Do you know that roughly one-third of the food produced worldwide goes to waste1? When food goes to waste, energy, resources, and money also go to waste. You can reduce food waste through what is called zero-waste meal planning.
You can make and enjoy healthy meals with zero-waste meal planning and save money and time. But what is zero-waste meal prep, and how do you start? Read on as you go through some tips to help you start and maintain a zero-waste meal-planning routine.
Zero-waste meal prep or zero-waste meal planning is a process that involves preparing food with little or no waste, from using all parts of your food to composting food scraps.
Zero-waste meal planning will require more time, attention, and planning. However, this will be beneficial in the long run. Not only will you do your part in reducing food waste, but you can also save money and eat healthier zero waste meals.
For more on why food waste is a global issue, click on to our food waste facts.
Creating a meal plan comes with multiple benefits. Not only do you reduce waste, but you can also save time and money. Here are some outlined benefits of having a zero-waste meal plan.
Planning and making all the food you will eat throughout the week can help you save a lot of time. Instead of making several trips to the grocery store, you only have to make one. Instead of cooking several meals seven times a week, you can simply collapse time by doing it all at once. Instead of making several trips to the grocery store, you only have to make one.
If you don't have a weekly meal plan, you will most likely buy many items, some of which you don’t need, when you go grocery shopping. With no plan on how to use these items, you may end up not using them all, leading to a waste of food, money, and resources.
Sadly, food waste makes up 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions and significantly contributes to climate change2. It releases methane gas 25 times thicker than carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. With a zero-waste meal plan, you can intentionally create a zero-waste grocery shopping list of only what you will eat throughout the week, saving you time, money, and resources.
As mentioned earlier, wasted food significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. With our landfills clogged with waste, harmful gases are released into the atmosphere, damaging the ozone layer and causing global warming. By planning your meals, you can eat only what you need, avoid throwing food out, and reduce the environmental impact.
Read more: how does zero waste help the environment?
Now we understand what zero-waste meal planning is all about, let's look at a few tips to help you prepare healthy meals and reduce waste:
Start by investing in a zero-waste meal planner to help you organize everything from start to finish. You can look for any zero-waste meal plan template online.
In your planner, you can outline ways to use the leftover meals in your fridge, create a pantry list, and a favorite meal list you can always refer to.
Zero-waste meal prepping helps you avoid food waste. However, this starts from what you have. Start by reviewing your fridge for leftovers like vegetables and other food scraps. Also, look out for foods that are close to expiring. Create a list of all your leftovers and think of ways to use them for your meals as quickly as possible.
You can add the leftovers to an existing recipe or get creative. For example, if you have half an onion, green beans, rice, old carrots, and other vegetables, you can combine them to cook one dish. Don’t worry about trying to make the perfect recipe. Using the leftovers you have saves money and prevents waste.
To reduce waste, go for whole foods like vegetables, beans, grains, fresh fruits, nuts, etc. Whole, unprocessed foods produce less packaging waste and are much healthier than canned or processed food. If you need to buy packaged food, you can opt for food with sustainable packaging materials that you can compost or recycle.
Zero-waste meal planning becomes easier when you're well-stocked with what you use frequently. Stock up on pantry staples you use for most or all your meals. Depending on what you eat, some examples of pantries you can keep are olive oil, brown rice, nuts, maple syrup, soy sauce, all-purpose flour, rice, spaghetti, dried herbs, etc.
Related: 15 Zero Waste Kitchen Products & Plastic-Free Kitchen Ideas
We all know that shopping from the supermarket comes with lots of plastic bags and packaging. You can get your fresh produce and pantry staples from a zero-waste shop or bulk bin to minimize packaging waste and cook healthier meals.
We all know how tempting it can be to shop for something on sale at the grocery store, even when we don't need it.
Reducing the number of times you shop at the store can make sticking to your zero-waste meal plan easier. You can stick to shopping at the grocery store only once a week or less. Fewer visits to the grocery store will help you reduce your carbon footprint if you drive.
Meal prepping should be simple. Focus on cooking meals from your pantry. Cook whole foods and mix them to make another unique dish. You could try cooking meals like chicken thighs and roasted sweet potatoes or make a taco bowl with cheese, black beans, etc.
Whatever you do, keep your meals simple. For more inspiration and recipe ideas, check out our rundown of some of the best zero-waste cookbooks.
Batch cooking involves preparing a lot of meals at once. Instead of making one meal each time, you can prepare all the meals for the week ahead or even a month at once. Once done, store these meals in a reusable storage container and put them in the fridge. This means you can come home to a healthy dinner every day after work instead of grabbing a takeaway.
Batch cooking saves time and can help you save money on groceries. You only have to buy what you need to cook a specific recipe rather than buying too many ingredients for individual meals. This can help reduce food waste.
To start prepping your meals in bulk, think of recipes you and your whole family enjoy. Create a grocery list of all ingredients needed to make these recipes. Once done, go to the grocery store, zero-waste shop, or farmers’ market to get all you need for the week or month.
Lastly, cook all the food at once, store them in the fridge, and simply reheat the food when you want to eat.
Sometimes we overestimate how much we consume and end up serving large portions of food, some of which can end up in the waste bin. If you're having lunch or dinner with a group of friends, start by serving smaller portions and then add more if needed. You can use small bowls or plates to serve lunch or dinner at a party.
Creating a zero-waste meal plan is only one part of the task. Once you decide what meals to cook, you must store them until you are ready to eat.
You can invest in glass or stainless steel meal prep containers. You can reuse your plastic containers or use silicone bags (a great alternative to ziploc bags) to store the leftover food.
Creating a fantastic zero-waste meal plan will only make sense if you can keep your cooked food fresh. Storing your food correctly is a great way to extend its freshness and reduce waste.
For example, you want to store your pantries in an airtight jar. Fruits like oranges and apples should be stored in low-humidity drawers in your fridge. Also, while in season, preserving food for later all helps cut down on waste.
What do you do with those onion skins or peels from your carrots? Typically, we will throw our food scraps right into the trash. But what if these scraps could make you a nice broth or smoothie? One way to produce less food waste is to store and use those food scraps. You can add the scraps to an existing recipe or create something new.
For example, if you have a bag full of food fragments, you can put them in your instant pot, add salt or some chili powder, add water, and allow to cook until it turns into a broth. If you have fruit scraps like pieces of pineapples or bananas, you can use them to make a smoothie.
One sustainable way to get rid of those food fragments and prevent them from ending up in landfills is to compost them. You can put all the food fragments in a compost bin which breaks them down as nutrients you can add to the soil. If you have a garden at home, you can easily compost the food fragments and add them as nutrients to your garden plants.
Read more: What you can and can’t compost and our tips for urban composting (even if you live in smaller places in the city)
Creating meal plans can have a positive impact on you and the environment. By meal planning, you can shop for only what you need to last long enough - this could be for a week or a month. Ultimately, this reduces the amount of food that goes to waste. Also, you can save more time, money, and energy while protecting the planet.
Incorporating zero-waste meal prep into your routine helps reduce food waste, promotes sustainable living, and supports the health of our planet. By taking small steps towards this lifestyle, you can make a significant impact on the environment and enjoy the many benefits that come with it.
FAO. 2011. Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention (pdf). Rome
From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste, November 2021, EPA
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.