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Ultimate Guide to Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

Ultimate Guide to Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

Zero Waste Kitchen

Last Updated on April 3, 2020

Food packaging probably makes up a large portion of your weekly waste. Going to the grocery store is almost universal, and it’s something we do about once a week.

It’s one of the easiest and biggest ways you can make an impact. Not just how you buy it, but also what you buy.

The Ultimate Guide to Zero Waste Grocery Shopping from www.goingzerowaste.com #zerowaste #groceryshopping #ecofriendly #plasticfree #reduceplastic

farmers markets:

My favorite place to shop is the farmers market. I love buying directly from the farmer.

I get a better deal, the farm gets a better deal, and I can get everything package free. If there’s a rubber band around the produce, I give it back, and they’ll reuse it.

Also, if something is packaged, don’t be afraid to ask for it package free. I’ve found that most people are incredibly accommodating. 

A typical conversation goes like this:

Kathryn: “I don’t buy anything in plastic or packaging in general, but I really want to buy this.”

Farmer: “Of course! Let me bring this in a reusable container with my logo on it next week,” or, “Of course, I’ll reuse this packaging and I can put it directly in your container.”

See…. easy! Just talk to people. 

I know it can be scary; I’m used to hiding behind a computer screen, myself. Having human interaction can be terrifying, but most of the humans I interact with are pretty cool and super accommodating. 

I buy most of my vegetables loose.

I find you don’t really need to keep them together in a bag unless it’s a whole bunch of small things like mushrooms or spinach leaves, etc. 

I think it’s really important to buy seasonally and locally.

Not only is it better for your wallet, but the food tastes better, it’s fresher, and it didn’t have to travel as far which lowers it’s carbon footprint.

Now let’s get to the hard part….

the bulk section:

step one:

Obtain a container.

Now this can be any type of container a mason jar, cloth bag, a stainless steel tin, glass snapware, I’ve even brought my crockpot. True story. 

step two:

Weigh container.

Now, you can weigh these at home on a kitchen scale or go to the counter at your local health food store and they’ll weigh them for you.

  • 32oz Mason Jar: 1.02lbs
  • 16oz Mason Jar: .65lbs
  • 8oz Mason Jar: .38lbs

The weights above can be used as a reference as most traditional mason jars weight around that much.  

This weight is called the tare rhymes with pear, mare, and care.

And, you’ll want to notate it on your container. 

step three:

Fill container.

This is where you have some creative license. 

step four:

PLU (price look up)

The PLU or Bin# is what the cashiers type in to associate your jar with the product. 

So, lets take the maple syrup for example. It’s bin 6850.  (It’s in the corner of the tag behind my face.) 

You can write that on your jar with a wax pen or glass writing pen or you can do my new favorite thing – take a picture of the PLU with your phone! 

That way I don’t have to worry about writing the wrong number or not being able to read my writing. (Which happens way more often than you think. Bonus – waste free.)

step five:

check out and dig in! 

Now, you’ll want to proudly head to the register with your filled jars and cloth bags. (I don’t weigh my cloth bags because they’re so light)

The cashier will set your jar on the scale, subtract the tare weight and ask you what is inside.

You’ll pull up the codes on your phone and they’ll charge you for exactly what you bought!

Then go celebrate by eating all of your goodies. Why, yes, this is a picture of me sitting down and pigging out. 

Wasn’t that easy? 

A Note: If it’s your first time in a new store, it’s always good to double check the store has taring capabilities before you fill up a jar and try to check out. (I made the mistake once – oops.)

And the hardest part…

butcher:

If you buy meat, you’ll have a similar interaction at the butcher or meat counter.

They’ll set your jar or container or crock pot on the scale, and press the tare button to zero out the weight.

Then they’ll fill it with what ever you desire, charging you only for what you’re purchasing and not the weight of your jar.

This works the same at the cheese counter, fish counter, deli, or anywhere else you want to get something to go in your own container.

I don’t eat meat, but I still buy meat for my boyfriend.

I’m extremely proud of him, he’s reduced his consumption down to less than a pound a week. 

I find this topic to be very sensitive for most people. (hence all of the hate mail I get. 😉 In case you’re wondering, I don’t have any desire to control another human being – nor do I want to.) 

I think we should all focus on reducing meat and dairy consumption. The average American consumes 270 pounds of meat a year! We can all cut back. 

But, I can’t make any decision on how much you cut back. Only you know what’s good for you and your body.

I think it’s most important for us all to be kind to each other. Everyone is on a different journey and different place in their journey. 

All I ask is that if you eat meat that you try and source your proteins from sustainable sources.

And, to bring it back up on a positive note! Here are some pictures of my reusable bags and jars.

Don’t feel you need to buy new jars to fill up. I found most of mine from the thrift store or you can use glass jam jars or marinara or anything you buy in jars. 

I sewed some produce bags from 100% cotton pillow cases I bought from the thrift store.

I used some old dust bags from shoes and purses. And, I bought one set on amazon

If you don’t have access to a lot of bulk, you should check out my post on how to shop when you don’t have bulk options

Are you feeling brave enough to go on a zero waste shopping trip? 

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  1. I have to ask where you were able to find peanut butter cups in bulk? I have a major addiction to the dark chocolate ones from TJ’s, and I would love to find a package free alternative 🙂

  2. Well that just made my day! Organic would be a step up from what I’m currently buying! Thank goodness I don’t have to give up peanut butter cups! haaa.

  3. Hey my dear, I have a meat question. When you cook meat for your boyfriend and their is fat or grease left in the pan, what do you do with the remains? I always used to save it in a glass jar in the fridge until that was full then throw it away. Because I know it is not good to put it down the drain.

    Any suggestions?

  4. Vegan here, with an omnivorous boyfriend!

    Dude, that sucks that you get hate mail over something like that! I mean animal agriculture is horrible and they all end up with the same outcome which is horrible and all, but I agree with you. We can only lead by example; if we try to control anyone we’ll of just get resentment and resistance!

    My boyfriend of 8 years (been vegan for ~7) told me recently that when we live together, he could see himself eating vegan at home (somebody doesn’t know how to cook, while someone else is a hobbyist vegan food blogger). Not 100% but it’ll be such a drastic improvement!

    1. Thank you!!!! Yeah, I shrug most of it off. But, once I got three emails in one day – I was so mad. Lol. I love that he’s being so supportive of trying your food!! I’m sure he’s going to love it! 🙂

  5. Thanks for that super helpful post! I love your blog and can’t wait to continue reading…. 🙂

  6. Thanks for talking about meat! 😀 And keep going, even if you get the hate mail! I was brought up vegetarian and I’m now slowly cutting out my dairy, but my boyfriend eats meat. He only has it once or twice a week and he either buys locally and organically or shoots it himself. I personally don’t have a problem with it, but I feel like we’re constantly told that we should be controlling our s.o….. so it’s refreshing to hear that you’re not!
    My boyfriend and I now live together, and when I’m cooking he doesn’t eat meat anyway – because I’ve never cooked or eaten it….Not sure I want to risk the food poisoning!! So naturally, he’s cut down on his meat consumption anyway. These things seem to happen naturally and at their own pace anyway, so I don’t think we should force them!

    1. Hello Katie and Kathryn,

      Yes! Thank you for commenting on meat. I am slowly cutting meat and dairy from my diet, but my boyfriend is still a meat-eater. No problem. However, we have the added pressure of him being in residency, so I handle all the cooking. I keep teeter-tottering between not feeding him any meat, or feeling pressured to eat meat myself because I don’t want to cook twice. Could you direct me to one of your articles on cooking and meal prep in light of your fiancé eating meat?

      Thank you 🙂

      1. Hey Julie, type meal prep/plan into the blog and a whole bunch of posts will pop-up. Also, thank you for reminding me to write a whole post on interdietary relationships, I will write that very soon.

    2. Thank you for this comment! Yes, I hate the idea of controlling someone especially significant others. People tend to think of him as an extension of me, but he’s his own person with free will and fully capable of make his own decisions. And, yes – they definitely tend to work out on their own pace. 🙂 🙂

  7. I live in Australia and have been starting to adopt more waste free shopping methods and loving it. My biggest issue is the butcher – a few times I’ve asked them to put the meat straight into my container as I’m trying to reduce my plastic bag use and they say yes but then use a plastic bag to pick it up and place it in, then throw out the bag! Very frustrating… Some have also refused it due to health regulations. Any suggestions?

    1. You can’t control people’s business practices. So, if they don’t want to do it, you can ask them to quote the health food and regulation citing that you can’t bring your own containers. There isn’t one in America. I don’t know about Australia. And, it’s frustrating that they use plastic, some people here will put my container on the scale – others won’t. I learned it’s just best to operate by the motto, "Not my trash; not my problem." to avoid driving myself and others insane. 😉

  8. I think you are awesome, and an inspiration. You seem really nice and thoughtful and considerate of everyone’s lifestyles. It’s not so easy sometimes to find women outside of family and friends to look up to. As a young female I hope I can find more and more reasons to look up to you! This post is amazing and life changing. I hope I can be more like you one day and my dream is to live completely off-grid in a zero-waste home, down to the plumbing. This blog is important, and I just want to let you know that you’re changing at least one person’s life for the better with it. God bless!

  9. Just yesterday, I ventured out to Whole Foods to buy a few bulk items in my new mesh produce bags. They are so light I felt like they were an easy first step, so I grabbed my almonds and coffee beans and made my way to the check out. The guy was so weird about there not being a tare number on them, it totally deflated my excitement! They must be a fraction of a fraction of a fraction heavier than the regular plastic bags, have you ever had anyone be annoyed about not having the tare for a cloth or mesh bag?

    1. I have had these problems at Whole Foods!!! And sounds like the same produce bags I use that are white nylon mesh (that WF actually sells too). I never used to tare them or ask for it there until a nice cashier did it and told me the tare code (3). So I started telling the cashier every time, but then I ran into one who insisted that they "don’t tare these bags" even as I argued with them. Soooo annoying.
      It’s fine when you’re buying something that’s $1/lb because it’s just pennies but when it’s $8/lb turmeric, yo, that is about 25 cents extra when you do the math for a bag that weighs half an ounce! (as mine do)
      So here’s what I have to say – weigh your produce bags at home and take them to the customer service desk to find out the tare code. Then be prepared to deal with any clueless cashiers and stand your ground! I’d ask them to get a manager if they fight me on it.

    2. Interesting. I have never had that happen. It’s in the favor of the store. I don’t see why they’d complain? I never tare my bags… He must have just been in a bad mood. I’m sorry about that. Hopefully you’ll get some one a little better next time.

  10. And what do you do when they tell you that no they are not going to minus the weight of your jar or bag or they look at you blankly because they are confused by the math.

  11. Another thing people can do to buy in bulk if you don’t want to/aren’t able to do tares on jars at stores is to buy a bunch of reusable produce bags on amazon. It is like $20 for a set of 18 in different sizes. They are really fine mesh so most small grains and other small things won’t fall through the bag, then you can just put them in jars when you get home. They are machine washable; I just load them all up in a delicates laundry sack and wash them with my lights on delicate setting.

  12. I am in the process of doing all that you describe here to go waste free. Plastics especially are killing our planet. I have already made a lot of the changes you cite here. Also making my own toothpaste and using bar shampoo and soap to reduce packaging. If I buy in the supermarket, I try to buy loose, or in cardboard or glass. No plastic allowed. Great post by the way. Seems you have it all under control. Need more like you in the world. People need to start thinking about what they are doing, instead of doing what they have always done.

  13. Since you mentioned getting hate mail for talking about cutting down on meat consumption, I just wanted to comment to let you know that I really appreciate you bringing up the topic of vegetarianism! Decreasing meat consumption is such an important step towards lowering our carbon footprint and bettering the environment.
    My husband and I are both vegetarians and are working on becoming a zero-waste household- and we have made great progress over the past couple years!

  14. So sorry you received negative mail about not eating meat. I am vegan and have been eco-friendly for years but am just beginning to be next level about zero waste. I think that everyone is on their own journey. What initially attracts us to caring about the planet is different for each person and it expands from there in layers. For me, it started out with recycling, then vegetarianism, then minimalism and on from there. One thing would lead me to examine another and make new changes. Since it took a while for full on zero waste to click for me I understand why going veggie might not immediately resonate for a different person. But being veggie is part of reducing environmental impact just like zero waste is (to me, they are deeply connected) so it’s worth examining. Thank you for your work here and providing this resource!

  15. Hi, first of all, thank you for your great blog, it’s really inspiring 😉 I actually have a question concerning zero waste grocery shopping. Do you sterilize your jars before buying meat or fish in terms of sanitary care ?
    Greetings from France ! 😉

  16. We’re eating less and less meat actually 🙂 I really want to stop, but it’s hard because my boyfriend doesn’t want to and cooking twice just seems like a chore, how do you do it?

    Now we both eat less meat.. f.e. we bought 500 grams of minced meat in three weeks, that’s it B) all the rest was vegi (he didn’t know 😉 nor did he find out ) 🙂

    Today was the first time I could drive by a truck filled with pigs :'( without feeling guilty..

    I hope that we can continue to cook like this forever (I don’t think stopping will be possible for him, for me it might, we’ll see, until then I’ll go directly to the farmer for meat)..

  17. Sorry to comment on an older post but I found this as I’m trying to edge into zero waste. Although I am not now, I have in the past been a vegetarian and I know exactly what you mean. I still find it shocking how people can be so hateful about what someone else puts in their mouths. Nobody can resist the urge to have an opinion on things that don’t affect them, it’s weird. Your blog is wonderful, I’m getting the courage to try zero waste grocery shopping. I already compost, use glass storage and beeswax cloths. I admit I’m a little nervous about taking glass jars to my local store. It’s a Sprouts Market and they have a ton of bulk food but there’s no customer service desk where I can check with them first. Being very introverted, the ingrained fear of public mistakes is hard to overcome! However, once I couldn’t find castor oil and when the cashier asked if I’d found everything instead of saying no to avoid conflict, I said what I hadn’t found and she knew exactly where it was and fetched it for me cheerfully so I know they’re nice there. I’ll use you for inspiration and do it!

  18. In the last photo you are wearing a red skirt. Do you know the maker/brand? I am looking for a red skirt just like that to finish out my capsule wardrobe.

  19. WHAt do you do about liquid items, my biggest concern isn’t almond milk. I don’t know where to buy that in bulk and without making my own (Which I’ve tried and failed) it’s the only product holding up my zero waste.

  20. Hi! What a wonderful post. My local town in Australia is having a plastic free July, with a long term view to becoming a zero waste town. We have several bulk/weigh stores, and your advice about making bags, taking jars with pens is fantastic! I agree with you and other posts about the intense defensiveness of meat eaters…maybe they know deep down?
    Keep up the great work!!

  21. Hi Katherine,

    I’ve been reading your blog & tweets for awhile & find them very helpful. I’ve been bringing a tiffin type container for cold cuts, among other changes I’ve made.
    How do you take bread or muffins home? The mesh produce bags I have are starting to rip, and the net ones probably won’t keep anything fresh. Reusing the paper ones doesn’t seem hygienic.
    Also, my supermarket won’t tare anything in the bulk section. Maybe they can’t? Got some dirty looks and a hard time when bringing glass/plastic refillable jars, so went back to bags, and decanting into my own containers when home.
    Thank you for reading!
    -Meredith

  22. I agree that zero waste shopping can be so intimidating! I’ve had some humbling experiences so far but consider it a part of the learning experience!

  23. Thank you for the information. Regarding meat, ..I am transitioning to becoming vegan. It is a process. The transition is difficult, ..mostly because there is judgement from both sides of the argument ?? Thank you for talking about it in a non-judgy way.
    My family and I are also using less plastic. This coming year, 2019, we are going to try tp cut even more plastic and all single-use plastics. Thanks for the informative post. I wish we lived near a bulk store. But, we do have lots of farmer’s markets and fresh produce out here in the country.
    Lisa
    From Texas

  24. Of the books and blogs I have read on reducing waste, everyone says it is cheaper to buy loose produce or buy at farmers markets. This has not been my experience at all. I buy a canary melon at the farmers market and it costs $7! The same melon at trader joe’s Is $4. I buy 3 organic bell peppers at a grocery store and pay over $5. I buy a package of 3 organic bell peppers at trader joe’s for $3.99. The list goes on and on…$3 for a tiny bunch of carrots, or $0.99 for a prepackaged bag (with 3xs the amount of carrots!). It’s been a huge source of frustration trying to reduce waste on a single salary. I just cannot make it work within our budget.

  25. I hadn’t considered asking the meat counter to fill my own container with cold cuts until I read this post! I have one vegan daughter, but the other kids like to have deli meat sandwiches. I didn’t have a solution to the packaging as I usually shop at Aldi’s that doesn’t have a meat counter. This is a great idea! I am pretty sure Hen House or Hyvee would do this. Thanks!

  26. I am with you on the journey to reuse. My kids think I am a little crazy. But I remember my grandmother made Jelly in every possible size jar. It was a special treat to get to choose from the eclectic mix of Jars to take home. I hope my kids eventually feel this way.

  27. If you think animals play and frolic at organic farms you better check again. ? PS I come from an Ag background and I do eat meat.

  28. My family and I are also trying to reduce our carbon footprint and organic. Its harder than you think for a single income house with teenagers in Washington State. One of our setbacks is shampoo bars for dandruff. Do you have a recipe that’s cost effective?

  29. This is really helpful!
    But don’t forget not eating meat is one of the biggest things you can do to cut your carbon footprint !!! Healthy for you and the earth!!!

  30. Thanks for the positive energy and information. Just because someone from our family do eat meat, doesn’t make us/them the worst human being on earth. Instead of shaming the meat eater perhaps they should spend their energy on participating on how to prevent those giant oil/fossil fuel companies from polluting the mother earth and be positive about educating their friend s and family.
    Keep up the good work!!

  31. Thank you for mentioning how to buy meat with zero waste. Im trying to go zero waste or at least reduce it significantly. I’m vegan but I feed my cat raw and meat/eggs is the one thing I wasn’t sure if you could buy without packaging so thank you!

  32. So how does one go about finding farms and butchers that cater to zero wasters? You said more about that later…but I don’t know when "later" is?

    1. Dont get into this on a comment thread. There are lots of reasons and just because they aren’t yours doesnt make them invalid.

  33. Omg I should have seen this post last week. I went to Sprouts, with my containers (FIRST TIME BUYING IN BULK) Anywho I had the cashier weight by containers. She called it a Tare and I thought she was going get someone named Tare and I was like No I need you to weight my containers. She like Tare. I am like whats Tare. Well after 5mins after. I understood what Tare meant. Anywho the whole time being there I was making mistakes. But I feel like next time going I feel be a PRO. Thanks for sharing this information!!! Especially with the meal containers

  34. This is really helpful thanks and as a vegan I applaud your method of education without being pushy about it.

  35. There is always substance meat hunting and fishing. These animals are raising and breeding themselves, butcher and package how you want save and smoke all of the bones for your pets as was as organ meat. No antibiotics no fences free animals