DIY Tea Blends

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I’m not, by nature, someone who loves winter (resignation just about sums up my attitude). But even I can admit there are redeeming factors: less to do outside allows for more time cozy inside, dark nights mean lighting candles while cooking dinner, and a craving for homemade polenta or pizza warms the apartment pleasantly, instead of turning it into a nuclear furnace like it would have in the summer. And, of course, there are the many, many cups of tea, which help too.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

This winter, my partner experimented with making his own tea blends, some for holiday gifts and some to keep at home for us to use. It was a genius idea, and I wanted to share some of the ingredients we now keep on hand, and how to think through blending them.

It’s good to start with a couple of the plain loose-leaf teas you like best, perhaps purchased in jars in your local bulk foods aisle. If you always have a cup of black tea, that might serve as your base. I prefer herbal teas, so we bought rooibos (my favorite), chamomile, hibiscus leaves, and dried lavender.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

To the store-bought teas, you can then add your own flavors. We dried lemon peels, orange peels, and ginger as additions, but other foods would be work too: sage or mint from indoor herb plants, turmeric shavings from a leftover root wilting in your crisper, or lemongrass cuttings from the recipe that didn’t quite use it all. Drying the peels and ginger proved to be much easier than I’d imagined: for the peels, simply remove the pith from organic citrus peels, chop them into thin squares or strips, and dry them, stirring occasionally, in a low oven (275 degrees). For ginger, same thing: to make it easier to shave into strips, we froze whole roots, allowed them to thaw slightly, and then used a peeler to peel them into wide, thin pieces that we slid into the same low oven.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

Once you have a few different ingredients at the ready, blend away. We chose combinations like rooibos + ginger + lemon or lavender + chamomile + ginger. You could make a homemade chai, a blend for mornings and a different blend for evenings, a soothing recipe for a friend in need of comfort, or simply a homemade version of your favorite blend that you usually purchase pre-made. I find myself reaching for a pinch of dried ginger for tea most mornings, and it’s nice to have it on hand in a jar that’s easy to grab, rather than tucked deep in the freezer where using it is more laborious.

So far I’ve only made blends based on taste and common sense, but there are more formulaic and scientific ways to think through tea blends, too. Friends of mine who had the same idea last holiday season introduced me to this chart, which explains how to choose a base and several top notes that work well together.

I noted recently on Instagram that DIY projects are not necessarily more sustainable than their ready-made counterparts, but that they do give us the opportunity to choose materials carefully and thoughtfully, with an eye toward the sustainability of each. With this project, I think, that’s very much true. Making my own teas from separate components allows me to choose a base that’s bulk and fair trade and to cut down on food waste by throwing extra food into the oven and then a tea blend. It turns citrus peels from scraps to food, extra ginger or herbs from a nuisance to a delight, one jar of plain rooibos tea into ten different possibilities. 

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

Have you ever made your own tea? Or other blend suggestions to share, or things to dry?

(Photos of me by Liliana Coehlo for Litterless).

Favorite Tools for Plastic-Free Food Storage

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

After a week away from home, settling back into our routine feels good. Last evening, as we unloaded food from a lunchtime run to the co-op and set about chopping vegetables for dinner, I snapped a few photographs to illustrate a few of our favorite tools for storing food with less waste.  

I’ve made use of glass jars for storing food since college, but over the past several years I’ve tinkered with other useful alternatives to plastic and disposable food storage methods, as well. Reusables are better for the planet, of course, but I also appreciate the added ease of never having to add plastic bags, tin foil, plastic wrap, or parchment paper to the grocery list. Instead, glass and metal storage tins, silicone Stasher bags, and Bee’s Wrap take the place of disposable plastics, and last for years.

We’ve been turning to EarthHero recently when we need to stock up on reusables; their stringent criteria for selecting and shipping products means that you won’t be surprised with greenwashed items or unwanted plastic packing materials. They’ve also developed a library of sustainability logos that make it easy to tell whether a product fits with your values, and to identify recycled, upcycled, organic, and low-impact products at a glance.

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

As long-time lovers of Stasher reusable bags – for sandwiches, for snacks – we were thrilled by their recent addition of a half-gallon size, for storing vegetables in the fridge or putting up larger quantities of freezer goods. Stashers last for years and years when washed gently with dish soap and a dish brush. They’re sturdy and durable, easy to throw into a tote bag or the fridge alike.

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

For dinner last night, we made a delicata squash and kale panzanella salad, with one of the first squashes of the season. We use Bee’s Wrap every day – to top a bowl of leftovers or vegetables cut in advance, around a loaf of bread to keep it fresh, to open the lid of a jar like so, to cover a pot of soaking beans.

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

Bee’s Wrap takes the place of plastic wrap, and a sheet can be washed gently with a little dish soap and used over and over (and over) again. They get softer over time, but each sheet lasts for six months to a year. We’ve long had a few pieces of their small and medium wraps, but recently added a larger wrap and a baguette wrap to our arsenal. (The Bee’s Wrap variety pack is an economical way to avail yourself of most of their sizes).

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

After dinner, we clean everything up for the next day. I work from home most days, so I store leftovers for my lunches in whatever container I have handy. Julian uses a large, divided stainless steel UKonserve to hold his lunch and a smaller, shallow divided version to hold granola and fruit for breakfast. (We use this granola recipe, made and eaten almost weekly). UKonserve containers are made from durable stainless steel, with a top that can be recycled at the end of its life (though we’ve had some of ours for a few years now, and they’re still going strong)

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

Most days Julian bikes to work, so having a trusty, leak-proof, unbreakable container is key. Though we mainly use glass containers in the fridge – being able to see what we have makes it that much more likely that our food will actually get eaten – stainless steel containers are our choice for on the go, lunches or otherwise. In the fall, in addition to our usual UKonserve containers, that also means soup in a stainless steel thermos.

For more simple swaps in your kitchen, EarthHero has corralled their favorite zero waste food storage solutions here. And, if you’d like, you can take 15% off your purchase at EarthHero with the code litterless2019 through December 31, 2019 .

What are your favorite food storage systems these days? Questions I can answer?

Tips for wasting less food, here.

(This post is sponsored by EarthHero, a one-stop shop for all things sustainable).

Stock Up at the Farmers' Market

How to stock up for winter at the farmers' market to support local foods year-round | Litterless

The wisest words on local foods come, I think, from Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She writes, "If you’re reading this in midwinter and that is your solution, put the thought away. Just never mind, come back in six months. Eating locally in winter is easy. But the time to think about that would be in August."

Unlike going zero waste, unlike shopping secondhand, unlike mending your clothing when it rips, shopping locally as a way to reduce your environmental impact is something that can only be done a certain time of year. The time to think about it is August, June, even April, and, surely, October. Depending on where you live, the availability of local produce in the winter might be slim or none; many farmers’ markets closer for the season in October. But, if you have room in your budget, you can choose to buy a few extra, long-lasting foods now, and store them so that you can eat them in the months to come.

Preserving food need not be a huge kitchen operation, requiring bushels bought and a canning kettle and a whole weekend or two set aside for the endeavor. If you have the time and the inclination - by all means. But for us, this fall has been unexpectedly busy and it was all I could do to make applesauce and throw berries in the freezer and can five jars of pickles. This is all to say: putting up food gets a bad rap. It’s not just the purview of pioneers or farmers or urban homesteaders or the time-rich. Putting up local foods for the winter can equally mean storing some onions in a dark part of your pantry and purchasing a few extra squash to display on the countertop until you eat them. Some ideas for stocking up, easily, below.

How to stock up for winter at the farmers' market to support local foods year-round | Litterless

-Buy a few bunches of herbs to dry. Herbs in season at the farmers’ market are cheap and abundant, sold in huge and fragrant bunches. Contrasted with the plastic-packaged variety at the grocery store or the often-insipid dried variety, it makes fiscal and flavorful sense to dry your own. (Plus, this way you pay local farmers, not a global conglomerate). I think herb drying can be easier than we think; here’s my five-minute approach.

-Freeze tomatoes. If it seems criminal to freeze a peak-season, juicy, ripe, plump tomato, it might be even more criminal to forego doing so and thus resign oneself to months of a tomato fast, the canned variety, or - shudder - supermarket tomatoes in December. I freeze tomatoes whole, with the skins on. They won’t be good for eating raw after you freeze them, but they’re excellent in soups and sauces.

-Stock up on squash, onions, and garlic. All should last for months when stored in a cool, dark, well-ventilated area. When I purchase extras, I make a habit of checking on each squash or allium twice per week, so that I can quickly identify ones that are past their peak and use them up rather than letting them rot or grow feelers.

-Make an extra batch. If you’re buying apples for applesauce, buy double. If you’re buying a flat of tomatoes for soup, buy two and freeze the second batch of soup. It can be a pain to spend time to turn farmers’ market foods into something to freeze - especially when that time could be spent going on walks to watch the leaves change, or eagerly watching the thermometer climb back to cycling weather. If you’re already cooking, though, you might not notice the pinch.

-Look for items that are already preserved. Popcorn kernels, dried beans, locally milled grains: local foods where the work is done for you. If you’re able, grabbing an extra bag as the farmers’ market winds down for the year supports farmers, reduces the carbon footprint of your meals, introduces you to a new variety or flavor (cranberry beans, yum), and lets you find the holy grail: bulk AND local.

How to stock up for winter at the farmers' market to support local foods year-round | Litterless

Other favorite foods to stock up on in the fall? What’s growing where you live?

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Farmers' Market in Early Fall

Zero waste at the farmers' market | Litterless

A rainbow of chard, matching the rainbow of carrots and squashes and the earliest apples.

Zero waste at the farmers' market | Litterless

The last of the cucumbers, to be quick-pickled or eaten plain, with salt.

Zero waste at the farmers' market | Litterless

A sheer glory of fiery, globular tomatoes.

Zero waste at the farmers' market | Litterless

Pattypan squash, yellow and green zucchini. Some overgrown, for bread and fritters, some slender and springy, for eating as is. (I love the biggest ones best, for an excuse to make zucchini fritters for dinner).

What are you buying this time of year?

Five-Minute Dried Herbs in Late Summer

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

I can’t force summer to stick around, but come late August, I always try. Evenings that are dark this early are never long enough for all of the walks and bike rides and outdoor dinners I want to cram in, but cram I do, regardless.

August is also a time to take in the bounty of late summer. We only have a small balcony garden, but nightly walks past our nearest community garden remind me of the riches that plants offer up this time of year. And so, a balance: preserving what food we can while also preserving precious evening hours for time spent outdoors, activities more enjoyable than spending an hour indoors stringing up herbs to dry for the winter.

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

Enter my new favorite method: lazy herb drying. It’s as easy as washing what you pick, laying the sprigs out to dry on a towel, and then setting the towel – or moving them to a bowl – somewhere they can rest for a couple of days. I turn the leaves every day or so to make sure each surface has a chance to dry, and then I transfer them to a glass jar when they seem as dry and brittle as they're going to get (this seems to only take about a few days to a week).

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

No stringing things up, tying bundles, being fussy. Better yet, it keeps drying herbs from feeling like a capital-P Project and more like a five-minute task you can slot in between dinner and a bike ride. Though the time saved may only be ten minutes, getting over the need to find ten extra minutes sometimes means the difference between a project done and a project wished-for.

In my experience, this works best with herbs that are structured enough to hold themselves up a bit. Place a handful of basil leaves in a bowl, and they’ll slowly meld together into a wilty mass. Do the same with thyme or rosemary, though, and their sturdier stems will hold them in place well enough to allow air to circulate between the leaves.

Currently drying at our place, some lavender buds on a towel and some thyme in a bowl. Before we head out of town this weekend, I also want to snip and start some of the oregano and mint currently outgrowing their pots on the porch.

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

More involved herb drying, here and here. (Writing about this appears to have become somewhat of a late summer tradition).

What are you preserving this time of year?

(Our bowl is the Everyday Bowl, a gift from East Fork. These links are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased.)

Decanting Bulk Foods

How to decant bulk foods into glass jars, for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

This is a story about how I own three funnels and need them all.

Let’s back up.

Circa 2015, I was working towards zero waste (still am) and trying not to buy anything I didn’t need. That included funnels.

How to decant bulk foods into glass jars, for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Also at the time, the closest store where I bought bulk foods didn't allow me to bring glass jars to fill up; instead, I washed and reused the plastic containers they provided. Every grocery run ended with decanting a cloth produce bag or a plastic container of dry goods into their eventual home in a glass jar. Without a funnel, beans bounced, quinoa jumped, herb leaves fluttered. Inevitably, some things would make their way from plastic container to countertop to floor. In an effort not to buy a funnel, I was wasting food.

How to decant bulk foods into glass jars, for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

So I bought some. First a narrow-mouth funnel for decanting liquids and (I thought) dry goods. When even fine flours got stuck in its neck, I added a wide-mouth funnel for pouring beans and grains and really anything larger than a liquid. When the mouth of my narrow-neck funnel didn't fit into a few of my smaller jars, like the one I've saved for storing bulk vanilla extract, I kept an eye out for an even smaller version and finally snagged one at Muji in London in April. A set of three is just right for anything I may need to pour, decant, or re-home.

How to decant bulk foods into glass jars, for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Much as I hate to suggest that we might need new things when going zero waste (more on that here), I found I really needed these. Wasting food, even a few beans at a time, is something I'm trying to halt entirely, and these help. This recent article on food waste in The Washington Post outlines some of the reasons why zero food waste is such an important thing to work toward.

You may not need funnels: maybe you can fill your jars directly with bulk foods at the store, maybe you don't have access to bulk foods at all, or maybe you've mastered the knack of pouring, not spilling. Regardless: this is my current set-up, and it's exactly what I needed. 

Other resources:

(Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased).

-Big, medium, and small funnels. (Or a set).
-Learning how to buy just the right amount.
-Any jar will do. (For liquids, too).

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Nothing New: Plastic-Free Food Storage

Plastic-Free food storage for a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

One of the easiest places to avoid buying anything new to go plastic-free is, I think, the kitchen. It's also one of the places that boasts the biggest abundance of special zero waste tools on the market. We have many of them, but we could do without most of them; most of the things we reach for on a daily basis are ones that we've had forever and that serve multiple functions.

Plastic-free food storage for a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

If we had to stock a kitchen from scratch, here's what we might repurpose to store food and keep bread:

Jars, saved and scrubbed. (Or not scrubbed).

If you're trying to cut down on food stored in plastic, you can't find a much cheaper or easier source of glass containers than jars. We use ours for everything; if I looked in the fridge right now, I'd find glass jars holding, among other things, a sourdough starter, vegetable scraps to make broth, foraged black raspberries, and so many other things. Open a cabinet, same story. 

You can buy jars of course, and we've bought many, some new, some from thrift stores. But you can also save them, too. Unless you're canning, there's nothing about a glass jar that formerly held olives that makes it work less well than a glass jar bought new. When I'm buying something in bulk, especially bulk liquids, I often like to save the jar from a packaged version to use. An old glass bottle that held vanilla extract is that amber-tinted color you'd want for storing bulk vanilla extract; old glass vinegar bottles, as I've noted before, are the perfect shape for pouring vinegar. 

Jars work for dry goods and bulk goods, soups and starters, but also for storing fresh produce, too. Asparagus keeps better tucked into a jar with a few inches of water, as do scallions. I store parsley at room temperature in a jar with water, though the same principle doesn't seem to apply to its sisters kale, chard, or cilantro. I'd say: experiment here, but keep a close eye on produce so you can rescue it if this method doesn't seem to agree.

Plastic-free food storage in a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

Plate-over-a-bowl, and other impromptu methods to top existing pans and plates.

If you have a plate, you have an instant lid for soaking beans, putting leftovers in the fridge, and so on. Also in this category: drape a tea towel over a pan of cake, wrap bread in a napkin overnight (but no longer), or rest a cloth or paper coaster on top of a jar of iced tea in the fridge (and then take care not to spill).

Since none of these methods are air-tight, they're of course less long term than others, with some risk of stale-ness and spoilage. Although I don't know about you, but when we have cake or bread or any prepared food around, it gets eaten more or less immediately. So.

Bread storage, without plastic. 

We store our bread in our dutch oven, sometimes wrapped in a tea towel, sometimes not. The pot is heavy enough to keep air out and moisture in, and it's a simple solution that allowed us to finally get rid of some of our very ratty old plastic bags that we'd used for bread storage formerly. If you don't have a dutch oven or stockpot or are simply curious about other approaches, I wrote more about storing bread without plastic, including many other great ideas sourced from readers, here.

One word of caution: be careful not to keep the stock pot on your stove with bread inside - we did so up until last week, when we (meaning I) accidentally lit the wrong burner and smoked out the loaf and towel inside. Oops. Now I've cleared a spot on the counter for the dutch oven to live when it's holding bread.

Plastic-free food storage for a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

Etc.

If you'll allow me to recommend two things to buy, they'd be a large clear glass Pyrex-type bowl with a lid, plus a few sheets of beeswax wrap. In defense of the the former, we use ours for everything from storing bread and cookies and apples to soaking beans and keeping compostables and stashing away food scraps for broth. We have two, and they're some of the most versatile and most-used items we own; both of ours were from a thrift store or estate sale, for less than $5 each.

The latter, beeswax wrap, well, I did without it for many years of zero waste, but now that I have some, I'm hooked. It cuts down on the amount of food storage containers we need, as it turns bowls into covered containers, keeps bread fresh without tying up our stock pot, and is a simple way to cover a pan of sheet cake. You can make your own (look for a tutorial online), or buy a few sheets that are made in Vermont by the Bee's Wrap crew.

Other resources:

-I'm curious about #thejarmethod from @brownkids. Has anyone tried it? What did you think?
-Posts on food waste for when storage methods (and planning ahead) fail, here.
-How to make your own cloth produce bags, from Zero Waste Chef.
-Get your berries plastic-free this summer, parts one and two.

What else do you use repurpose into simple food storage? Things I missed?

More posts on going zero waste without buying anything new, here.