It’s a Monday night. I’m cutting up bell peppers while the black beans are simmering on the stovetop. My son walks into the kitchen to report that the almond milk jar is now empty. I decide I better make up a quick batch of soy milk so we have something to mix with our oatmeal in the morning.
Then I remember that I haven’t started making the tortillas yet. I get out the mixing bowl and start mixing ingredients for wheat tortillas. My younger son is now in the kitchen crying because he wants me to a play board game with him. My daughter comes in and shouts that she wants a snack. But now it’s time to put the soybeans in the blender before they get too cool. I kinda want to scream.
Evening meal preparation can be stressful for anyone, especially for parents. A lot of processed and packaged foods are designed as shortcuts to meal preparation, because of exactly this. Before I went zero waste, I thought I was doing most of my meal preparation ‘from scratch’ and not relying much on convenience foods. Going zero waste revealed to me all the ways I was relying on processed foods as shortcuts without completely realizing it.
The cartons of almond milk, the plastic bags of tortillas, the bottles of stir-fry sauce. While I was making the bulk of meals from whole foods – fresh veggies, rice, beans, etc. – I was filling in gaps and supplementing with packaged foods.
When I stopped buying these products, I knew I had to either live without them or learn to make them myself. Since the beginning of the new year, I’ve tried my hand at all sorts of basic recipes – tortillas, vegan butter, crackers, soy milk, almond milk, pizza ‘cheese’, cashew milk, stir-fry sauce, and more. I’ve mostly been pleasantly surprised at how easy these basics are to make, and often how much more flavorful they are then their store-bought counterparts.
Admittedly, I have spent a lot more time in the kitchen in the past month than usual. Part of this is the learning curve – your first time making almond milk is obviously going to be more time consuming than your 100th. But, also, it simply does take more time to make everything from scratch.
People approach zero-waste from different financial positions and geographic locations. Some zero wasters can regularly eat at restaurants to give themselves a break from cooking. Some might have abundant access to a huge variety of bulk foods. If this is you, that’s great. You rock.
For my family, going out to dinner is a rare event. My husband and I have 3 kids and a single income. We can’t afford to eat out much. We also live in the country, many miles from the nearest restaurant where we can get something vegan. Making our own food is pretty much our only option.
So, part of my zero waste journey has been to find out how to make everything we eat from scratch, rather than just most of it. And while it has been challenging sometimes, even stressful, it has also been extremely interesting, educational, and frankly, gratifying. I don’t know about for you, but for me, learning to do something for myself is extremely satisfying. I would never have imagined, even five years ago, that today I would be someone who makes fresh homemade tortillas to go with a regular old Monday night dinner. I just didn’t think I was (or could ever be) that person. It is surprising where zero waste can lead you!
Even if making things from scratch is not something you can do for every meal, you can still swap out some made from scratch items for their processed versions occasionally. If just once a month that you make, say, homemade crackers instead of buying the store-bought version, that is one less cardboard box and plastic bag created and discarded. And you’ll also get to enjoy fresh baked crackers and learning a new skill!
Back to that Monday night dinner with the tacos, and the soy milk, and the whining kid. One lesson that I have learned again and again (and I’m sure I will have to continue to learn – that’s my style) in this zero waste journey is the importance of planning ahead. A lot of disposable items and convenience items are designed exactly so that people don’t have to plan ahead – from disposable coffee cups and plastic shopping bags to frozen dinners shrouded in plastic – they allow you to operate without a plan. If you want to avoid those things though, a certain level of planning is required.
This means not only having your tote bags, produce bags, and bulk bin jars/bags ready when you head to the store, it also means having a meal plan and grocery list prepared. That way, when you get back home you should have the right foods to cover all your meals for the week, without having to rely on packaged items to ‘fill the gaps’. I have a weekly rhythm of meals that I stick to week in and week out to make things easy, but then I seek out new recipes to add variety within that framework. So, while Tuesday is always ‘stir-fry night’, what goes into that stir-fry changes from week to week.
I have also found having a day and time set aside to do some preparation for the entire week is extremely helpful. This is Sundays for me. On Sundays, I make a new batch of kombucha and bake a couple of loaves of bread. I prep some fresh veggies to have ready for snacks. I make a big pot of soup that provides us with our Sunday dinner, plus a few days of lunches. Recently, I’ve added making plant milk and crackers to this routine. It takes some time out of my weekend, but it saves me time the rest of the week. Some people take this even further and do most of their cooking in one day (sometimes for up to a whole month). I’ve experimented with this in the past and found that it just doesn’t fit my food preferences. I’d rather spend some time in the kitchen prepping food everyday than heating up something from the freezer, but if it works for you, that is great!
Having a routine like this can help avoid chaos later in the week. If you’ve made enough plant milk in your Sunday food prep session, you won’t have to make it on a busy Monday night! Lesson learned!
There is a learning curve to all this and I encourage anyone who is starting out to take baby steps to avoid burnout. You don’t need to change your life and habits overnight – most of the time that is impossible and unsustainable. But, if you care about the planet, it is important to start making steps in the right direction. If you are currently eating a lot of packaged food (don’t worry, this was me just a few years ago – you got this!), challenge yourself to create just one meal where you don’t use any. Get comfortable with making that meal work. When that feels good, try for to add a second meal to your repertoire. Keep moving forward. You’ll be gaining confidence and new skills in the kitchen, and doing better by the planet and your body!
Here at Zeroish, we want to make zero waste living doable for everybody! What does zero waste look like in your kitchen? What lessons have you learned along the way? What questions do you have about how to make zero waste meal prep work for you?