Real Food Tips: 10 Ways to Be Less Wasteful

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 napkins

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      Cloth 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!

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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269 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: 10 Ways to Be Less Wasteful”

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. Great ideas and information! I do worm composting, aka vermiculture. I have a worm bin in my kitchen. There’s no smell and guests don’t know I have one. On several occasions I’ve said something to a friend about my worm bin and they reacted with surprise. I told them they’ve seen it many times in my kitchen and they’d never noticed it. All of my leftover/unusable parts of fruits and veggies go in it. I only put in some of the coffee grounds or it gets too acidic. I put the rest of them in the outdoor compost bin. I also use egg shells sparingly in the worm bin and the rest go in the outdoor bin.

    1. Susan
      April 22, 2014 at 12:27 am · Reply
      Kathleen, could you give me details and pictures if possible of your kitchen vermiculture system? I am very interested in seeing how it works!! You can email it to me if you’d like.

  11. composting..we live in Florida where fruit rats find your compost unless it’s elevated off the ground. I’ve replaced my composter twice in 6 yrs due to rust, so I got a Bokashi system for food waste. – I love it. No pests, and the plants love the fermented fertilizer you bury after a week. works for us.

  12. When it comes to #10, it’s can be hard to do, but last year my daughter had a birthday party/toy drive. We made it a combo since my daughter was not fond of the idea of giving all her presents away. I spoke to parents directly about what to expect, and told them they had the option of what to do, but please don’t buy for both my daughter and the toy drive.
    I spoke a lot about it with my daughter because she was really resistant to the idea. Over time, she got used to it and whenever they advertised the toy drive on the radio, she bought in even more. By the time we dropped off the toys, she was beaming. She even used her own money to buy a toy for the donation. It was easy for us in that her birthday is close to Christmas, but there are other times of the year that kids need items.
    That first year was tough, but I think as the years go on, it will get easier and easier. The party served a few purposes. My daughter likes to be helpful and she is starting to realize there are many other kids that do not have as much as she does. I want her to realize she can help others and I don’t want to be overrun by stuff.
    I want my daughter to be a

  13. I have a set of 6 small bottles that I fill and keep in the fridge. I still occasionally buy a bottle of water if I’m out and it’s the best quick option, but I have not purchased water for our home in years.

  14. I wholeheartedly agree with other commenters about checking out Norwex. They’re stuff is WAY better than other normal microfiber cloths out there, especially since their cloths are antibacterial so can be used all week without spreading germs, and only require water. Their stuff really is amazing!

  15. Lisa I’ve been reading your blog for over a year now, but never had the chance to comment. Great posts :)

    Some other tips:

    – Dry clothes on clothesline, it’s possible even with small space, my “terrace” is 1×1,50 meters
    – Use nylon grocery bags as garbage bags, at least in where I live we collect house garbage in bags and take it out to city container that are on each block
    – Unplug the hell out of everything, even DirecTV or WiFi when not using or going to sleep
    – Reuse glass jars of coffee and others to store small items
    – Wash clothes on cold water and on the economic cycle of the machine
    – Assing one cup – one dish – one set of cutlery to each person and wash it throught the day before using instead of taking out 100 dishes and cups
    – Wash dishes by hand
    – If not drinking tap water, use large gallons of mineral water (6 liters in my country)and refill other bottles or serve directly from it

    I still need to improve my composting since our apartment is so small

  16. We compost, all our scraps of food and eggshells and coffee grounds. In the fall when everyone is raking their leaves and places them on the curb we will ask if we can have them and we use that as our brown throughtout the year. Whenever we dump the green in we layer with brown and always make sure to mix it a couple times a week because the bacteria needs the air to grow and multiply and breakdown the food. Also make sure that it doesnt get to dry, by adding water every once in awhile. We have two bins. We fill one throughout the year while the other full one just sits and gets stirred, when springtime comes we sift out any large pieces and put them back into the other bin that is not broken down yet. We have some awesome earthy soil from the compost bins.

  17. Melanie Haspels

    Someone may have already mentioned this with regards to cloth dish rags (and other disposable cleaning supplies), but in case no one has, check out the Norwex products. They are amazing microfiber cloths/mop pads/dusting cloths, etc. that clean with just water and eliminate the use for chemicals and other disposable cleaning products. They even have cloths for your face to take off makeup (I love mine…no more face cleanser and my face feels cleaner!) and in the shower. Here’s a link to their site :)

  18. Regarding the produce bags. I don’t use them at all. I just put all my produce together in one reusable bag and hand them to the cashier that way. Yes they touch all your food but A.) How many people have already touched your food that you haven’t seen anyway and B.) I always wash all my produce thoroughly anyway (see A) so what difference does it make.

    1. I totally agree and do the same thing. I’m going to wash everything and I already know a ton of people have touched and breathed around the produce…what’s a few more points of contact. =)

  19. I will say I agree with everything EXCEPT – don’t stop buying raffle tickets they support a really great cause a lot of the time! Or make a donation in stead. You can always donate an item won back to the organization.

    Otherwise – love it all :) Fabulous as always!

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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!)

  23. 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.

    1. 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

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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!

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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. :)

    1. 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.

      1. 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!

      2. 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!

      3. 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.

      4. I always put my bags right on the conveyer BEFORE my groceries. That way I never have the “oops I have my own bags!” problem.

      5. Tiffany, I understand just what you mean. Some cashiers just stare at my bags and want nothing to do with them. I always bag my own stuff. The key is loading up the register in the order you want to bag it. I start with produce, to slow the cashier down, so I put all my items on the conveyor belt, run over to open my bags, and start bagging. Ideally, I place my heavy produce first (bottom of bag), then rest of produce. Then all dairy. (I buy 4 gallons on milk at a time, and don’t use bags for those). Then cans, then dry/lighter items. I get my kids to help put some items on the conveyor belt. They’re not so helpful at bagging, but maybe they put the toilet paper under the cart, give the cashier my grocery card, etc. I use the 4 bag system that Lisa suggested and I love those so much more than dragging a dozen smaller bags to the store. Good luck.

  31. 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.

  32. 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!

  33. 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!

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

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