Real Food Tips: 12 Easy Ways to “Go Green” at the Grocery Store

This post is by blog team member, Amy. Check out our team page and her blog Spunky Avocado to learn more about her! Also, be sure to sign up for her FREE Suburban Smackdown Week-Long Mini-Challenge that starts today!


Happy Earth Day, All! Can you feel it? A shift is happening. People are waking up to a collective feeling of responsibility for being good stewards of this beautiful planet on which we live. We are starting to see that our consumption choices matter and that mindless consumption hurts us all. Believe me, I’ve been as guilty as anyone (perhaps even more) of contributing to our burgeoning landfills and the floating islands of plastic in the Pacific. I once filled my closet with too many clothes, cared too much about labels, bought my kids too many toys, and gave little thought as to how these things were made or where they would end up.

My Wake-Up Call

In recent years, however, I’ve taken a long and painful inventory of the consequences of my buying. All the waste and all the excess led me to make an intentional choice to not burden my children with these same bad habits. So, it wasn’t easy, but I’ve changed the way I shop for everything by considering the long-term impact of my purchases. I’ve started to replace my need for stuff with a deep desire to experience the richness of  life that you can’t find in a shopping mall. It has changed the way I see the world. I have become a conscious consumer and a consumer of far less. As a result, I’ve become a happier person because I don’t measure my life by what I own.

There are a million little ways our choices can add up to make a big difference. Admittedly, it can feel a bit daunting to begin to change deeply engrained habits. But, if you tackle them one at a time, you’ll find it’s almost always more manageable and you will come out on the other side being proud of the important changes you’ve made. You may not be ready to admit to (much less conquer) your addiction to shoes and accessories, but I bet you’re ready and willing to at least start somewhere. So, let’s start in a very common place, a place we ALL visit regularly and spend a lot of money, a place where we can all make a significant impact by the choices we make there: Our Grocery Stores.

12 Easy Ways To #GoGreen At The Grocery Store on 100 Days of #RealFood

Today I tackle just one big consumption question: How can we minimize our negative environmental impact by the way we shop for the food that sustains ourselves and our families? Knowledge is power and the following list will give you some of the tools you’ll need to begin flexing your eco-savvy shopping muscles.

If you’re into making a bigger impact beyond just the grocery store, we’d love for you to join our free Suburban Smackdown Week-Long Mini-Challenge that starts today. Check out our short video as well as our blog for the list of rules you’d need to follow and the sign-up form. It’s completely FREE and only for one week!

12 Easy Ways to Go Green at the Grocery Store

  1. BYOB (Bring Your Own Bags)

    I am putting this one first, because it is so very simple. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a pile of reusable bags. So please keep some in your car, take them inside the store, and use them. This is one of the easiest changes to make, yet when I am in a conventional grocery store, 9 out of 10 people walk out with a cart full of plastic bags.

    If you need a recommendation for outstanding ones that hold up to anything, carry a ton, and even help organize your groceries, Lisa’s choice of My Eco Bags is my choice as well. They rock, but any reusable bags will do the job. It is important because only 1% of the countless plastic bags that are used world wide get recycled. Many end up in our oceans claiming the lives of millions of aquatic creatures. I know you don’t want to contribute to those numbers. Stop the madness and liberate your reusable bags!

  2. Buy Seasonal and Local Whenever Possible

    The undeniable truth is that aside from local, fresh-picked, seasonal produce just tasting better and having most of its nutrients intact – it’s also much less-traveled, which does take a toll on the earth. When you buy in season you also tend to get the best prices, but that is only part of the story. Most US produce is nearly a week old by the time it lands on your grocer’s shelves and comes from, on average, about 1500 miles away. You read that right, just US Produce!

    When you consider all the produce that is shipped from other countries, that number increases substantially. And, while it might seem that having produce from all over the world would be a good thing, it actually has a high environmental cost through the use of fossil fuels. These same practices can also be devastating to small farmers because they are left to fend for themselves, while the large farms (with shipping resources) get huge governmental subsidies. What we are left with is a food system based on both giant agri-business and the oil industry, neither of which, I believe, have excellent, healthy, and ethical farming practices as their top priorities.

    Instead of supporting these practices, seek out local, seasonal produce as well as local meat and dairy for both your good health and the health of a strong, vibrant, and self supporting community. Many grocery stores carry and label locally farmed products, and your local/regional farmer’s market is an invaluable asset where you will have the opportunity to purchase from the farmers themselves. If you need help locating resources in your area, these websites may be helpful: Local Harvest, Sustainable Table, and Eat Wild.

  3. Buy Organic Whenever Possible

    I am going to keep this one short and sweet because the old argument about whether organics are a “better choice” than conventionally raised foods is just silly to me. Let us instead ask ourselves this, “Do we really believe that consuming foods sprayed with synthetic herbicides and pesticides, or better yet eating animals that also eat these foods that are doused in herbicides and pesticides, is a smart and healthy choice without cumulative effect and consequence?” Just think about that.

    Then, think about the farmland robbed of minerals through monoculture, the same land soaked in herbicides and pesticides, and then consider the effects on the water table below or the run-off that goes to the nearby river basin. Do I really need to say anything more? Organics are just good common sense. The Environmental Working Group can help guide you on the essentials with their Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists.

  4. Plan Ahead/Consolidate
    12 Easy Ways to "Go Green" at the Grocery Store on 100 Days of #RealFood
    This one is pretty simple. Plan your shopping in a way that consolidates your trips in order to consume less energy. If you have multiple stores to go to, try to complete your rounds in one outing. Have your shopping list ready and stick to it. This will eliminate impulse buys and the accumulation of items you don’t need or items that might go to waste.

    This is something Lisa tries to do as well so be sure to check out her grocery shopping routine (and grocery list template) along with her 5 free real food meal plans for inspiration.

  5. Waste Not Want Not

    Consumer of food and household items, know thyself. Only you can determine your consumption habits and how to best shop for them. Online, large scale bulk buying can be a wonderful thing, but only if you are going to use that item in bulk. Otherwise, you are going to have to store it, or worse yet depending on its perishable nature, have to deal with the guilt of throwing it out after it has gone bad. Plan the scale of your purchases wisely.

  6. Package Size Matters (giggle)

    Look for minimal, recyclable packaging whenever possible. This is an area where the bulk bins in our favorite stores are superstars. Just be sure to bring along your small reusable bags or containers. While you will not always be able to avoid packaging, you can almost always make use of it. We have a box of items that we use for school projects, art projects, and robot building.

    Also, I admit to a complete addiction to otherwise disposable glass jars of all sorts. Marinara jars, large pickle jars, tiny jelly jars, along with a myriad of mason jars have almost completely replaced all of my old plastic storage. And bonus, they make for a very pretty pantry.

  7. Stop Buying Single Use Disposable Items

    These banes of my existence are 2 hours at a birthday or graduation party and forever in a landfill (think red solo cups). Last year while in the throws of our first Suburban Smackdown Challenge, where along with not buying anything new for 6 months my family also did not use disposable items, we adapted very quickly to taking our light weight reusables to picnics. It simply became habit. And, believe it or not, I have yet to purchase a roll of paper towels since our challenge ended on October 31, 2014. Prior to that, we were a 3 roll a week family. We did not, by the way, give up toilet paper.

  8. Stop Buying Bottled Water

    12 Easy Ways to "Go Green" at the Grocery Store on 100 Days of #RealFoodIf you are worried about the safety of your tap water, buy a water filter or a water filtration system. It is less expensive in the long run, especially for our planet.

    Also, invest in a good stainless steel or glass water bottle to have on hand all the time, so you aren’t tempted to buy those plastic unwanted chemical-leaching bottles ever again!

  9. Avoid Factory Farmed Animal Products

    Not only do huge factory farms contribute greatly to overall pollution, greenhouse gases, and contamination of lands and water, but their inhumane treatment of animals and less than healthy practices (hormones and antibiotics) do not make for a healthy animal product.

    Commit to buying your meat, eggs, and dairy from farms that use humane methods for raising as well as for slaughtering their animals. It is best to look for 100% grass-fed and pasture raised animal products. Yes, buying these products will be more expensive but you can adjust your budget and better your overall eating habits by consuming animal products, albeit less, of a much higher quality. Also, see Lisa’s post on how to select real seafood.

  10. Understand Labels Beyond Their Ingredient List

    Some products will make label claims such as “all natural,” “free-range” and “cage-free” which come along with obvious implications. But, the words themselves have nothing to back them (i.e. they are not regulated). In fact, “Greenwashing” has become a very common and effective marketing strategy.

    You’ve also likely seen labels covered with logos that reflect various types of certifications. To cover them all here would be a post of its own, but check out this good overview of some of the legit and sustainable certifications. Educate yourself so you are beyond the influence of a marketer’s deception.

  11. GYOG (Grow Your Own Garden)

    Nothing beats being able to walk out into your own yard, pick ingredients that you have grown, and take them inside to prepare a meal for your family. It is incredibly gratifying, and you don’t need a lot of space to grow a significant amount of food. But even if you only have room for a few containers, take advantage of easily grown tomatoes and herbs, and I guarantee you many moments of bliss throughout the growing season. Having a garden can save you a lot of money, reduce the environmental impact on our earth, and give you peace of mind knowing exactly how that garden was grown.

    12 Easy Ways to "Go Green" at the Grocery Store on 100 Days of #RealFood

  12. Use the Same Kind of Care and Discretion for Non-Food Purchases

    Aside from food, it’s also important to not negate your careful grocery shopping by purchasing and using potentially toxic personal care and cleaning products filled with unregulated chemicals. There are plenty of high quality products available today that won’t hurt your body or your budget. Be sure to use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep and Guide to Healthy Cleaning databases.

Well, that about wraps up my advice for now. It is my hope that you will use some or all of these principles on your next eco-savvy grocery day out. For more information on simple, green living, visit my blog at Spunky Avocado.com.

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47 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: 12 Easy Ways to “Go Green” at the Grocery Store”

  1. If you are interested in home water filtration to eliminate water bottles, I have worked with this company for filters for my home, my parents home and our mountain cabin. Very knowledgeable and helpful.

  2. If the choice is to buy local or buy organic, which is the best option? I haven’t found much local produce that is organic in my area so I’ve stuck with just organic.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Jen. Well, it depends on the practices of your local farmers. If you have a farmer’s market nearby, that is a great opportunity to have a conversation with farmers about their growing practices. Some farmers will follow organic methods but not jump through all the hoops that certification requires.

  3. I am finally starting to remember to bring my bags when I go shopping! Drives me nuts when I forget them!

  4. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

    I use Costco for those type of bulk items or, in a pinch, just my local Harris Teeter and purchase what is on sale. I find the cost savings at Costco on their own brands cancel out the membership cost fairly quickly but I do shop there quite a lot so I am not adding an extra trip to my errand list. I’ve not explored the on-line possibilities in this area. Sorry that I can’t provide more info here.

  5. Bought both cookbooks (love them) and am trying to transition the logistics of my life to cooking real food. I do not see where on the grocery-buying plan that you shop for stuff like toilet paper, trash bags, dog food, etc. I am trying to fold this sort of thing into my new routine (which will involve primarily Earthfare and Trader Joe’s), and avoid a monthly Walmart/Target run for it. I’d also rather not do Amazon Prime or a Sam’s/Costco club due to the additional cost. Any ideas about where to get this sort of thing cheaply for little hassle, since it’s not really on the Earthfare/Trader Joe’s plan? Thanks!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      I use Costco for those type of bulk items or, in a pinch, just my local Harris Teeter and purchase what is on sale. I find the cost savings at Costco on their own brands cancel out the membership cost fairly quickly but I do shop there quite a lot so I am not adding an extra trip to my errand list. I’ve not explored the on-line possibilities in this area. Sorry that I can’t provide more info here.

  6. You said: ““Do we really believe that consuming foods sprayed with synthetic herbicides and pesticides, or better yet eating animals that also eat these foods that are doused in herbicides and pesticides, is a smart and healthy choice without cumulative effect and consequence?”” This makes it seem as if you’re unaware that organic crops are sprayed with pesticides as well? Subsequent statements also make it appear as though you believe that organic crops are not grown in monoculture environments. I’m unaware of this being the case for produce that ends up in the average grocery store. I think that organic farming practices simply haven’t advanced enough to provide all the produce we need yet. Can you explain or link to some of the studies or articles you read when coming to the conclusion that synthetic pesticides are more harmful than the non synthetic pesticides that are used with organic produce? From what I’ve read, scientists seem to agree that both are harmful and in some cases, the natural sprays are more toxic to humans than the synthetic ones. It may make COMMON sense that natural is better, but it may not actually be the case. There are some pretty scarily toxic substances that occur naturally on the planet. I keep seeing this kind of “duh, organic is better, obviously” rhetoric on food blogs, but I can’t personally find anything that gives real statistics on why that’s the case. Ideas? Thanks!

  7. These are some really great tips! Thank you for sharing these. I feel it is so important that we all do what we can to protect the environment.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      You are welcome. It is important and we all need to be doing what we can to inspire others to pick up the torch.

  8. The best compilation of green ways. This article is really informative and helpful on environmental grounds. It is true that small things make a big difference. So, why not start here?

    Thanks!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Stephanie. Help us spread the word that every little bit matters. :)

  9. Absolutely inspiring post Amy! Definitely changes that more of us here in the UK need to take up too! you’re 100% right- the little things do make a big difference.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Thank you, Paul. Every little thing matters as they collectively become the big things. We just need to get more folks thinking this way.

  10. The BYOB thing works at just about any store, too. And one hidden bonus, it forces you to take a minute to think about how many bags you’ll need, so it helps you focus just on the planned purchases. Well usually anyway. Oddly the most durable bags I have were freebies; never turn one down!

  11. How do you know how the animal was slaughtered? (This is a serious question..not being snarky.) I can see being able to determine if the animal was humanely raised by knowing the originating farm, but have often wondered how anyone would know if it was humanely slaughtered unless it was processed on the same farm.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Dee. If you are able to buy local, a conversation with your local farmer should give you all of the info you need. This seal: http://certifiedhumane.org/ is also an indication of animals being handled with strict humane regulations. I’ll be honest and tell you that I eat mostly vegetarian and this is a tough subject for me, in general. My husband and two kids do eat some meat, so seek out the certified humane seal whenever possible.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Marcie. I’ve just started buying biodegradable bags. To be honest, I do not know how helpful they are when filled with non-biodegradable items going to a landfill . :/ I hold onto believing that every little bit helps. We’ve also really being trying to be far more conscious of what we are throwing away. We recycle everything we can and compost most of our kitchen scraps.

  12. Great list, Amy! I have already incorporated many of those items you suggested. For instance, about 20 years ago, I stopped using plastic storage containers and switched to glass — pyrex or anchor hocking with bpa free lids, refrigerator dishes that I pick up at flea markets, etc. (I have multiples of every size container you can imagine!!); I have purchased the fabric, reusable, washable grocery bags; I have 2 pair of slacks each of various colors (black, brown, beige, etc.), and I purchase tops that will coordinate with 2 or 3 pairs of slacks for variety; I have always used drinking glasses at home, no plastic cups, and I have 2 20-oz. glass water bottles at my desk at work; I will have a small garden this Summer, but I also signed up for a local CSA — I am supporting my local farmers, as well as having seasonal fruits and vegetables (this CSA is a farm owned and operated by a vegetarian family, the produce is non-GMO, and there is no use of herbicides or pesticides); work lunches are taken in either glass containers or my mini (20-oz.) crockpot, which I absolutely LOVE!!!

  13. Thank you for these tips. I have been starting my new year off with a plan to improve overall and lose weight. I want to be around to parent my precious four year old. I now love going to farmers markets and eating clean as much as possible. I have seen the benefits in my reducing waist line as well as overall appearance. I recently made the decision to be a minimalist and choose quality over quantity. This website has continued to aid me in my path of self renovation. Thank You again.

  14. Thank you for the inspiration Amy! I followed Lisa’s advice on the facebook post and picked out 2 ways I could go green in honor of Earth Day this year. I’m going to try to be better about avoiding factory farmed meat products and start buying meat at the farmer’s market. Also, I find that I use a ton of sandwich baggies for pieces of lemon, tomato, avocado, etc. when I don’t use up the whole thing and need to store the rest in the refrigerator. So, I just purchased some re-usable storage bags and some “food huggers.” I am determined to greatly reduce my use of plastic baggies. When these 2 things become second nature, I want to tackle my paper towel usage (I go through sooo many!).

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      You are welcome, Nicole! Paper towels can be a hard one for a lot of people. :)

  15. While I agree with most points on this list, the comment ” the old argument about whether organics are a “better choice” than conventionally raised foods is just silly to me.” just put me off. You cannot make such a statement and then not back it up with valid arguments and examples (from actual scientific literature).

    As a food scientist, it amazes me how people just throw out their opinions without backing them up with concrete examples. There is such a misconception in the general public that organic foods = no pesticides … which could not be further from the truth. Given the vast reach of this blog, it is your duty to properly and accurately inform your followers.

    Misinformation and a lack of concrete knowledge is truly hurting our society.

    1. Eating organic is not economically feasible most of the time. At the end of the day, if my food budget is $100, I can’t spebs 200 on organics.

      1. It may not be feasible for you, but it may be for others. That is why she states in her post, “Buy organic whenever possible” not just “Only buy organic”.

    2. Audrey,
      Do you have any scientific literature stating that organic produce = pesticides? Surely buying organic can’t be WORSE than buying non-organic… I think people tend to take the safest route that feels best for them. At worst, these two products are of equal health to us.

      1. There have been numerous studies which have shown that organic produce are grown with pesticides (non-synthetic), and organic produce is more likely to contain high levels of heavy metals (eg. copper) – the main reason for this being the pesticides used in the organic industry are high in heavy metal content.

        My point is that organic is no better for you in the long-term. Conventionally grown produce and organic produce are equal.

        The organic industry has been making an immense profit the last decade due to this tragic misconception. People are fooled into purchasing more expensive organic items believing they offer a more nutritious option, when truly they are of equal value.

      2. Audrey, thank you for your response.

        Do you have any evidence showing that non-synthetic pesticides and heavy metal content in organics are no better in the long run for our bodies than non-organics with synthetic pesticides? Or is this just a conclusion you’ve come to?

      3. Jessy, as a scientist, I aim to base my opinion on science-based facts and research whenever possible. In this case, several studies conducted over the past decade have shown there is no significant difference between organic and conventionally grown foods, nutritionally speaking.

        See an example of a recent study here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408690290825439#.VTg1YCFViko

        This is just one of many of such papers on the topic.

        In addition, during my time obtaining my Master of Science degree, specializing in Food Chemistry and Safety, my colleagues and I conducted a number of similar experiments, including one specifically looking at Heavy metal content (namely Copper, zinc and Mercury). Our experimental results were in accordance with the literature – organically grown produce showed significantly higher levels of heavy metals (on average 7 to 18% greater). These results varied between produce, but all showed the same trend. A particularly troubling conclusion came from apples – a supposed ‘Dirty Dozen’ member – the organic apples had nearly double the RDA value of copper, 6 times that of Zinc, and troubling mercury levels,

    3. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. When I said I feel it is silly (obviously my opinion), I should have been more specific about what I feel is “silly”. To me, it is not a debate about which method is more nutritious, it is about the synthetic pesticide residue that I do not want my family consuming. That is the bottom line for me. I would love to see more of your information on heavy metals in produce. I would assume that depends very much on soil and region? As anyone who wishes to be honestly informed, I am very open to any and all new information. I too, though not a scientist, read journals and pay attention to the research on all sides as well as to who funds it.

  16. I loved this article! Great job, Amy. I love that you wrote about focusing more on the richness of life, not things. I have been trying to do this as well. Really thinking before I buy something, and giving my purchases a lot more thought.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Jessy. There have been many times since we completed our original “smackdown”, where I will have something in my hands, ask myself “why?” and put it down and walked away….with a smile. It feels so much better than buyers remorse. :)

      1. I have so done the same thing, and it’s a good feeling indeed.
        And I have also found that when I do decide to purchase something, it’s typically something I’ve been shopping for for a while, and will be something I’ll still love years down the road.

  17. This is a great list! Like you mentioned, the recent changes prompting people to make better choices are just wonderful!

  18. I have so much room for improvement. What great tips and information.

    I especially enjoyed reading your journey to be less of a consumer and purchasing less. Great information.

    Very inspirational.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Thanks, Candi. I totally admit to being a work in progress. Clothing is still hard for me. :) But, once you see excessive consumption for what it is, it is pretty hard to look the other way and changes begin to take hold.

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