Zero Waste Grocery Shopping During a Quarantine

It’s a question I’ve been getting a lot: “Are you still doing zero waste right now?”

It’s surprising to me, because, true, bulk bins aren’t really a thing right now. But I am relying on my favorite reusable around-the-house items and, when I have to buy in packaging, I’m buying in bulk (like $50-pounds-of-flour-bulk) because I honestly want to avoid the grocery store as much as possible lately.

Here are a few strategies to keep your waste low and your grocery trips few and far between. They’re pretty compatible lifestyles, I swear!

Buy Dry


A lot has been said about shipping weights in the zero waste conversation, and I think it’s important to consider waste in terms of 1. how hydrated foods and jars/cans are to ship, and 2. how much less packaging is needed to hold (and then process for recycling) the equivalent amount of dried goods.

Now, I love a bulk bin for dried foods, but even if that’s not available right now, there’s a lot to be said for getting a huge bag of dried grains or legumes right now. First off, you’ll have so much cheap protein you don’t have to refrigerate. That’s a literal stockpile of healthy calories when you want to eke out a third week of meals without hitting your local grocery store, but still make filling, inexpensive meals. My favorite picks are:

  • Black beans/Pinto beans/Great Northern Beans
  • Quinoa
  • Bulgur
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Split Peas
  • Barley
  • Rice

With these on hand, I can make all my favorite foods:

  • Beans: Endless varieties of soups, many possible to make ahead with all dry ingredients and store in the pantry, like Cajun Bean Soup, Split Pea Soup, Curried Lentil Soup, 5 Bean Soup, and Italian Barley Soup. YUM. (I have made literally all of these multiple times and they’re all great: 6 Homemade Soup Mixes in a Jar.
  • bowl-of-soup-and-two-silver-spoons-1703272Lentils: A meal on their own, and a delicious companion to homemade naan.
  • Chickpeas: two words: homemade hummus–an endless supply on demand, without having to keep anything in the fridge until you’re ready for another batch. Plus high-protein baked goods and excellent additions to soups and stews.
  • Bulgur: I almost exclusively use this to make tabouli salad (goes great with the aforementioned hummus), and yet I’m still always running out…
  • Split Peas: Have you ever actually had split pea soup? I had always assumed it was disgusting until very recently when I tried eating it for the first time (not just looking at pictures and going *yuck* at the color). Reader, it’s delicious. You can also put split peas in a wide variety of bean-based soups, with hearty, nutritious results.
  • Rice: a no-brainer companion to bean or lentil-based soups, stews, and side dishes; a meal on its own scrambled with eggs and veggies, or tofu.
  • Barley: great in soups, or fashioned into a healthy risotto.

Skip Meat, or Buy Big and Freeze

Not is oping out of meat good for the planet, it’s way more efficient for food storage and meal making. I mean, have you seen the amount of packaging a single chicken breast comes in? Ain’t nobody got freezer space for that. If you do like to eat meat, be as efficient as possible: try buying the whole chicken, breaking it down into smaller “packages” of food at home, and then freezing for future culinary forays. Struggle Meals has a great breakdown of how to do this (as well as dets on how much money you’ll save!), but in a nutshell, know that breast and thigh meat can make lots of yummy, varied dishes, and you’ll be able to make gravy, stock, etc, to punch up your veggie meals for free (bonus!). Additionally, if you frame your meals around veggies instead of meat, you’ll be able to enjoy way more tasty meals for your meat buck. Try that aforementioned Cajun Bean stew with a little bit of sausage, or Cauliflower Tikka Masala with a bit of chicken and be amazed with how far you can stretch a package of something.

Get Creative with Dairy

There’s a lot you can do with a gallon of milk, and what better time to do it!

As long as your milk isn’t ultra-pasteurized, you can easily make yogurt and mozzarella at home–saving the plastic packaging, and yourself a few grocery trips. These items also freeze well, so it’s a great way to get more mileage out of that extra jug of milk* before it goes bad.

bowl-breakfast-calcium-cereal-414262.jpgAll you need to make yogurt is a big pot (I love using my crock pot), some good planning and time keeping, and a bit of yogurt, but know that mozzarella requires a little more babying and some rennet tablets you can easily and cheaply get delivered to your door (they fit in an envelope!).

*Bonus points if you’re able to get your milk in “trade-in” glass bottles, but even if all you can find is plastic, you’ll still love making your own “tubs” of delicious yogurt in your own Tupperware. Win!

Keep Pantry Staples in Stock

Once you have a bit of meat and cheese and a lot of dried foods, you’ll need the “pull it all together” staples to make meals. I highly recommend doing some research (this list is a great place to start for both stuff to keep on hand and recipes to make with said stuff) for ideas first, but generally you’ll need lots of:labeled-can-lot-on-shelves-2387343

  • Cans of diced tomatoes,
  • wild-caught tuna,
  • pasta,
  • cream of mushroom or celery soup,
  • olives,
  • coconut milk,
  • and a well stocked spice cabinet (with bulk supplies of garlic and onion flakes) can mean endless meals.

Just about all of these items are available in aluminum cans or glass, and you’ll be amazed at how many yummy, easy things you can make with them.

Shop for Ingredients, Not Supplies

I’m lucky enough to already have owned a bread maker, crock pot, soaping supplies, and some serious formulating deep cuts (cetearyl alcohol and magnesium stearate anyone?) since I’m been on the zero waste road for a few years now, but I realize others may not be in the same position.

If it’s possible for you to buy materials to make things like your own cleaning supplies (such as vinegar and baking soda for everyday messes), soap, deodorant, bakery items, dairy/dairy subs, etc, you’ll be fairly self sufficient, avoid future trips to the store, and obviously get to skip out on lots of packaging. It’s also really stress-relieving to tinker in the kitchen, for me at least. (Or better yet, the lab! Playing with beauty supplies is extremely underrated, and if you might be into this, start researching Humblebee and Me’s amazing shampoo and conditioner bar recipes now. You will not regret it).

But if that’s just not possible now, for any reason–and being really tired is an acceptable reason–please don’t beat yourself up. This is crazy. Things are crazy. You’re doing great, whatever that looks like. We’re all doing our best, and that’s more than enough.

So tell me: how are you doing with zero waste? Exhausted or rejuvenated? These strange and scary times have at least cleared room for a lot of us to reflect on how we’ve been living and perhaps get new perspective. I hope that while everyone stays indoors, getting crafty or creative can provide a comforting outlet–and maybe some new skills for when we all emerge.


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