How to Shop More Sustainably at the Grocery Store

When it comes to sustainability, reusable shopping bags are only the beginning.

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January 25, 2021


Photo by: Javier Zayas Photography/Getty

Javier Zayas Photography/Getty

In recent years, environmental sustainability is finally getting the large-scale attention it deserves. And while it’s true that governments and large corporations have the most power to create positive change, making more sustainable choices in our everyday lives is important, too.

Learning to shop more sustainably at the grocery store is a great place to start. Between 30 and 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted, meaning it goes uneaten. Some foods are packaged with materials that aren’t reusable or recyclable. And of course, some foods take less energy to produce than others. If you’re hoping to make more sustainable choices at the grocery store but aren’t quite sure where to start, here’s some expert advice to guide you through every step of the process, from before you leave your house to when you’re putting away your dinner leftovers.

Before You Leave Home

Pack reusable bags – or choose paper bags over plastic if you forget to bring them.

Remember to pack your reusable bags every time you head to the grocery store. (And be sure to wash them between uses.) “By bringing your own bag, you are helping to decrease pollution caused by plastic that isn’t easily degradable,” says Jonathan Valdez, MBA, RDN, owner of Genki Nutrition and media spokesperson for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If you forget your reusable bags, opt for paper bags over plastic — buying more reusable bags that you don’t actually need will just create more waste in the end.

Bring produce bags as well.

It can be tough to skip individual plastic produce bags, since you don’t really want your produce rolling around your cart or making contact with the dirty checkout conveyor belt. A more sustainable alternative is to bring your own reusable produce bags, like these organic cotton mesh bags from The Earthling Co.

Plan big shopping trips.

Even if you have the time to grocery shop every other day, it’s probably not the best choice. “It is best to shop less frequently,” Valdez says. “The less frequent your trips to the store, the less gas you use. Furthermore, when people shop less frequently, they are more likely to shop in bulk,” which means there’s less packaging to throw away or recycle. How often you shop depends on your preferences and what’s realistic. For some people, shopping once or twice a month may be feasible. For others, once a week might be more realistic.

Don’t overbuy perishables.

There’s a caveat to that big shopping trip. Valdez points out that you need to make sure not to put too many perishable items — particularly fruits and vegetables that you can’t freeze raw — on your grocery list. If you love fresh produce, it’s probably best to head to the grocery store once a week so that those leafy greens don’t get mushy before you have a chance to eat them.

Consider grocery delivery services.

Grocery delivery services are convenient. In some cases, they’re also the more sustainable option. Divya Selvakumar, RD, PhD, a dietitian, nutrition professor and the founder of Divine Diets, recommends getting regular produce deliveries from a service like Imperfect Foods or Misfits Market. Both take “ugly” produce that’s perfectly good but not visually appealing enough for the grocery store and package it up for you at a discount, which ultimately combats food waste. Selvakumar also recommends Thrive Market, which “is like Costco, except it chooses more organic, environmentally friendly products.”

Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, a dietitian and blogger at It’s a Veg World After All, recommends another service, The Wally Shop. “They deliver groceries, like pantry essentials, in reusable, returnable containers,” she says.

The drawback of these services is that they’re not one-stop-shop destinations. If you’d rather order all your food from one place, the most sustainable option is a warehouse service like Fresh Direct, in which food bypasses the trip to the grocery store and instead is delivered straight to you. Services like Instacart, on the other hand, deliver groceries from supermarkets, which means more transportation and often more packaging.

Plan meals in advance.

Meal planning is good for you, your wallet and the environment. Melissa Traub, a dietitian who specializes in plant-based nutrition, says that planning your meals ahead of time is crucial in reducing food waste—if you don’t need something for a particular recipe, you won’t buy it. When you have leftovers, “Try to use them in a meal in the next day or two, or freeze them to use later,” Traub says.

Shift to plant-based foods.

You don’t have to go totally plant-based, but replacing some of the meat in your diet with plant-based foods can help. “Plant-based foods are more sustainable because they have [much] less of an impact on the ecological system rather than animal products,” Selvakumar says. She explains that plant-based foods require less water to produce, and emit less methane and carbon dioxide (two harmful greenhouse gases) during production. She also adds that raising livestock takes up a lot of space and can encroach on the natural habitats of other plants and animals.

If plant-based eating is new to you, try adding just one or two plant-based meals to your weekly plan and going from there.

At the Store

Seek out recyclable or biodegradable packaging.

“Avoid buying foods that are wrapped up in plastic or styrofoam,” Selvakumar says. In particular, she recommends looking for food packaged in materials made from cornstarch, seaweed, mushroom, cardboard and paper (from recyclable materials) and organic fabrics.

Buy in bulk whenever it makes sense.

As Valdez mentioned, buying in bulk is more sustainable because bulk items require less packaging. If the item has a long shelf-life — for example, if it’s frozen or non-perishable — consider buying it in bulk. If it won’t last long, buy only as much as you need to prevent waste.

Choose local.

You don’t have to go to the farmers’ market to find produce and other items from local farmers. Oftentimes, your grocery store will advertise where various items come from. “Fruits and vegetables that are locally grown are particularly good choices when you're trying to shop sustainably, since they will travel shorter distances to your plate,” Streit says. Look for ‘locally grown’ tags on produce at the grocery store. “Or, seek out farm shares, farmers’ markets or local food co-ops.”

The same goes for nuts and seeds, Streit says. Sunflower seeds might be a good choice if you live in the Midwest, since this is primarily where they grow. Likewise, pecans might be the better choice for those living in the South.

Opt for more sustainable plant foods.

Plant-based foods are considerably more sustainable than animal products, but some plants are more sustainable than others.

For example, Streit recommends potatoes as your go-to starch. “Compared to rice and pasta, two of the other main sources of carbohydrates for the world's growing population, potatoes require less water and have the lowest levels of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Valdez points out okra and sunflower seeds as two examples of crops that are great choices because they don’t require much water. Similarly, he encourages people to experiment more with seaweed, a sustainable choice that uses practically no fertilizer and is responsible for producing a huge portion of the world’s oxygen.

Go easy on the beef.

While it’s true that animal-based foods have a larger carbon footprint than plant-based ones, not all animal-based foods are created equal. For example, beef requires 20 times as much land and creates 20 times as much greenhouse gas than plant proteins like lentils and beans. On the other hand, chicken and pork use just three times more land and create three times more greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based protein sources, according to the World Resources Institute. When you’re at the meat counter, opt for these more sustainable choices.

Buying local is important here, too. Meat that was grown nearby requires far less transport than meat from the other side of the country, or abroad.

Make responsible seafood choices.

If we’re being honest, choosing sustainable seafood can be tricky business. According to the Ocean Society, choosing which fish and shellfish to buy “depends on many factors, including how and where the seafood was caught.” Because of overfishing in certain regions, a fish that’s sustainable in one place may not be sustainable in another place. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website allows you to search for whatever type of fish you’re looking for, then based on your region gives you suggestions for the most and least sustainable choices.

Load up on beans!

The benefits of beans and legumes are seemingly endless. Not only do they use fewer resources than animal proteins — they actually have environmental benefits. “Legumes like beans and peas are known for their ability to ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil to help with crop rotation, preventing the depletion of nutrients in the soil,” Valdez says.

At Home

Compost, compost, compost.

One of the most impactful things you can do at home is compost your biodegradable food scraps. When food waste from plant foods ends up in the trash, it decomposes in a way that emits methane and other greenhouse gases, which is harmful. Plus, composted waste can act as a natural fertilizer for crops, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers that could harm the environment. Here’s everything you need to know about composting.

Freeze leftover produce before it goes bad.

You can’t really freeze raw vegetables and expect them to taste great when thawed, but you can absolutely freeze cooked fruits and vegetables. Selvakumar recommends always freezing your surplus produce. The best way to do this is by cutting and blanching them, then letting them cool before freezing them in airtight bags or containers. If you have too many herbs, chop them up and mix them with olive oil, then pour the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze.

Be intentional with leftovers.

Yes, you can reheat leftovers as-is the next day. But Traub recommends getting creative in order to absolutely minimize the amount of food you throw away. She takes advantage of planned overs, “extra ingredients or parts of meals that you use in another recipe.” For example, you can use leftover roasted butternut squash in a soup, throw leftover cooked eggplant or red pepper on top of a pizza or mix leftover rice with whatever vegetables you have on hand for fried rice.

Label and date the food in your fridge.

Sometimes, perishable foods go bad in your fridge despite your best efforts to only buy as much as you need. To prevent this as much as possible, Selvakumar recommends labeling and dating everything you put in there, plus keeping things that expire soonest at the front. This way, you won’t forget to use them ASAP.

Don’t recycle packaging that’s covered in food waste.

“When recycling food packaging, keep in mind that packaging contaminated with food often cannot be recycled,” Streit says. “Be sure to thoroughly rinse glass jars and plastic containers before recycling.”

And, don’t try to recycle things like pizza boxes (which are soaked with grease) or cardboard containers that have food stuck on. Some of those things might be compostable, which is often indicated on the packaging itself.

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