Real Food Tips: 10 Ways to Be Less Wasteful

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It has been gradual, but over the last couple years we’ve been making small changes toward reducing waste – inspired by the Zero Waste Family and the fact that after an entire year they only produced one mason jar full of trash (if you can believe that!). I am the first to admit that we will likely never even come close to such an accomplishment, but I immediately recognized that we could do much better than a big trash bag full of garbage every few days.

We’ve all heard that we should Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, but my favorite “R” is actually one I just learned about recently and that is to REFUSE. Say “no, thank you” to the free pen at the trade show or hotel, stop entering those raffle contests, and don’t buy any more cheap plastic toys that you know your child will forget about in 2.4 seconds! Already being a type-A “purger” at heart, this motto has really hit home with me. I strive to have all our rooms and closets clean and neatly organized, but guess what – I would have to spend a lot less time doing that cleaning and organizing if we had less unnecessary stuff! So I am doing my best to stop those garbage bags full of unnecessary trash and Goodwill offerings before they even happen.

So in light of this new motto (and Earth Day today!) here are 10 ways we’re working to “reduce” our footprint that others can easily adopt:

    1. cloth napkinsCloth Napkins.
      Ditching paper napkins was something I considered for a long time before I actually did it. Then once we made the switch (and I realized how easy it was!), I couldn’t believe I had waited so long. The first step for me was to clear out a drawer in the kitchen to store our new cloth napkins (they take up a lot more room than a little stack of paper ones). So I finally dedicated a day to getting rid of more unnecessary stuff, ordered some attractive napkins that didn’t appear to hold too many wrinkles (because I knew ironing them was an unrealistic expectation), and came up with a new routine. We decided we didn’t need a “fresh” napkin every single meal so in-between uses we just hang our colorful new napkins on the back of our chairs. I also created a new spot in the laundry room for the dirty ones that I just add to a load of laundry as needed. And let me tell you what – this new routine is easy peasy and not only do we save money on not buying paper napkins, but we also enjoy the more “upscale” feel of using real napkins at the table!
    2. Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.06.11 PMReusable Grocery Bags.
      This is nothing new, but what’s new for me is that I finally have a good grocery bag “system” (so I don’t constantly have bags scattered across the back of my car and in some cases throughout the house), and I also finally got the hang of this new routine so I remember to actually bring my bags into the store with me. My grocery bag system is big/strong enough to hold a week’s worth of groceries – so I never run out of room. It took some getting used to, but I finally have this one down!
    3. Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.07.45 PMMesh Produce Bags.
      I was finally doing so well with the reusable grocery bags I decided to take things a step further and get some reusable produce bags as well. But I admit I’ve forgotten to bring/use them the last couple times I’ve gone grocery shopping. I do have the best of intentions though and am determined to make this part of my new routine as well!
    4. Less Bottled Water.
      If I were to say NO more plastic bottles of water I would just be lying to myself. Let’s face it sometimes you just need disposable (for example it was a requirement that I send a disposable marked bottle with my kids for field day). Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.09.10 PMAlso sometimes I am already super late and flying out the door and don’t feel like I can spare the extra minute to fill up my own water – and maybe I went running that morning so I am super parched. That may sound ridiculous, but that is just reality on a rare occasion. I will say though that we have reduced our disposable bottled water purchases a great deal, which is not only less wasteful but also a great way to save a little money as well. And that’s in part because of how much I LOVE my reusable thermos cup. I seriously bring this thing almost everywhere I go including trips when I bring it empty through airport security so I can fill it up on the other side. The best part about this cup is that it’s insulated and will literally keep ice for almost 24 hours, which – for someone like me who loves super cold water – is quite the incentive to choose this over the plastic bottled stuff that will be lukewarm in an hour! My thermos also does not “sweat” or leak so really a great all around investment if you are looking to make the switch.
    5. Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.12.27 PMBuying in Bulk + Glass Jars.
      Let’s face it – the more processed food you buy the more packaging ends up in the trash. If you buy in bulk it’s typically cheaper and you can store everything in your own reusable glass jars, which I also think looks kind of pretty in the  pantry. :) I am not going to lie though when my neighbor recently came over she looked in my pantry and said, “Where is all your food?” I laughed because she was looking at it! I guess it’s quite a different look than all the typical packages.
    6. Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.14.54 PMCloth Dish Rags.
      I have a feeling I am little late getting on this bandwagon, but up until recently we were cleaning our counters with paper towels. I have some slight germaphobe tendencies therefore I usually feel like our sponge (that I regularly wash in the dishwasher) is probably dirtier than it is clean. But once again, for me it’s all about coming up with a new system, and I’ve finally settled on one I am comfortable with and can keep up with here. I bought enough reusable microfiber dish rags to have a fresh one each day. I just plop them in the little basket of dirty reusable napkins I mentioned earlier, and all is well in the world. :)
    7. TP RollsRecycle More.
      We’ve always recycled, but were admittedly never very “hard core” about it. After a free little tour of our local recycling center last summer – along with some education on what can and can’t be recycled - we finally kicked things into high gear. Down to the cardboard toilet paper rolls all the way in the upstairs bathroom we are much more diligent about not just trashing everything in sight.
    8. compostCompost.
      Composting – or as some call it “rot” – is another one of those ideas we considered, and watched other people do, for a long time before trying it ourselves. And getting a compost bin for Christmas last year was exactly the push we needed to get started. I was surprised at how quickly we caught on to what to save (carrot peels, coffee grinds, egg shells, etc.) without accidentally putting those things down the drain, but what we still haven’t quite caught on to yet is how to actually turn that waste into nice pile of beautiful compost instead of…umm, muck. We think we need more “brown” stuff, but we haven’t quite nailed down the right combination just yet so to be honest our composting is currently on hold until we figure this thing out. Advice in the comments is welcome!
    9. catalogsStop Junk Mail.
      Another area where we’ve really been wanting to “reduce” is all those catalogs that oftentimes go straight into the recycle bin (which is certainly better than the trash, but still not as good as not getting them at all)! So we recently set up a free account with Catalog Choice and have already opted out of about 20 or so catalogs. They say it may take up to 90 days to take effect…does anyone else use this service or recommend another?
    10. ticketsRefuse.
      As I mentioned above…my new favorite way to be less wasteful is to refuse anything that may become waste in the first place! One great way to do this is to “gift” experiences rather than more stuff. Consider going on a small trip together or giving tickets to a special ball game or a fun concert for birthdays. I also love the idea of asking party guests to donate to a charity (Bright Blessings would be a great one) instead of giving presents to the host – although I have not been able to convince my children to try this out yet. I am still holding out hope that one day they will agree it is a great idea!

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I also want to make sure you know about one of our newest sponsors, Cultures for Health. They offer products to help you make your own homemade yogurt, cheese, kombucha, tofu, sourdough bread, and more. If you are new to some of theses projects be sure to check out their how-to videos for information on how to get started and to also learn the health benefits of these foods as well!


In addition to the suggestions above we also try to send an almost waste-free lunch to school everyday as well. Please share your own tips on being less wasteful in the comments below!

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231 comments to Real Food Tips: 10 Ways to Be Less Wasteful

  • Leigh Ann

    My kids have birthdays in the same week, so we celebrate them together, but we don’t have a party every year. Every other year is plenty and we make them feel special in other ways. We ask people not to bring them gifts, but instead to clean out their couch cushions and bring them change for their banks. They usually end up with dollar bills that I tithe and then put into their savings accounts. They have more money than us! When they are older I may let them use some of the money to buy something new. We cleaned up very little waste after their birthday brunch this year and we are saving money for college. Most people seem to prefer it.

  • Judy

    Definitely hit your neighbors up for “brown matter” for your compost if you don’t have enough. I normally throw in some leaves and a shovel of sand once a week. I admit to only stirring once a week- but our compost seems healthy, and grows leftover seeds very well. We have squash, peppers and possibly pumpkins growing in our two compost heaps right now! Lol!
    I thought the clothesline was a good idea- we have one. I bought a retractable one off of Amazon, and put it on the screened porch. When not in use, you can retract it out of the way, and no one knows it’s there! :)(Oh- but for right now, with the pollen, you may want to hold off putting your clothes outside… I made that mistake once!)
    The only other suggestion I have is to plant a tree tomorrow! :) Imagine how many trees could be cleaning our air if everyone in the US planted one tomorrow!

  • Diane

    I love all your ideas. But, you can keep your sponge. All you need to do is get it real wet and stick it in te microwave for 1 minute. Voila it’s sanitized.
    Also on that note, a bowl of water in the microwave for a few minutes and all the stuck on food wipes out clean. I bet with minimal effort, and some “new” ideas (new in quotes because I tend to find the old fashioned ideas are usually less wasteful), and I bet you could get your household cleaners to a minimum and be even less wasteful.

  • So many great ideas! We are already doing a lot of these in our home and we tried to recycle, donate and reduce waste from our home renovation a couple years ago. I don’t think we will ever get our waste down to a mason jar, but I am proud of what we do. But we can always do more :) Great post so close to Earth Day!

  • Marty

    For compost, paper is “brown.” Do not use the shiny paper in magazines, but mail, copy paper, newspapers, etc. are good for balancing the fresh waste.

  • Helen

    Before you put the next junk mail/magazine in the recycling bin, take 30 seconds to find the email address on the back, shoot off a quick, one-sentence request to stop sending it. Also, if you order anything online or enter any contest or even send comments to certain sites, be sure to un-check the box that says “Yes! Send me info…”. For your kitchen compost container I hope that’s not your photo of a plastic bin with a wasteful plastic bag lining it! Skip the bag, just rinse the container after emptying it outside. Use a smaller container indoors, that will ensure that you empty it more often and then it doesn’t get yucky or moldy inside.

  • Katherine

    Quality over quantity. I too am inspired by the Zero Waste Home family. I have implemented cloth napkins, mesh produce bags, bulk jars and try hard to resist freebies/giveaways. I actually met her at a book signing in Seattle where, ironically her hosts had a raffle and a ton of giveaways… (!?) I hope this year to start composting/ gardening. We recently moved across the country and went from a 3500sqft home to a 1500sqft home where I have learned the true meaning of less is more.

  • Wendy

    Another topic that I don’t see talked about much is feminine care products. I switched to a menstrual cup about three years ago and I will never go back. I went with the Diva Cup, but there are others out there.

  • Melissa R.

    For my daughter’s birthday we usually ask guests to bring a new or used book for the exchange table. That way I don’t buy items for goody bags and she gets some new reads! We regularly donate to the library/school/etc. so we don’t get buried.

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