Friday, August 31, 2012

Step Thirteen and a Half: Evaluate Your Food

In Step Thirteen: Set Up Your Pantry, we took time to clean out, refresh, and organize our pantries (or other food storage areas), but since our goal is a zero waste pantry, not just a clean one, now we'll take the time to evaluate our food and eating needs. Doing this allows us to find out what foods work for our families, what we'd like to change about our eating habits, and helps us prioritize our hunt for bulk food. Let's jump right in.

Get some paper and a writing utensil, and take stock of your food. What does your diet look like now? What will and won't your family eat? Would you like to make any changes to your diet? What are you comfortable cooking? What would you like to learn to make yourself (cookies? ketchup? dinner rolls? mayonnaise?)? Most importantly (for our specific purpose of going zero waste), what kinds of garbage do you make most, and from what kinds of food? Are there a lot of plastic bottles from juices, teas, and sports drinks? Plastic bags from frozen vegetables and finger foods? Soy milk containers? Soda cans? Plastic Ramen wrappers or styrofoam cups? Milk jugs? Boxes from quick meals? Frozen dinner trays? Granola and power bar wrappers? Yogurt cups?

These questions aren't to make you feel guilty, just to help you evaluate what you have, what you can replace, and what you can't do without. I used to live on Ramen noodles, until I decided to go zero waste. It took me a while to break the habit, but once I realized I ate them because they  were fast and convenient, I started keeping other snack food on hand, like raw almonds, home-made yogurt, chocolate squares, avocados, home-cut carrots, bagels, and celery with peanut butter. I like all of these foods as much as Ramen noodles, they're all just as fast to make/serve, and I feel better when I eat them because I know they're healthy for me and the planet. Try evaluating a favorite family food in the same way to see what it is you like about that food, and what you can replace it with that will create less waste.

Almost everyone I know has "eat better" on a goal or to-do list somewhere, and zero waste makes that almost effortless. Because so many processed foods come in packaging, and packaging creates waste, running a zero waste home, or at least a zero waste kitchen, will largely eliminate your consumption of packaged foods. There isn't any added salt when you chop and steam vegetables yourself, you don't have to worry about how much sugar is in the spaghetti sauce you made, and there's no worry about what kind of preservatives are lurking in homemade cookies. If you want to improve your family's eating habits, now is a great time. Again, write down what it is you want to change or modify. More vegetables? Less starch? Less junk-food? More time spent around the dinner table together? Eating zero waste food will naturally solve a lot of problems, but you still need to be aware of what it is you want to change, and why.

Lastly, we're going to make a list of foods that we need to find in bulk, stat. We all need to eat, and it's nice to eat things we like, so it's important to find zero-waste ways to make food you and your family enjoys, or you'll meet with a lot of resistance. It's also important to make sure that you're not putting too much work on yourself to eliminate garbage from your kitchen. Frozen vegetables used to be a staple in my diet, but the plastic bags they come in are notoriously hard to recycle, so now I just buy them fresh at the supermarket. In the winter-time, this means I'm buying produce shipped in from California, South America, or even Africa, but that's the compromise I make to have vegetables and fruit in my diet. I could can or freeze these things while they're in season and eat more locally, but that just doesn't work for my lifestyle right now, so I don't stress about it. If your baby needs formula, you could save yourself a few temper-tantrums by buying your kids fruit snacks, or your significant other will buy himself bottled tea on the down-low anyway, don't worry. They may come around in time, but for now it's better to keep yourself content than it is to blow all your energy on achieving perfect zero-wasteness.

Let's take a look at the things you wrote down. Ideally, you'll have a list of snacks and meals the people in your household gladly eat, a few goals for your diet, and maybe some items that create waste but are not on the bargaining table at this point. You'll also likely  have written down some foods your family doesn't like, food waste you make on a regular basis, meals you'd like to have but don't know how to make, and a list of foods you have no idea how to find in bulk.

This last item is the one most people have a hard time with. If you have a Winco or a Whole Foods in your area, pat yourself on the back; your bulk food quest is over. If not, it's okay, we'll go on a little adventure together in the next post and find the best, and easiest way to zero waste together. In the meantime, use the other items you've listed to help guide you in your shopping, cooking, and researching processes. A few minutes with Google will help you find new recipes, time-tested techniques, and the inspiration you need to transform your kitchen to zero waste.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Step Thirteen: Set Up Your Pantry

Procrastinating Writers Note: I know blog posts are more fun with pictures, so expect some to be posted in the next few days or so. In the meantime, I'll be charging my camera. Sorry.

The last time I helped my grandma clean out her pantry, we found a canned chicken from 1976. My sisters and I treated that chicken as an honored family member, and, after setting a place for it at the dinner table for a week, we put it in the back of the pantry for our own children to one day find. Needless to say, my grandmother does not have a well-organized pantry. Buckle up though, because after some intensive reading, you're about to.

I promise, organizing your pantry will have great benefits (zero waste and otherwise). First of all, you'll be able to see what you have so you can use it up before it goes bad (something in there already turned? No problem, just compost it). Second, you'll know what foods your family consumes most and least, which will allow you to prioritize your bulk-food hunt. Lastly, having an uncluttered pantry will give you peace of mind and allow you to prepare meals quickly and easily, a boon to any household, not just a zero-waste one.

Let's dive right in by taking everything out of your pantry. Anything that isn't nailed or glued down should come out. If you're lucky, it will all fit on your counter and/or table space, if not, get creative with chairs and other furniture. Now that you have an empty pantry, take some time to clean it out. Scrub away any spills or sticky spots, wipe the dust off of everything, and sweep out the floor or the bottom of the space.

Now take a look at all the things you've taken out of the pantry. Odd items (old grocery bags, cans of WD-40, and stray toys) should be put away in a designated home that makes sense to you. If you like having spare light bulbs in your pantry, leave them ready to go back there, but if those items could be more sensibly stored elsewhere, find them a spot now. Next, look through all the food items. Anything that's gone stale, sour, mushy, or is past its expiration date should be composted, and its packaging recycled. Remember, food has a lot of nitrogen in it, so balance out your compost heap by adding some newspaper for its carbon content if you find you have a lot of stuff from your pantry to dump.

This next part is the step I find most fun, though I understand some people don't quite get the high out of categorizing and ordering that I experience. Again, the idea is to make a system that works for you. Try to put food back in a pattern that makes it simple for you to access and restock your pantry. Some people put like with like (all the spices on one shelf, all the cans on another), and others organize by meal (macaroni and cheese boxes next to the canned peas, noodles by jars of Alfredo sauce). A lot of houses and apartments don't have a pantry, so you may be organizing your food by cupboard, or you may want to put kid-friendly snacks and cereals on a lower shelf for the little ones, while foods that need more preparation find their place on the higher levels. Take some time to figure out what makes the best sense for you and your family, I promise the extra thought now will be worth it later.

At this stage don't worry about what food packaging you're putting back onto your shelves. It's better to eat through what you have than get rid of everything and start with a new and unfamiliar system. We'll address the zero waste transformation of your food later.

Once you've gone through this process with  your main pantry, continue through the rest of the food-centered locations of your kitchen. Turn out food storage cabinets, empty out all cupboards, clear off all shelves, and brave the depths of your refrigerator and freezer. Clean the space thoroughly, toss rotten food, and return the rest of your goods in the system you've decided on. Now pat yourself on the back for all your hard work, and take a moment to admire your beautiful new kitchen (sneak yourself a treat while you're at it; what's the good of knowing where the cookies are if you don't eat one?).

Stay tuned for part Thirteen and a Half: Evaluating your Food. This post was getting long, and this really deserves a step all its own. In the meantime, enjoy your lovely, easy-to-use food system.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.