The next time you open your fridge or pantry, take a look around. Try to count how many things are stored or wrapped in plastic. Everything from your bread to your fruits and vegetables, and even much of the organic produce out there is wrapped in (often layers) of plastic. This all before you get to the cash and are offered 10 plastic bags to haul your groceries out to the car. Most people don’t give a second thought to things like where their food comes from, let alone what it comes in. So I’ve decided to put together The Grocery Guide, a list of questions to ask yourself when you’re out shopping. Things to think about before mindlessly adding even more plastic to this already saran-wrapped world, as well as some other tips about consuming more mindfully in general.
Before you get started, make sure you have got the following:
- Bags – these can be canvas, mesh, cotton, cloth, even old plastic bags (you know you’ve got them). Whatever the material, as long as you are bringing your own and refusing single-use plastic bags at check-out. We are currently consuming about 500 billion single-use plastic bags a year, most of which get tossed and end up in landfills and oceans. Also, always keep these somewhere you’ll remember them, so you don’t find yourself juggling your groceries all the way out to the parking lot (been there, done that).
- Containers – now this won’t fly with every big box store you go to, but many bulk food stores or smaller, privately owned stores will allow you to weigh and purchase your items in a reusable container. Think glass jars or Tupperware containers. (Tip: it’s a good idea to call ahead or check with staff before you start loading up your own containers. Simply explain that you are avoiding consuming plastics and would like to fill your own bag/jar/container)
- Your phone – this may be a silly note since you have almost certainly got it with you anyway, but this will come in handy for looking up anything from ingredients and alternatives, to checking off your grocery list (which is saving a piece of paper, more points!)
Now you’re ready to roll, so here are some things to ask yourself or keep in mind when roaming the aisles of your grocery store or farmer’s market…
Q: What is the item packaged in? Chances are, it’s plastic, but there are usually alternatives to this. If you are buying something pre-packaged, try to opt for things packaged in paper, cardboard, glass bottles, or other materials that are more easily recycled. And beware of the multi-layered packaging. Why some things are wrapped in two separate layers of plastic, I will never understand.
Take a quick read of the packaging as well. If it is compostable or recyclable, it will say so on the container, as will items packaged in recycled materials.
Q: Can you find it unwrapped? Especially for things like fruits, vegetables, meats and breads, there are usually options that are not already suffocating in plastic wrap. Buy fresh produce that is unwrapped, and opt out of those little produce bags that hang off the end of every aisle. You can carry your fruits and veggies in your reusable bags, or loose in your cart. For things like meats and breads, go right to the counter.
Many deli counters will weigh your product and allow you to take it in your own container. For baked goods, try to choose the fresh bread and treats! Not only are they way more delicious, but they can be stored in your own bag, or paper instead.
Q: Is it fresh? I am extremely guilty of this one. I definitely lean towards the frozen, or pre-packaged meals because they are easy. I’ve never really been into cooking, so anything that can come out of a box or be popped in the microwave is my friend. However, not only do these ready-to-serve or frozen foods come in unnecessary packaging, they are also loaded with preservatives and nowhere near as healthy for you as the fresh options (no matter the brand).
Q: Is it local? This is not an easy option for all items, but things like fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses are often the easiest to find locally sourced. Of course, you can’t expect to get locally grown avocados or bananas up here in the Great White North, but other things from apples, strawberries, rhubarb and nectarines to peas, lettuce, cauliflower and corn are all grown on Ontario farms.
Why eat local? It’s healthier – having to travel a shorter distance means that your food is packed with less preservatives; it’s fresher and is allowed to ripen longer before being harvested. You’re putting money directly back into your own economy, so although some items may seem more expensive, the money is going back into circulation in your community. It’s much more environmentally friendly, because your food has to travel much shorter distances, which means less greenhouse gas emissions being pumped into our air.
Q: Is it in season? This ties in with the previous point. There are many benefits to eating seasonally. It’s cheaper for one, to buy local ingredients while they are in season. And it diversifies your diet, ensuring the nutritional benefits of different produce at different times of the year, as explained in the University of Toronto article “Eating Local: Why You Should Bother!”. There are plenty of resources like the Ontario Farm Fresh website that will let you know what is in season this month. Visiting a Farmer’s Market is also a great way to purchase and support local produce.
Q: Is there a vegetarian option? So I may lose some of your here, but having been a vegetarian for about 8 years I know that there are vegetarian alternatives to almost everything these days. Now not everyone will choose the veggie life, and I completely respect that. I have many of my own reasons, but it’s not for everyone. However, there are countless health, economic and ecological benefits to eating a vegetarian or plant-based diet. If you are not ready to take the full plunge, try implementing Meatless Mondays in your household, or other similar small changes. There are vegetarian and vegan alternatives to nearly all of your favourite foods, so give them a chance (you may be surprised!)
Now join me in trying to implement some of these the next time your’re out shopping, and let me know your own tips and tricks!
Thanks to the following websites for inspiration: