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!

Sponsor Shoutout: Cultures for Health

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

  • Paula C

    My sister makes her own clothe napkins from fabric scraps from other projects. I think this is another great way to reuse!

  • Jessica

    I bought Bandanas at the dollar store and Walmart for a $1 a piece and in some cases 2 for $1. We use them for cloth napkins and they wash well, and I usually fold them right out of the dryer if I can, so they don’t get wrinkled. My kids love the fun colors.

  • Halee Cordray

    You can cut down on your use of paper towels even more by using “old” dish rags to clean up spills from the floor (lots of those with small children in the house), window washing, etc. I keep a pile of them under the sink for quick cleanup. I use only 2-3 rolls of paper towels a year.

  • Jen

    There’s a really helpful app called PaperKarma that’s free to download and helps cut down on junk mail. You just take a pic with the mailing and returning address and submit it, and they remove you from the mailing list. Super easy!

  • Shanna

    Regarding your compost dilemma…we have a naturemill composter. We plug it in the garage, bring our scraps of food down when the bucket is full. We also get coffee grings weekly from our local coffee shop (thay have a bucket to put them it),and also pellets help. We have a trash can dedicated for our dirt during the winter when we build up a supply. It works great!! We had it in the kitchen, but when you are mixing the food and broken down food, it’s heated and stinky…

    Have fun!

  • RB

    Great article! My compost finally took off when I added more leaves in with all the food waste, and when I added water occasionally, either with a pitcher or by opening the lid when it’s raining.

  • Tiffany

    Hi Lisa,
    I’m curious what your “routine” is when incorporating the reusable grocery bag system like the one linked in this post. Do you start out with the bags arranged in the cart and fill them as you shop or do you wait until checkout? Are you bagging your own groceries while the cashier is ringing your stuff through the conveyor (girl, you know the baggers are not going to like me telling them where to put my stuff! LOL!)? I know this sounds hilarious, but I’m trying to visualize my attack before I hit the store so I can be organized at the store as well as when I get home and make unloading more efficient. Thanks for your great ideas and for sharing them with the rest of us. :)

    • Soshanna

      Cashiers are used to people bringing their own bags. It’s 2013 for goodness sake! Reusable bags have been commonplace for at least a decade. I remember my mom bringing canvas bags to Safeway in the 80s. Some places even give you 10 cents off per bag. Remember to say “I brought my own bag” before they get that first item in the plastic… or else that’s when they might frown at you.

      • Tiffany

        Thanks Soshanna, We just recently moved to a more remote area of the country where, unfortunately, it isn’t commonplace to see people bring in their own bags, GASP! I’m the “progressive” shopper compared to most here. We love the privilege of living a military life moving from state to state but it comes with certain challenges when adjusting from the suburbs to the boonies. :) My question was more specifically about when Lisa is using these bags. If you check out the link in the post for the bags, you’ll see that each bag is labeled. Being labeled sounds like a type A’s DREAM come true but I was curious if Lisa is helping the bagger place items in the appropriately labeled bag or if the labels have become “just for looks”. Just curious if she had devised a system that makes using the labeled bags super snappy helpful. (i.e. my kiddos love to help unload so I’m very excited at the idea of them toting their own bag into the house and straight to the pantry etc.). Thanks!

        • Tiffany – I am sorry to hear you are having challenges (or at least getting looks) when it comes to your reusable bags. No matter what – I say keep at it. I keep the bags folded together while I shop and then I hand them to the cashier when I go to check out. They actually follow the labels all on their own without me really even asking. If it’s busy I help bag, but I honestly never do as good of a job as they do for some reason :) I hope that helps!

          • Rita

            It is so interesting how people in different parts of the country react to this. Here in Berkeley there was a law passed about no longer using disposable plastic bags in stores, and paper bags cost 10 cents. I think the same is true in San Francisco, but I am not sure where else. I thought it would never work, but people adjusted rather quickly.

  • Emily

    For cloth dish rags we’ve switched to Norwex. They are embedded with silver which has natural antimicrobial properties therefore making me feel better about having them on the counter with our food, etc.

  • [...] I have been working on this post for awhile, and I found this the other day, which has very similar ideas. It’s good to know that so many people are [...]

  • Laurie

    What’s worse are those tubs of cleansing paper cleaning cloths that everyone seems to be using. Waste of paper and toxic BPAs in the environment.

  • Lindsey

    I was wondering if you use norwex products at all?? And if not would you be willing to try them?? Just curious on your thoughts and opinions on norwex… if you do I sell norwex and you could try them if you never have! Thank you for everything you do… I really enjoy your blog!

  • June

    Lisa, our compost tumbler says a 4:1 ratio of green to brown. My grandpa used to compost forever ago and that was about what he did too. He used to “eyeball measure it” by pounds, so if he put 1 lb scraps in the pile, he’d put about 1/4 lb brown (paper bags from the grocery for example, or newspaper, fliers from the mail, etc.). We keep a bag of paper stuff to add whenever the need arises next to the tumbler, which is in our garage. Shredding the paper you add helps too. Keep going- it does take a bit. I also have a larger pile I started with outside, it is JUST starting to heat up after several months of quiet rotting, covered in leaves… :D.

  • SusieRosie

    When I get unsolicited credit card offers in the mail, I immediately open them, find the business reply envelope and then insert all the remaining contents (and original envelope), seal the business reply envelope and drop it back in the mail. (I do usually rip up the original contents so they fit). This way the company which sent me the offer will have to pay to have their items returned to them and they will have to pay for the recycling costs. Let’s face it, even if we recycle significantly, we are still paying to do so through taxes or collection fees.

  • Steph R

    When our cloth napkins get worn out too much for the table, they go in the drawer with the kitchen towels and become the replacement for paper towels. We are getting many more uses out of the cloth napkins and have really cut our paper towel consumption.

  • Kim

    I’ve been using cloth napkins for years, and recycling and composting too. I need to remember to bring the mess bags and reusable bags that I keep in my trunk with me when I go into the store. I get to check out before I remember. Any ideas? Also how to convince my husband who works construction to did the plastic water bottles. We do recycle them, but, he uses them for convenience.

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Kim. Put that prompt at the top of your grocery list. Also, there have been many times when I have walked out to my car during the checkout process. There is usually plenty of time…plus it is little added exercise. ;) Lastly, the amount of money saved over time by not buying plastic water bottles is usually a motivator for most men. Replace the disposable bottles with a big manly stainless bottle! :) ~Amy

  • Angie Niemeyer

    I love using cloth napkins. I’ve been using most of your suggestions for awhile. It feels good!

  • Tifenn

    When using paper napkins, I only buy white ones, and I add them to my compost. For your compost to dry, buy some peat moss and add it generously to your bin, or coco fiber. I use either if I don’t collect enough leaves to use as brown matter. (The peat moss is great for summer time!)

  • Suzi-Q

    I, too, use cloth napkins & I love them! I also discovered that dish cloths are great face cloths. Dish cloths are not as thick, ergo they dry more quickly.
    I began using my mom’s napkins when I realized I was ‘saving’ these for a generation which would just toss them & buy their own.

  • For the junk mail you can’t stop, make the most of it! (And never buy an envelope again).

    Elisabeth@Simply Parkers

  • [...] Previous Favorites who are less consistent now: Get Rich Slowly 4 Hour Work Week I Will Teach You To Be Rich Extreme Early Retirement 100 Days of Real Food [...]

  • cat fury

    I’ve had really good luck running all scrap and waste anf newspaper through a shredder and adding handfuls of that into my compost bucket as I go. Shredded cardboard is good too. If you have any pets that use corncob or wood chip cage litter that can go right in there too. The secret seems to be layers -like at the end of the day’s veggie scaps etc add a layer of paper, cardboard, or cage litter. If you have a home and yard just take the compost bucket and dump it in an outdoor compost pile each day. And add in a lot of raked leaves and mown lawn clippings as you go. I am a “lazy composter; I build a small 4×4 foot raised bed and use layers of wet cardboard and newspaper laid flat in the bottom to kill all the weeds and grass. Then I just dump in all my compostable stuff (I even compost toilet paper ) and yard wastes. I don’t even chip up branches, just break ‘em in short lengths. I use each raised bed as a compost pile until it is full up and heaping above the edge of the bed. Then I start on the next one. When and if I think of it I take a garden fork and turn the piles over now and then. In 6 months or a year when it “looks like dirt” I go ahead and plant in it.

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