacks also means that you're more likely to be eating real, unprocessed food, which is a huge plus; switching to zero waste snacks has helped me choose snacks that provide fuel for the rest of the day, rather than just a quick salt or sugar hit. I find these foods leave me more full and balanced than their more processed cousins.


  • Pears, apples, clementines, citrus, and any other in-season fruit (stone fruit in the summer is pretty much my ideal snack, juicy and delicious!). Consider cutting or washing the fruit the morning of to make it even easier to choose this option, even when you're super hungry. A whole, uncut watermelon? Daunting. Watermelon cubes you've pre-cut? Down the hatch they go.
  • Raw vegetables, like carrots, radishes, broccoli, and celery. To make it extra easy, I often pre-cut them into sticks or slices. And if I'm feeling too lazy to make homemade hummus (aka all the time), instead I like to lightly salt the slices and eat them plain or with a squeeze of lemon.


Most bulk aisles feature lots of different snack foods that you can decant into your own containers and keep on hand for zero waste snacking. Offerings vary by grocery store, but here are a few ideas for snacks to look for in your area:

  • Peanut and almond butter to eat with apple slices, celery, or on toast
  • Nuts and seeds, such as sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
  • Dried fruit, like raisins, cranberries, dates, or figs
  • Granola, eaten in a bowl with milk or even on its own
  • Trail mix! Most stores feature a few different options, but you can also make your own by combining your favorite ingredients
  • Dark chocolate chips, wasabi peas, rice crackers, and other little snack foods


Or, consider making a big batch of a favorite snack to eat throughout the week. A few easy, portable ideas that I like in particular:

  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Homemade hummus
  • Granola
  • Muffins
  • Smoothies and juices (quick tip: you can make juice in a blender! Just whirl the ingredients quickly with a whole lot of water, and then strain the juice from the pulp. No juicer needed)
  • Homemade granola bars
  • Kale chips (best eaten day of, as they don't retain their crunch well over time)
  • And a few more ideas, here

If you have a particular snack food that you love, but it only comes packaged in plastic (Larabars, looking at you!), try making it at home. Search for a copycat recipe online, and you may be able to come pretty close to recreating your former favorite.


This doesn't work so well for traveling, of course, but at home I often eat leftovers for snacks. I want my snacks to fill me up but still be super healthy and balanced - I think we all have felt that slightly-sick, crash-y feeling after eating an unhealthy snack. So, I often just eat a bowl of last night's leftovers when I'm hungry between meals. Grains, roasted vegetables, and other cooked foods keep me full and are so easy to grab.

What are your favorite easy, zero waste snacks these days? Spill, please! I'd love to hear.

On Planning Ahead

A Boy Scout's motto is "Be Prepared," and I think it's a darn good one for the rest of us, too. Planning ahead has been a critical daily part of trying to reduce the amount of trash I make. Stores are largely structured around disposable goods that make purchasing as convenient as possible. Plastic or paper shopping bags mean we can shop anytime, anywhere, without bringing a reusable bag of our own. Paper coffee cups allow us to decide to get a takeout coffee on a whim. Prepackaged food items (such as quinoa in a plastic bag) mean that we can duck into the grocery store at any time and walk out with what we need.

While these purchases are amazingly convenient, they aren't sustainable; they all create landfill waste, or at minimum recycling. The best way to get around making that trash is through a little advance planning. Bringing your own bag, your own coffee thermos, or your own jar for bulk foods allows you to still get what you need or want, without using a single-use item.

Trying to plan for every possible situation is, well, impossible. There are times where I've needed to use a plastic fork because I didn't know that I'd have to bring my own, or when I've had to forgo a cup of tea because I didn't bring my thermos, or when I've delayed a trip to the grocery because I left my bag at home. Figuring out what I'll need in any situation to avoid trash can be challenging, because each day brings unexpected activities and errands (and thank goodness it does!).

Maybe all of that planning sounds a little rigid, a little inflexible. As far as character traits go, spontaneity is heralded as fun and outgoing; in contrast, a penchant for being prepared can seem slightly stuffy, maybe boringly sensible. Instead, I like to approach it as an interesting challenge, a game. How can I bring what I might need for the outing, day, or trip without bringing too many things that I won't end up using? What is the fewest number of items I can bring without needing to resort to using disposable goods, and how can I creatively approach situations with a view toward making less trash?

So, over the next few months I thought I'd start a new series to share how I approach planning ahead - for an errand, a day at work, a meal out, a weekend getaway, or a longer vacation. My hope is that we can all swap tips and learn from each other. Are there any particular situations that seem to trip you up that you'd like to hear more about?

Zero Waste Coffee on the Go

Last year, someone at my office circulated a recycling quiz, where we could test our knowledge of what is and isn't recyclable in Chicago. And, that was when I first found out that all of those paper coffee cups aren't typically recyclable, because they're lined with plastic. (Cue me trying not to think about how many of those are thrown away every day. Yiiiikes).

But, good news: those coffee cups are one really easy thing to do without, and once you set yourself up with a few good reusable alternatives, you won't even miss them. These days, I arrive at coffee shops with my reusable thermos in hand, and no barista has ever told me I can't use it. Often, they're happy that I'm forgoing a disposable cup, and I'll even get a discount for bringing my own cup! Good karma, yes?

In case you need some ideas on how to make the switch away from paper, here are some of the many options you can use instead:

1. Purchase a reusable thermos, and bring it along to the coffee shop. I like this Kleen Kanteen, whose cap is lined with stainless steel so that your hot beverage won't touch plastic.

2. In lieu of buying a new travel mug, bring along a mason jar. Use a jar with a handle to protect your hands from the heat, or wrap a napkin around a handle-less one to serve as a reusable coffee sleeve.

3. Or, hey, bonus points - knit a coffee sleeve for your jar to protect your hands! The one in the photograph at right I made for a friend. It's a simple project even for beginners.

4. You can also order your drink "for here." Many coffee shops offer the option of using ceramic mugs instead of paper cups, and I often take them up on it when I have the time to sit and relax for a while. This is also a good option to turn to if you don't have a cup of your own with you.

If you bring your own container, just take note of the size (usually 12 or 16 oz), so you can tell the barista in case they ask.

What is your usual coffee shop mug of choice these days? Any other tips for the rest of us? Happy Thursday, friends - may yours be well caffeinated.

Zero Waste: How To Get Started

I recently shared with a few sweet friends of mine (hi, h & a!) that I live without making trash, save for a few tiny odds and ends here and there (the plastic seal surrounding a bottle of vitamins, a stray produce sticker). They promptly started quizzing me on the particulars (Food? Bought in bulk, in my own containers. Toothbrushes? Bamboo, compostable. Paper towels? Replaced with cloth).

The conversation helped me realize that living zero waste can seem really challenging, crazy, unattainable. Though it's taken me some time to get to this point, it has actually been pretty easy. To that end, I thought I’d give a few tips to get you started on the path to making less trash, if you'd like - even if you aren't ready to go completely zero waste, even taking small steps in that direction can make such a difference. So, here are three simple ways to get started:

1. Compost. Food waste isn’t garbage – given the chance to decompose, it will become rich soil that we can use to grow even more food. In a landfill, food doesn’t decompose, so composting is the clear winner here. Once you start composting, you’ll notice the amount of trash you make dropping rapidly. Food scraps, wood, cotton, linen, and lots of other materials can go straight into the compost. If you’re able to, you can set up a simple backyard composting system. Or, check to see if there’s a compost pickup service in your area using my national composting resource guide, here.

2. Shop smarter. By bringing your own cotton bags to the grocery store or farmers’ market to use instead of those clingy plastic produce bags, you’ll be able to buy fruits and veggies without making waste. Many stores also offer a bulk foods aisle, where you can decant unpackaged pantry staples (such as whole grains, snacks, and spices) into jars and bags you’ve brought from home. If you’re new to the bulk aisle, I’ve put together a how-to guide to get you started (it’s easy!). And, to find a store near you that offers bulk, unpackaged food that you can purchase in your own containers, click here.

3. Think twice. Part of living more simply and sustainably is figuring out what we need to live and thrive, and what we don’t. Though my instinct used to be that “more is better,” I’ve slowly been retraining myself to say no to the things I don’t need. The grocery store sample in a plastic cup, the free pen, the item on sale. Simply put, the less I bring in to my house, the less that needs to go out as trash.

Have you thought about going zero waste? What do you do around the home to live more simply and sustainably? Would love to hear!

Photo of my boyfriend holding his reusable thermos, to replace paper coffee cups - another small step towards everyday sustainability.

Guide to Composting Locations Throughout the United States

Much like my guide to grocery stores where you can shop package-free, I’ve been working on putting together a guide to where you can compost throughout the country. And today, I'm excited to finally share it with you! If you live in a house with a yard, you may have a backyard compost heap. But if you live in a city, don’t have a yard, or are traveling to a new place, figuring out where to deposit your food scraps for compost can be tricky. I’m lucky to live in a city with great resources for this, and I want to help connect you to resources in your town or on the road. Finding a place to compost, especially while traveling, can be really hit-or-miss, but I hope that this guide can start to change that. It features many cities across the United States, including links to residential compost services that will help you compost at home if a backyard compost pile isn't possible or practical for you, as well as drop-off sites where you can deposit smaller amounts of compost while traveling.

You can take a look the guide here, if you’re interested. And, if you click the “Where to Compost” button in the sidebar at right, it will take you to the guide any time you'd like!

Many thanks to those who contributed their suggestions and tips. Have another idea to share? Even a tip as small as a bin at your school or workplace where people can leave smaller amounts of food scraps is helpful - I want to make this a really comprehensive resource that anyone can turn to, even on-the-go. Leave it in the comments and I’ll add it!

Guide to Bulk Grocery Locations Throughout the United States

Today, I’m excited to share something that I’ve been working on for a long time: a guide to where you can purchase trash-free groceries and hygiene products throughout United States. Shopping from the bulk foods aisle of the grocery store and bringing your own containers to fill up on pantry staples is a key part of growing a more sustainable kitchen.

However, certain grocery stores don’t sell bulk, package-free goods, while some stores with bulk sections don’t allow you to bring your own containers from home. And, sometimes you visit a grocery only to find that they don’t offer what you’re looking for package-free. For me, finding waste-free sources for all of the groceries I needed was a process that took months of trial and error and adventures to different stores around town. My hope is that this guide helps you get right to what you need without too much searching around, and that it helps make your transition to zero waste easier. It can also be a helpful guide to reference when traveling, when you want to stock up on snacks or groceries on the road but aren't familiar with the local options.

You can look through the stores in your area, here. The guide lives in the sidebar, so it will be easily accessible anytime you need. And, have a favorite grocery you love that isn’t on there? Email me and I’ll add it to the list, with many thanks to you for helping grow this zero waste resource!