Setting up a Zero Waste Kitchen is one of the best ways I’ve cut down on our family’s food waste. After all, so much of our everyday waste revolves around food and drink, and reducing our food waste is one of the most tangible ways we can make a difference.
Let me premise this post (and really every post) with this reminder: perfection is not the goal.
I repeat: Perfection is not the goal.
It’s hard not to become obsessed with perfection when striving for a goal like zero waste. After all, zero implies an absolute, an ideal that demands no compromise.
The reality, of course, is not so simple. If we get too wrapped up in shooting for perfection, it becomes too easy to give up, because perfection is something we will never achieve. Rather, it’s best to do the best you can, with the best you can afford, rather than slipping into the mindset that you have to do things a certain way or you have to buy certain products to be “doing it right”.
For example, I feel like using a snazzy tin lunch tiffin or glass food storage containers would project a more “zero waste” vibe to my workmates when I roll into work with my pre-packed lunch. However, I have a drawerful of perfectly serviceable Rubbermaid containers from my “life before”. I’m not going to throw them away just because I want something that boosts my ego or image. That would be wasteful, the exact opposite of the purpose of zero waste living.
So I guess what I’m saying is, don’t feel like you need to go out and replace what you already have if it works just fine. Rather, use it until you can’t anymore, and then be mindful about what you replace it with (and whether it really needs to be replaced at all)! When it comes time to replace my containers, then I will look for the most sustainable option I can find, after assessing whether we really need to replace it at all.
It’s with this mindset that I went about gathering items for our Zero Waste Kitchen. As I explained in a previous post, we got rid of a lot of things when we moved cross-country (oh, the infamous dumpster) so we genuinely needed to get some new items. I also looked for opportunities to repurpose items we already had. Anything we did end up needed to be durable, sustainable, and (ideally) biodegradable & backyard compostable. Above all, it needed to solve some sort of waste-related problem.
Without further ado, here is my quick list of essentials for setting up a Zero Waste Kitchen. Scroll down for a more in-depth discussion of the tools I choose and why.
Reusable Cotton Grocery Totes, Mesh Produce Bags, and Bulk Food Bags
Food Storage and Travel:
Mason Jars & Large Storage Canisters for pantry storage and freezing.
Travel tumblers, jars, or any other reusable containers to store leftovers and pack lunches/snacks.
Silicon “Ziploc” bags
Compostable Paper Sandwich and Snack Bags
Food prep, cooking, and baking:
Silicone Baking Mats/Cups and/or compostable parchment paper
Refillable Spice Jars
Any pots/pans/tools that encourage you need to make at home the foods and items YOU like to eat.
Cleaning and tidying:
Reusable bamboo “paper” towels, cotton cleaning cloths and towels
Resuable Glass Spray Bottles and Soap dispensers
Biodegradable cleaning sponges, and bottle/pot scrubbers
Kitchen Compost Pail
Recycled or biodegradable garbage bags.
For a more in-depth discussion of why I choose these items, and links to examples read on! If you prefer to browse on your own, Earth Hero and Life Without Plastic are two sustainable online stores with many of the items on this list, and of course, Amazon has just about everything. If you have a co-op or natural foods store near your home, they may also carry many of these things locally.
(You can read more about creating a Zero Waste Grocery Shopping Kit in this post):
Reusable Grocery Totes, Produce Bags, and Bulk Bags: The first step in setting up a Zero Waste Kitchen is grocery shopping and acquiring food with as little waste (especially plastic packaging) as possible. I have a set of cotton tote bags I use to haul my groceries home. I also have several mesh produce bags for fruits and veggies and some woven bulk foods bags for things like nuts, flour, beans, etc… that I get from bulk bins. You can buy bags if you need them, sew your own, use free totes you’ve acquired along the way, or some combination of the above.
Life Without Plastic has a kit with all three types of bags on its site as well.
Waste Problem Solved: Going reusable significantly cuts down on the amount of plastic (and even paper) I use as a result of my grocery shopping. You can read more about my Zero Waste Grocery Shopping kit here.
No Waste Food Storage & Travel:
Mason Jars & Large Storage Canisters: I use mason jars to store bulk bin items long-term. When I get home from the store, I simply transfer items from the cloth bag to the jar or canister. I find the 32 oz jar size is about right for most things, such as dried beans, fruit, and nuts. However, for things that we use a lot of, like flour, a few larger canisters are nice to have. Again, if you have some old plastic container or something else already, don’t feel like you have to go and buy something super fancy. I bought a few mason jars and then saved leftover peanut butter jars, pasta jars, and other glass jars, as well as plastic yogurt containers and things like that for storing dry goods.
The key is to know how much you have room to store vs. how much you need, and then get enough containers to store just the right amount. Just because I CAN get every dried bean known to man out of the bulk bin doesn’t mean I need to. Rather, I have about 2-3 beans and 2-3 grains in my pantry at a time, and periodically switch out what I buy during my monthly “big shopping” trip. The same principle can apply to anything: nuts, dried fruit, cereal, pasta, etc… This way, you have a good variety of items on hand, but you don’t risk overbuying and ultimately wasting items that eventually go bad.
Mason Jars can also be used to store items in the freezer (make sure to leave room at the top for liquids to expand). You can store everything from berries to stocks and broths, to soups and smoothies. And of course, don’t forget their original use: you can always use mason jars to can the summer’s excess fruits and vegetables.
I also toss a mason jar or two into my grocery shopping kit (depending on what I need) to get things like peanut butter and olive oil out of the bulk containers.
Tip: Write the date on your bulk jars when you fill them up. These will give you an idea of how old things are and ALSO give you an idea of how quickly you go through various food items, so you know how much to buy next time.
Waste problem solved: Cuts down on the amount of plastic packaging for store-bought items
Travel Tumblers, Tupperware, and other general containers for packing lunches and snacks. Most of us already have a lot of these things, so there is no reason to feel like you need to replace what you have if it is already serviceable. Of course, if you have items that need replacing, there are lots of amazing options on the market now, ranging from reusing containers and jars to steel lunch tiffins to bamboo and glass food storage containers. Beyond the things that most of us already have (and the mason jars discussed above), such as plastic or glass Tupperware containers, water bottles, and coffee tumblers, there is a whole world of sustainable food storage and travel solutions. I use a set up of stainless steel cups with lids and silicone straws for our kids' drinks and smoothies because they are washable, durable, and spillproof.
Waste problem solved: No more single-use plastics like Ziploc bags or cups when on the go.
Beeswax Wraps: One of my favorite discoveries is beeswax wraps! These wraps consist of cotton treated with beeswax to make them “stick” like saran wrap, so they can be used to wrap sandwiches and other food items, or for anything you might use saran wrap for.
Silicon “Ziploc” bags: These bags are becoming more mainstream, and I love them for storing foods in the refrigerator and freezer (though mason jars and glass containers are also great for the freezer). I also like them for hiking and outings where glass would be too heavy and bulky (not to mention breakable). However, while they aren’t nearly as bad for the environment as plastic, I do sometimes worry that too many silicone products will end up piling up in landfills, so I only try to buy silicone items that I know will be reused many many times.
Backyard Compostable Sandwich and Snack Bags I have kids. Sometimes it just isn’t feasible to use a reusable bag for everything. This is why I keep compostable paper bags on hand for hiking, packing lunches, and playdates. I ensure the bags I buy are backyard compostable and worm farm-friendly. I can usually get my son to pack any scraps (like orange peels) in the bag and bring the bag home to compost instead of throwing it away. If he forgets, it’s not as big of a deal as it would be if he lost a bunch of the silicone bags. I also use these bags to individually package certain homemade goodies and snacks in the freezer or pantry.
Waste problem solved: No more single-use plastics like Ziploc bags or cups when on the go.
No waste cooking, baking, and meal prep:
Silicone Mats and/or Compostable Parchment Paper: Many bakers use reusable silicone mats and baking cups. I haven’t taken the plunge yet, simply because I haven’t used up my compostable paper parchment paper, and baking cups (and also because of the concerns over silicone outlined above). However, reuse does come before rot and I will acquire some eventually. In the meantime, I will continue to reuse my parchment paper as many times as I can before composting it. Both options are useful for cutting down on disposable wrappers, liners, and foil in your Zero Waste kitchen.
Fun fact: Butter wrappers also make great cupcake liners if you remember to save them.
Refillable Spice Jars: Those little spice jars pack a lot of plastic, especially if you go through as many seasonings as we do (I’m pretty sure I go through over a pound of smoked paprika each year). To reduce waste, we use these refillable glass spice jars from Gneiss Spice. They are magnetic and stick to the fridge, so you never have to worry about spices getting lost or spilled in the back of the cupboard, which reduces both waste and mess! You can also get a special magnet board for them if you’d like, though my family gets a kick out of rearranging the jars on the fridge to see if I’ll notice. Gneiss Spice ships with Zero Waste packaging, and will also send you refills in biodegradable bags in case you don’t have access to bulk bins to refill your jars yourself.
Of course, any container or jar that you can refill will do if you don’t want or need anything fancy!
Tools to Prep Your Favorite Foods at Home: Okay, so this one is sort of a catch-all, but we all have different needs when it comes to diet, time constraints, etc. I bake my own bread, so having a Weck jar for sourdough starter, a banneton, and a pain de mie pan are important for me because I use them regularly. Non-bread bakers may not see these tools as “essential”.
Instead, I think the best approach is this. Sit down. Make a mental list. Determine which snacks, meals, & baked goods you use the most. Figure out which items produce the most waste (do they come in plastic wrappers, individual packaging, or worse...both?) and figure out the tools you need to make it yourself or acquire it in a zero waste way.
Make sure you have a few good-quality pans, knives, and other basic tools you need to make the foods you eat the most. Earth Hero is a great place to find these and other Zero Waste home and kitchen essentials. The key is planning ahead to have the ingredients and tools you need ahead of time. This isn’t to say you should never eat out again, and you don’t need every gadget under the sun. Rather, to be mindful about when and how often you eat out (and really enjoying those experiences!) and then eat in the rest of the time to avoid resorting to convenience foods and takeout (with all of the plastic bags, cutlery, and more!) in a pinch. At any given time, I make sure I have the ingredients to pull together at least one quick and nutritious meal. See my recipes section for ideas!
If you’re strapped for time or just aren’t much of a cook or a baker (and it’s fine if you aren’t!) many snacks and dry goods (such as soup mixes, pasta, etc…) can be acquired through bulk bins and many bakeries will let you bring a reusable bread bag to transport your baked goods home, so you can still have high-quality, convenient foods without the waste.
Waste problem solved: no more plastic wrappers, plastic, and styrofoam takeout containers, or throwaway baking supplies. Also cuts down on food spoilage and waste.
Cleaning & Tidying: My Zero Waste kitchen cleaning essentials include:
Reusable bamboo “unpaper” towels, cotton cleaning cloths, and towels: These can be washed and reused many times and then tossed in the composter once they are completely worn out. I also repurpose worn worn-outout t-shirts as cleaning rags.
Reusable cleaning bottles and sustainable cleaners: I use glass cleaning bottles and soap dispensers filled with (mostly) homemade cleaning solutions. (You can hear more about my cleaning routine in a later post). However, repurposing plastic bottles or soap dispensers is a great way to reuse them! Bar dish soap and hand soaps are great for reducing waste if you don’t have the time to make your own liquid hand soaps and cleaners.
Compostable dish brush and bottle/pot scrubbers: We tend to use our cleaning tools pretty hard, so I choose items made from biodegradable materials such as bamboo and coconut coir so that when they have run their course, I can simply toss them in the composter. I find these tools not only work well, but they are also very well made and durable, so I won’t need to replace them for a long time.
Waste problem solved: Cuts down on the number of plastic cleaning bottles, plastic cleaning tools, and oodles of paper towels that end up in the waste system
Waste Disposal (because yes, even Zero Waste still produces some waste):
Kitchen Compost Pail: We keep our composter under the sink and it is a MUST HAVE. It’s amazing how much less waste goes into the garbage just by composting our scraps. We have a large compost bin in the backyard that we dump our kitchen scraps into when it gets full. However, for those who don’t have a backyard, worm composting is a great low-waste option that can be done indoors, or there are websites like sharewaste.com that connect people who have scraps to people who need them for their own compost. As an added bonus, composting has also opened a wonderful opportunity for us to teach our children about the amazing science that goes into composting. It is a tangible way for us to show them how to care for the earth and our garden.
Our kitchen composter is a plastic pail with a charcoal filter and our backyard composter is a large premade plastic composter. These are both holdovers from the “before times” and I will use them until they absolutely fall apart because I don’t want to waste what we already have. However, there are lots of other options, such as metal and ceramic kitchen composters, as well as endless ideas for creating your own large compost bins out of materials like wood and wire if you are just starting out and want to use Zero Waste materials from the get-go.
Recycling bin: We just keep a cardboard box in our kitchen to hold recyclables like cans, paper, and yes, some plastic that we just can’t eliminate completely. No need for a fancy can or bag!
Garbage Bags: I struggle with this one. There are some Zero Wasters who have managed to eliminate their garbage cans completely, but our family just isn’t there yet (citing the aforementioned pet messes). For our kitchen, we use waste bags made from recycled ocean plastic. Compostable garbage bags do exist, though many of them need to be sent to industrial composting facilities, and it doesn’t really work if you’re putting them out with the regular trash. Instead, we use recycled bags in hopes of contributing to a greater demand for recycled ocean plastic to encourage ocean cleanup efforts. Our current goal is to use one garbage bag a month for our family of four, and maybe someday, we’ll be able to eliminate garbage bags from our list completely.
Waste problem solved: food scraps are dealt with in a productive way (composting) and nonorganic waste is dealt with in as responsible a way as possible.
In a nutshell, these are our family's “essentials”: the tools and practices that help us produce less waste and manage our kitchen waste in a more sustainable way. Let me know in the comments if you think I am missing anything, or if you have any great tips for producing less waste in the kitchen!