30 days of Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

We made it through our first month of zero waste grocery shopping.

To be honest, if you had told me at the beginning of the month that we could do it, I wouldn’t have believed you.

It was daunting.

But we did it. (And we didn’t even have to give up ice cream.)

I first heard about zero waste living ten years ago with No Impact Man. I was especially struck by how the family brought their own reusable containers to take-out restaurants to avoid single-use plastics. That’s cool, I thought, but pretty weird.

A lot has changed in ten years. Zero waste living isn’t on the fringe anymore. Now, I’m one of those “weird” people bringing containers to the take-out counter. Most people I talk to want to reduce the amount of trash they produce.

The question we all are wondering is… how?

I spent the last month trying to figure that out.

The picture up top shows my first zero-waste grocery run from a couple months ago. I’ve learned a lot since then. Now, when I look at that stash I see:

  • Throw-away tag on the carrots (boo, so far unavoidable)
  • Throw-away sticker on the meat (boo, so far also unavoidable)
  • Those chip bags are NOT recyclable after all (boo, greenwashing)
  • I could have brought my own container for bulk honey

But it was a light year of improvement from the plastic-heavy Trader Joe’s runs I’d been making before.

Here’s how we made it through the month (and why it will be easy for us to continue):

  1. We set aside a place to stash our reusable containers. 

There’s a designated drawer in the kitchen for what I’ve found are our essentials:

  • Reusable produce bags
  • Plastic two-dozen egg carton (saved from a previous Costco purchased and reused)
  • Reusable linen bag for bread and baked goods
  • Reusable cotton drawstring bags for bulk foods section (to fill with rice, beans, pasta, dried fruit, nuts, flour, sugar, and so on)
  • Reusable mason jars for bulk liquids (honey, olive oil, peanut butter)
  • Cloth grocery bagsWhen I’m going grocery shopping, I just grab what I need and go.2. We started saying no.

We had certainly heard of reduce, reuse, and recycle – but for us the big game-changer was refuse.

It made all the difference.

To my son at the grocery store: “We can get snacks from the bulk foods section. We don’t need to buy anything that comes in packaging.” 

To the clerk at the deli: “Can you wrap our meat and cheese in paper and skip the plastic bag?”

To the barista at the coffee shop: “Go ahead and just hand us the muffins. We have our own bag, and we don’t need a paper napkin.”

3. We planned a lot at first – but then we got used to it. 

The first few times I went zero waste shopping, I left the kids at home. It was hard enough to juggle the meal plan list and the grocery list, figure out the tares for my reusable containers, find where all of the zero waste options were in the store, AND keep the four-year-old’s hands out of the bulk chocolate chip container (why do they keep that at ground level?!).

By the end of the month, I was cruising through the aisles, (reusable) coffee cup in hand, while the toddler banged on the cart and the four-year-old moon-walked down the aisle ahead of me.

(Dance moves in action.)

Like any new skill, zero waste shopping has a learning curve. But it is not difficult forever.

4. We found new favorites, and we learned how to keep the foods we love.

Zero waste shopping won’t work for us if we can’t eat ice cream. But instead of buying a carton (with a throw-away plastic wrapper) to satisfy our craving, we went to the ice cream shop for handmade cones.

When I didn’t want to cook, we ordered pizza and asked them to hold the dipping sauce (no plastic cups). Then we composted the box.

I haven’t been able to find a fully-recyclable tortilla chip bag, but I’ve been making homemade tortillas instead. It’s surprising easy (and cheap).

The kids are satisfied with homemade popcorn, nuts, dried fruit, and the occasional (okay, maybe not so occasional) handful of chocolate chips instead of the boxed crackers and snacks we used to purchase.

The four-year-old embraced the idea of zero waste shopping from the get go. “Ugh, plastic,” I heard him whisper under his breath as he walked by a slice of chocolate cake in a single-serving container in the bakery. A month ago, he would have been clamoring to buy it.

And the toddler ate an entire raw bell pepper this weekend.

I’m not sure he would have done that a month ago.

So will we keep zero waste shopping?


But we’re going to take it to the next level.

This month, we’re going to see if all our trash can fit in here.


50 experience-based Christmas gifts (for millennials who don’t want anything)

It was our first moms’ group after Christmas, and believe me, we were hurting. We staggered into the classroom like zombies with a death grip on our coffee mugs and a vacant glaze to our eyes.

“I was up until midnight unpacking,” said Sara.

Becky nodded numbly. A flash of silver snapped my eyes into focus, and I noticed, blankly, the stray piece of tinsel stuck in her hair.

“I don’t know what to do,” Gina said in monotone, “with all of the toys.”

Have you been here? Even just a little bit?

If you’re a parent with young kids, I’ll hazard to say you have. Especially, I think, if you’re also a millennial.

Let me lay it out like I see it. We’re in the middle of a cultural shift when it comes to gift-giving. And millennial parents are leading the way.

Millennials (those of us born between 1980 and 1995, or 2004, depending on whose definition you’re following) are having babies – and we’re raising our kids under much different circumstances than the generation before us. Millennials have been described as a generation of lost innocence. We grew up in a period of economic prosperity and peace, but the Sept. 11 attacks and two successive recessions dashed the follow-your-dreams, you-can-do-whatever-you-put-your-heart-into mantra we believed as kids.

Our kids are growing up with more realistic view of the world. And as a millennial parent, I’m glad for it.

Still, many of us are caught in a gift-giving tradition that developed during a different time. Our cultural traditions emphasize making sure everyone has “enough to open,” regardless of if the gift recipients need anything new or not. We exchange “just something small” without acknowledging that that plastic toy we’re giving will still be lingering in a landfill 450 years from now.

Gift-giving, as our country currently practices it, is irresponsible and unsustainable. When Gus and Henry are adults, it is sure to be even more so. But as young parents starting our own holiday traditions, we can redefine gift-giving for our kids.

We can give experiences instead of gifts. We can give them to our kids, to our friends, to our families, to our neighbors. Anyone who has a stocked storage room and a garage bursting at the seams is scientifically-proven to be happier receiving an experience (and a donation made to a charity in their name). It’s true. Google it.

50 experiences to give at Christmas instead of more stuff.

Here is a list of 50 experience-based gifts you can give (or ask for!) this holiday season:

  • Passes to the art museum, children’s museum, history museum, science museum, or zoo.
  • Lessons. Swimming lessons are important for kids of all ages. Piano, violin, or ukulele lessons are great for music lovers. Horseback riding, martial arts, and rock climbing lessons make for memorable experiences – and they are activities most kids aren’t exposed to in the normal course of life and school.
  • Classes. In our city, there are several art studios and craft stores that offer weekly or individual classes on topics from pottery to pointillism. Music classes are also fun, and parent-child music classes make a great gift for a baby’s first Christmas. Community education classes usually have offerings for kids, with classes ranging from cooking to woodworking.
  • Sports leagues. Participating in athletics can be expensive, and gymnastic classes, enrollment in soccer leagues, or sign-up fees for the basketball team make great holiday gifts.
  • The great outdoors. The nature center near our house has dozens of classes for kids – animal tracking, campfire building, and bird watching, to name a few. What about renting outdoor gear for a holiday gift? Renting snowshoes, cross-country skis, paddle boards, or canoes are all great ways to get kids having fun outside. You could go further and give an outdoor experience – what about a dogsled excursion? A camping trip? Renting a yurt for a weekend at a state park?
  • Festival admissions or expenses. There are dozens of festivals and cultural events in Minneapolis year-round. The kite festival and Renaissance Festival are two of our favorites. Any local events calendar is sure to have listings for events in your area.
  • Excursions. What about a short road trip? An hour or two drive from our house takes us to several state parks, a giant water park, a ropes course, one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood homes, and a series of underground caves, to name just a few.
  • Everyday gifts. Many parents would be grateful to receive financial gifts to put towards their children’s college education – or daycare, preschool, or homeschooling expenses. Free babysitting is a welcome gift – and if the gift-givers live too far away to babysit regularly, Gus and Henry’s grandparents often read storybooks to the kids over Skype while Matt and I have a chance to talk or catch up on dishes in the next room. I love this one.
  • Give work. Most people have a few projects to do around the house, but need some extra help to get them done. We’ve received gifts of good work in the past, and working alongside the gift-givers have knocked a few of our projects off our list. Yard work, landscaping, and small household repair projects all could use an extra set or two of hands.
  • Give a meal. Choose the recipe, pick up part of the groceries, and help the gift-recipients cook a meal for a fun holiday experience to share together.
  • Charitable gifts. For the person who has everything and wants nothing more, consider giving charitable gifts at Christmas. Last year, I donated to Engineers Without Borders as part of Matt’s Christmas gift – a thoughtful choice, I hoped, as he’s an engineer who has considered volunteering with this organization in the future. You can donate to a non-profit that aligns with the gift recipient’s interests, or choose a small, local non-profit doing good in your own community.

What experiences have you given or received?


The #1 reason why my kids aren’t getting toys for Christmas

Matt and I just took another van-load of donations to the community center. I’ve been KonMari-ing my butt off since last Christmas, and we’re nowhere near simplified. I am drowning in stuff. I swear the things are replicating. They are making love and having babies when I’m not looking. Something must be done before the Christmas haul comes in.

The #1 reason why my kids aren't getting toys for ChristmasThis year, we will be celebrating a minimalist Christmas. Partially because we have everything we need.

But mostly because of this:


Gus has a bunch of fancy toys, and all he plays with is a wooden spoon.

In the past week, the wooden spoon has been:

  1. A vacuum cleaner for sucking up mice
  2. A butter churn
  3. A key to a pirate’s treasure chest
  4. A piece of magic chalk that opens portals to new worlds
  5. A cold air dispenser
  6. A chute for feeding corn to a poisonous snake

Having fewer toys makes kids more imaginative, resourceful, and collaborative, among other things.

Minimalism makes parents happier, too.

Here are some more reasons we’re cutting way back on Christmas, and giving classes, passes, and experiences instead of toys:

The kids aren’t materialistic. I’d like to keep it that way.

Gus and Henry have never seen a toy commercial. (Thanks, Netflix.) Due to careful cart navigation, Gus does not fully realize there’s a toy section at Target. When Gus talks about Christmas, he gets really excited about the food. He talks about sledding and ice skating. Presents haven’t hit his radar yet. Why bombard him with gifts and change all that?

Other people need it more than we do.

We live in a house with extra bedrooms. We have two cars. We buy organic groceries. I’m under the impression that right now, more than ever, Americans need to consider how much we have and how much we really need.

The garbage. Oh, the garbage.

Household waste increases more than 25% between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And it’s not like we weren’t throwing much away to begin with. We’re doing what we can to cut down on that, and simplifying our Christmas giving is one part of it.

Last night I stood in the middle of the storage room, surrounded by all the stuff we don’t use but might use later, or maybe we’ll use once a year on a holiday, or we’re saving for sentimental reasons but never look at… and I wanted to tear my hair out. Not literally. (Okay, maybe literally.)

And then Gus came running in with that wooden spoon.

I smiled, took a deep breath, and filled another bag of items for the donation pile.

Are you simplifying your holiday giving this year? What’s working for you?