Grocery shopping: Cart baseline with a side of how to use a reusable container at the meat counter

When I think of zero waste, the first thing that comes to mind is the grocery store, probably because the majority of what makes it into our house is from our weekly shopping trip at the supermarket.

Well, you gotta eat.

Our little town is blessed to have a grocery store with a decent, if hit and miss, bulk aisle. I’ve also come to think of the various meat, deli and produce sections as bulk because I’m able to bring a jar or bag to fill.

One question that has come up is how to get a jar filled at the meat counter. I’m here to tell you that it’s easy – you just gotta screw up your courage first.

I don’t use a jar for my beef, pork or chicken (I do for the deli case, but I don’t get a lot of deli items as a general rule, having some rather interesting food allergies, if by “interesting” you mean “extremely sensitive to artificial colors, flavors and preservatives”). I use an alarmingly bright orange Tupperware container I inherited from my sweet 92-year-old grandma when she was moving out of her house and into assisted living last summer. I like it because it has a large “mouth,” which means no one has to squish anything into it. I try to make it as easy as possible on whoever is helping me.

Mine isn't quite like this one -- I don't have a cute decoration on the front of mine -- but I love this thing. Thanks, Grammie.

Mine isn’t quite like this one — I don’t have a cute decoration on the front — but I love it. Thanks, Grammie.

Although our meat counter lady told me once that she doesn’t mind – she’s squished all manner of thing into jars for people. I’ve also been told that it’s easier on their end when someone brings in a reusable container because they just have to fill it – there’s no paper to grab for weighing and then wrapping.

That made me feel better.

As for the courage part: It was hard for me the first time to put myself out there. I had seen someone else do it, so I knew it was possible; it was just asking that was the problem. It turned out to be less of an ordeal than I’d expected. And every time I ask, it gets easier. Also, the benefit of going to the same store all the time is that the people who work there know you. “Oh, right, there’s that crazy tall lady with her container. Yeah, pop that up on the scale.”

Anyway, if you’re thinking of getting meat in a container, I advise just going for it. What could happen? I guess if health codes don’t allow it in your area, then you end up with a package. And P.S., I’ve noticed that no one ever takes my container behind the counter – they leave it on top of the case and fill it there. Must be an Oregon health code regulation thing.

So, back to my shopping cart (wait, were we ever ON my shopping cart? The words get away from me sometimes): On my most recent trip to the store, I purposely shopped as I normally would because I figured that was the fairest way to figure out what my challenges were going to be.

Here’s what my cart looked like after I’d visited the produce section, bulk aisle and meat case:


Hello, my pretty! Oh, hey, there’s my actual orange container, although I do appreciate public domain photos.

Doesn’t that look like I’m doing great? Well, things are about to get ugly.

My husband likes packaged bread better than the loaves I can get at the bakery up the street (I’ve never gotten into the habit of bringing reusable bags for my bread purchases there, but at least those loaves are in one plastic bag instead of two. Justification!). My kids like potato chips and crackers in their lunches, and the occasional rice cake. Milk and cheese? Plastic and plastic wrap. Egg cartons can at least be recycled or reused in a variety of ways, I suppose. Olive oil comes in a glass jar, which sounds environmentally-friendly, but word on the street is that our county’s recycling program is going to stop accepting those soon because there’s no money in it.

Yogurt: Plastic. Cream cheese: Cardboard and then some sort of foil liner, so only partial credit for recyclablility. (Is that even a word? Spell check is mad at me right now.) Butter: We get some Amish brand that comes wrapped in paper, but you can’t recycle paper that’s touched food. And then there are the cans of refried beans and packages of tortillas (“random crap in a tortilla” is a regular dinner theme in our house), the tins of tomatoes and sauces, the cereals and oatmeal and jars of peanut butter.

Oh, geez, and this is just FOOD. I don’t even want to think about cleaning supplies. Or, like, toothpaste and toilet paper.

Taking a breath, this is fine, we’re all good, baby steps…

Here’s my cart by the end of the trip. You’ll notice I didn’t get everything listed above – we didn’t need all of that stuff – but those are all items that make it on my list regularly and can be found in my refrigerator and cupboards.

Ah, well.

Ah, well. This actually looks better than it was because things are buried under other things.

So there is clearly some room here for improvement. Although, disclaimer, instead of my usual packaged cereal, I did choose some granola from the bulk bin, just as a nod to the project and my future (it’s coming anyway, may as well accept it: Oaty Bites are a thing of the past for me. Sniff.)

Upcoming in the Walker household will be a conversation about what we can give up, what we are willing to try, and what we’re just not ready to let go of. This is mostly for the girls’ sakes, as they are the ones that are having the hardest time wrapping their heads around the project (I didn’t foresee that, although maybe I should have — New Ideas Are Scary).

Next week’s cart should look better is what I’m saying.

Next up: As I was writing, it occurred to me that I should probably explain what my shopping kit looks like and how tare works. So we’ll do that.

20 Responses to Grocery shopping: Cart baseline with a side of how to use a reusable container at the meat counter

  1. Thank you so much for addressing all this! I have toyed around with the idea of getting as close to zero waste as possible – only in my head so far. And, although I have read a little about how to handle the grocery store issue, it’s so much helpful to watch someone actually do it in “real time”.
    Good luck on your year long journey! Can’t wait to see how it goes! =)

    • I COMPLETELY understand — I like to observe first before I jump into something. It took me maybe a year to decide I could be a minimalist after reading blogs and articles, and I think it made it easier because I did have it all figured out in my head. Zero waste took me longer, maybe because it’s more involved and therefore more to sort out.

      Anyway, thank you — I appreciate the support!

  2. I started making my own yogurt a couple of years ago. It was easier than I expected, and I only had one bath not turn out (because I was rushed and threw the starter into milk that was too hot). If you have a gas oven, it’s really the easiest thing to switch. Let me know if you want directions.

    • I have an electric oven … would that still work? It’s a very intriguing (and sort of intimidating, but what could happen?) idea!

  3. I know you work full time, but if you can find the time to make your own potato chips (you need a mandoline ) and kale chips, my kids actually like those better than prepackaged. I’ve also.started popping popcorn in the air popper and throwing it in my lunch (since.they were begging for.the $4 a bag smart food stuff they sell now) and they like it fine for a crunchy snack.

    • I made potato chips one time and Johanna just happened to throw up that night, so that’s now out forever. (That kid has a memory that won’t quit. She was probably 5 and she talks about it like it was yesterday. Also, she can really hold a grudge.) Both girls actually do like kale chips, though. I covered an extension service program once where a class made kale chips, and it was surprisingly easy. I’ll put that on my list for this summer…

      Popcorn! That’s a great idea! Especially since you just pop and go! 🙂

  4. I would love you bring in my own containers to the store but I do cringe at the reaction. Now that I live in Texas I noticed NO ONE recycles here. I gather my recycling in my cubicle at work and try and take it home at the end of the week. I’m really enjoying your blog and continuing the conversation.

    • One of my good friends moved from Oregon to Texas, and that was the hardest part for her, going from curbside recycling to no recycling. She and her husband ended up opening a pseudo-recycling drop-off point in their garage for their friends and driving items into the transfer station themselves.

      Maybe test the waters by asking the next time you’re at the store. I’ve done that before … it’s easier for me to ask a theoretical question than stand there with my empty jar and get turned down.

      And thank you! It’s nice to talk to like-minded people!

  5. Looks like you’ve got reusable produce bags instead of plastic, I have those, but groceries are still the biggest source of waste in our house…all the packaging, even for a lot of the produce. We recycle as much as we can, looking forward for more new ideas!

    • Oh, it’s definitely the biggest source of waste for us, too. I’m hopeful that if I can get this nailed down, the rest will be a little easier! I’ve seen individual potatoes wrapped in plastic in the produce section (“for easy serving”), and one of my pet peeves is packages that are wrapped in another package — why do they do that?!

  6. I agree, food definitely brings in more waste than anything. Great you have a bulk section and can get meat in your own containers. We struggle with that now – for ethical animal welfare reasons I prefer to get meat from our local farmers’ markets but it all comes prepackaged. Very frustrating!
    Do you compost? If you do, just rip up your butter paper and put in the compost. It’ll rot down just fine.
    Great start to the new Simple Year. Loving your writing and what you’re doing so far 🙂

    • Well, you’re my new best friend. Thank you for the nice words. 🙂

      I’m coming to realize that I am very lucky to live where we do. Maybe we don’t have a ton of options, but at least we have them.

      I haven’t started composting yet — that’s on the list. Thanks for the butter wrapper tip! I will do that.

  7. Well my post didn’t post so I’ll try again – apologies if that means you now get it twice!
    Just a couple of blogs I’ve found since you inspired me to start looking-
    – – she has a great A-Z of alternatives to plastic in all aspects of life
    – – recipes about cooking from scratch all sorts of pantry staples – including yoghurt. I made some overnight in my crock pot and it was great!
    Now I just want to find alternatives to plastic in the freezer ?? I freeze fruit and veg from the garden, and bulk buy meat and don’t know how else to package stuff for freezing.

    • Thank you for the website recs — I will definitely check those out, and I’m very intrigued that you just made yogurt in your crock pot!

      I have been researching alternatives for plastic bags in the freezer recently, since we’re coming up on market season and I like to fill my freezer, too. One year I used cereal liners (just to see what would happen; I didn’t research that at all) and it didn’t work very well — too hard to seal up and didn’t protect the food from freezer burn. I’ve been reading that you can actually put those through a FoodSaver, but I’m not sure I want to try it again, given that I’ve already established they’re not freezer-safe, even if you were able to seal them. So I’m still looking. But I will be sharing what I find out! Keep me posted on any other findings you have, too!

      • Trisha – perhaps you could do an experiment on freezing meat using cereal bags and a Food Saver by using the scrappy bits of meat that get distegarded at food prep time. If you dont have a Food Saver perhaps you could borrow one from a member of your local Face Book community page or from one of your readers. Alternatively you could get a reader to do the experiment ie free the raw scraps, seal them in a cereal bag and a couple days later thaw. Perhaps it could be documented on a video clip.

  8. It is nuts the amount of waste just due to food packaging. A lot of which doesn’t seem to be fulfilling the purpose of protecting the food anyway, just there for advertising etc. Good on you for bringing in some containers to be filled up! I am 99.9% sure I wouldn’t be able to do that here. I do bring produce bags and grocery bags with me, and even then there are people that actually stare while I am filling one of these. One shop assistant thought to be helpful, and said ‘Our bags are free you know’. Um, yes, I know, but I don’t need a plastic bag collection at home, and the planet doesn’t need it either. It’s an odd concept, that if something is free we should automatically take it.

  9. Just curious as to your thoughts on this….I live in the city and walk my dogs regularly and thus have to pick up their “waste” on our daily walks. I have used produce bags for this because they crumple up more easily into my pocket and seem to just “work” better for this job. But of course when we get home, I chunk them in the trash bin (I can’t see washing and reusing these…) Does this qualify as recycling? I mean we are re-using the item? If not, other suggestions? I can’t see using truly washable bags for this sort of thing although I did use cloth diapers with my kids, but somehow human waste and dog waste don’t equate in my mind. Thoughts?

    • I’m going to preface this by saying that I am in no way a zero waste expert, and I’m really not in a position to judge your plastic baggie use, since I still have a drawer full of those myself. In fact, I have them lining my trash cans too. And we do better with pets who ignore us, which is why we have a cat. I have no experience with dogs or waste baggies or anything canine-related, really.

      But I’ll try anyway.

      My initial thought is yes, you are reusing the bag — because you’re not just tossing it into the trash empty. I’m not sure what your situation is, but my favorite grocery store uses some kind of biodegradable … something (science is hard) for their bags, so if they do get tossed, they’ll eventually rot.

      Eventually. But it does make me feel better. Any idea if your bags are biodegradable or not? If they are, then it’s an easy solution.

      And if not … I think it all boils down to what you’re comfortable doing. In all honesty, I would probably keep using the bags and just try to reduce waste somewhere else. Like, okay, I’m using plastic bags, so I’ll be vigilant about carrying around my reusable water bottle to even it out.

      My plan with our plastic bag stash is to use them up until they’re gone and then figure out Plan B, which I’m pretty sure will be just not using anything at all. But I’m not dealing with dog poop on a daily basis. I did google “biodegradable dog poop bags,” just out of curiosity, and was amazed at the options, although the prices all seemed kind of steep to me, but hey, silver lining, the color variety is amazing!

    • Paivi – Amazon sell biodegradable dog bags. You may find that your local vet or pet supply store also stock them.

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