5 Weird Things I Do: When I’m Shopping

Weekly Farmer’s Market haul!

My typical Friday afternoon goes a little something like this:

  • 4pm- Begin simultaneous watching the clock and repeating the mantra “Be productive, stupid.”  (Note:  graduate school not always the best for increasing self-love.)
  • 4:30pm- Start to feel like I’m really hungry and, I mean, it’s almost time to go anyway.  Desperately try to make final progress on whatever task I have been attempting.
  • 4:45 pm- Give up.  Start filling in my OCD meal planning spreadsheet and making my shopping list.

So, just based on this 45 minute snap-shot, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that my approach to picking the groceries I purchase might be a little different than your own.  Meal planning spreadsheet you say?  List you say?  It may sound weird, some might say it’s unnecessary, but these are a part of my household’s weekly shopping ritual.  What’s more, I’m confident that these things, plus others I will discuss, help me to save money and cut back on the waste I produce.  So I felt compelled to share, and another instillation of “5 Weird Things” was born.  


As always, I would encourage you to not be overwhelmed by the thought of totally upending your shopping mojo.  I didn’t wake up one morning and decides that I was going to do all these things at once.  Like most life choices, these have come to me through a gradual evolution in my thoughts and actions based on lots of research and some provoking conversations.  Maybe pick the one that interests you the most or that you think might make the most difference and give it a try!  Then come back next month and pick up another one!  That said, here we go.      


1.  Make a plan (meal plan, check the pantry, make a list!)

Let me set the scene for you.  It’s Saturday morning.  Myself and my fella’ have just gotten up and and moving around our apartment.  Hopefully, on Friday evening we’ve looked online and through our cookbooks and picked out the meals we wanted to make during the week to come.  In the less hopefully, and probably more typical scenario, I’m doing that on Saturday morning sitting in my bed.  There is always the temptation to just wing it and head out into town.  However, my mother’s voice in my head saying “a stitch in time saves nine” generally drowns out this alluring option, and I make sure to finish getting my plan together.  You see, as far as I can tell, making a solid plan helps me to save money, waste less food during the week, and avoid eating out, which is usually way less nutritious than cooking your own dinners.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so I’ll break down my process, then I’ll make my pitch.

So, what does this planning process entail exactly?  It all starts with a spreadsheet.  Like any good scientist (or anyone with a mild obsessive streak, guilty), I love a nicely organized Excel sheet.  I catalog our meal choices into the spreadsheet which includes spaces for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and three snacks.  I then look at the recipes we’ve chosen and list all the supplies right in the same tab.  Thus, I’m basically making my shopping list as I’m meal planning.  When you’re filling out your meal plan, it’s important to think of it as more of a road map and less of a contract.  If your friend stops by on Monday who doesn’t care for couscous (weirdo), then you can switch your Monday and Thursday meals.  Probably the hardest mental block to get around in this respect is planning your snacking.  My rule is to buy enough fruit each week to eat as one of my snacks, then get two or three other things that we can eat throughout the week.  It doesn’t matter really which days I end up eating those snacks, but writing it down helps me to visualize how much of each thing I will need to buy.  Plus, if you love snacks like I do, having things on hand is the only way to keep yourself from purchasing stuff from the gas station and vending machine.  

My meal planning spreadsheet.  I loves it.


Now that you know what you will be making and snacking on, and you have a list of all the ingredients you’ll need to make it happen, you need to take your computer into the kitchen and check your pantry.  This will help you avoid buying double of anything you already own.  Obviously, there are some things you will just know, but I can never seem to remember if I have chickpeas or not, and my hummus-making ambitions have been thwarted on several occasions when I didn’t take the time to double check.  Now, you can transfer your shopping list to something more portable than your laptop.  I usually type mine into my phone or jot it down on a piece of scrap paper from our scrap paper bin.  

Okay, so here is the promised pitch.  My process described above might seem like a lot of unnecessary effort to some.  And for some people, perhaps that is the case.  But for myself, planning my meals in this fashion has helped me in numerous ways.  First, it’s really aided my efforts to waste less food.  When I go to town with a plan made and a list in hand, I know what I’m going to actually need for the week.  This really encourages me to avoid impulse purchases, especially impulse purchases of perishable items, because I know I won’t have time (or tummy space) to eat them.  Also, making this meal plan and checking back with it during the weeks has given me a really thorough insight into how much food we can reasonable consume.  I remember when I first started meal planning, I would pick out so many recipes that I was excited about, but I would end up with far too much food!  For our little household of two individuals, we generally cook 3-4 dinners a week at home.  For the other 3-4 evenings out of the week we work through our leftovers.  We like to snack on things like fresh fruit, pretzels and homemade hummus, veggie and dip, peanut butter and apples, and the occasional granola bar.  I also generally purchase enough produce to make salad for both of us for the week for lunch.  For breakfast, we like oatmeal, smoothies, fruit, and toast.  Wasting food is obviously a no-no on lots of levels, not the least of which is the impact food production has on the environment.  But, hey, when you throw food out, you basically throw out money.  Who wants to do that?  

I think this quotation from a study performed by Parfitt and colleagues in 2010 sums it up pretty well.  The U.S. stats are equally embarrassing  but I chose the U.K. statistics as they were quantified in carbon emissions (Note: Mt stands for metric tons).   

“More recently, the Waste and Resources Action Programme 
(WRAP) has shown that household food waste has reached unprecedented levels in UK homes (WRAP 20082009a,b), with 8.3 Mt of food and drink wasted each year (with a retail value of £12.2 billion, 2008 prices) and a carbon impact exceeding 20 Mt of CO2 equivalent emissions. The amount of food wasted per year in UK households is 25 per cent of that purchased (by weight).”


2.  Reusable Bags, reusable containers, reusable foreva’

Bulk bags and a selection of reusable containers.

Once I have my list in hand, I get all my shopping accessories together.  For me, that includes a team of reusable grocery bags, a bunch of reusable containers and bulk bags (we’ll get to the use of these below), and my reusable coffee mug (it’s my weekly treat to get a coffee from our Co-op).  I’m a pretty firm believer that reduce and reuse are way more important “R’s” than recycle.  I’ve talked about this view in length here.  Thus, for anyone who is trying to reduce their impact on the planet, I’d say reusable shopping bags are a no-brainier.  The next logical step is to start bringing your own containers for foods you purchase in the store such as meats from the deli (if that’s your situation), pre-made foods like salads, and the increasing number of bulk foods popping up in co-ops and large chain stores across the country.  Depending on the store you go to, there might be some health concerns with using your own container for things purchased from the deli, but I’d be willing to wager that if you spoke with a manager you could figure out some solution that would work for everyone.  

Reusable shopping bags.  Way more fun.


Here are a few reusable shopping tips I’ve developed over the years.  First, buy one of these amazing ChicoBags or something similar.  Put it in your car or your handbag/manbag.  This is great for when you are just running to the store during the week and forget your normal fleet of reusable bags, or when you get a little excited at the store on the weekend and end up needing an extra shopping bag.  Second, even if you have no bulk section and your deli is not allowing you to use your own container  you can easily cut down your waste in the produce section by choosing products that aren’t wrapped in plastic and then bagging them with reused plastic/paper bags from home.  I have a small collection of bags I used to put my store bought produce in before my mother made me a set of awesome bulk bags for Christmas.  

Okay, now that we have all that stuff together, we can actually leave the house and go shopping!
    
3.  Shop the Farmer’s Market

FarMar Veg

Oh, the joys of the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.  This is one of the highlights of my week.  We always arrive hungry and grab brunch at one of the food carts that is parked on the lot with all the farmer’s booths.  After we are full (hunger is dangerous at the FarMar!), we take a stroll all the way down the isle of vendors, checking out the produce, referring to our list, and trying to find the best combination of quality and price for the items we want.  The benefits of shopping at the Farmer’s Market are numerous, and you have likely heard many of them before…but I’ll repeat them anyway.

Beautiful summer produce!


Probably the biggest impact of shopping at the Farmer’s Market is the minimal amount of miles your food have to travel to end up on your plate.  Webber and Matthews (2008) found that “…for the average American household, “buying local” could achieve, at maximum, around a 4-5% reduction in GHG [green house gas]…”  There are several things to consider about these findings.  First, the paper never formally defines what “local” means, but the widely accepted definition is that local products are produced within 100 miles of where the consumer purchases them.  Additionally, that figure is for a fully localized diet, which can be very difficult to achieve, even for the very devoted!  Another interesting finding of this study is that not all food groups are created equally.  According to their work, you could reduce your GHG impacts to equal that of a totally localized diet by shifting away from eating red meat one day a week, wow*.  However, if you are only concerned with the farm-to-table travel impacts of your food (less holistic) focusing on local fruits and vegetables whenever possible will provide you with the biggest bang for your buck, as these foods generally make the longest trek from the producer to your plate.  There are several other terms in the model which are clearly estimates and averages, and I highly recommend you check out this study, or any of the related literature on food miles if you are interested.  The take-home here is that buying local, especially fruits and vegetables, does matter, but what we choose to eat can matter more (probably more on this in a later post).  Remember, your personal impact might not be monumental when you change a single habit, but over time and in conjunction with other lifestyle changes, you can make a difference!  Buying local has lots of other fringe benefits aside from reducing food miles, such as keeping money in your local community and getting to know the people who provide you with your food!

Lavender!

Another great benefit of the Farmer’s Market is the lack of lots of unnecessary plastic packaging.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the vendors at the FarMar will always be ready to give you a plastic bag to put your produce in, but you don’t have to take it!  I know when I first started trying to avoid plastic, I felt a lot more comfortable politely refusing the nice person at the market and putting my produce straight in my reusable bag than I did carrying my peaches all willy-nilly up to the checkout counter at the store.  I’m over that now by the way, and if I forget my reusable bag, I just bring a bunch of loose apples to the checker.  It’s never seemed to cause anyone any problems!

Last, if you want to buy organic at the Farmer’s Market, you totally can!  However, if you are only interested in pesticide free produce or you want to support a farm that is only just transitioning to organic and doesn’t have a certification yet, you can!  The point is, if you have a question about your goods, you can ask the farmer!  I can’t quite put into words the nice feeling of matching a name with your asparagus, but it’s a real thing.

4.  Buy in bulk when you can, and ask for more bulk options

Jars for bulk foods!


This one isn’t an option for everyone, and I realize that.  I’m supremely fortunate to live in an area where even the Safeway has some foods in bulk.  This is a movement that is spreading however.  When I was last home, I went to the store with my mother and saw many types of beans in bulk bins in her local chain grocery store.  And if you are thinking, “There is a Whole Foods near me, but their bulk food will be too expensive!” you might be incorrect.  Do a price comparison between what you usually buy and what you could buy in bulk at a health foods store.  You might find the price difference is negligible, or the bulk foods might even been cheaper!  Just beware the interior isles of places like Whole Foods.  When you start buying pre-packaged foods from those stores, then you can end up saying “oops, there went 80 bucks!”  Okay, what if you don’t live near any bulk food options?  I would encourage you to ask for them!  Speak to a manager, or write on a comment card.  As I said, this option is spreading.  Request it and support it.

Why buy bulk?  You only have to buy the amount you need, which can lead to less waste of food in the end.  And the obvious:  less plastic, fantastic.

5.  Shop once a week 

This item is last on the list, but I think it’s still important.  Shopping once a week (or less) does a lot of really good things for you.  Initially, it makes all the tips mentioned above that much easier!  You only have to plan and remember your reusables once a week, and then you can coordinate that with your trip to the Farmer’s Market and the store!  Less travel also means you save gas.  Running back and forth to the store multiple times per week can add up quicker than you might think.  If you get all your major shopping done in one go, when you need this or that from the store, you can usually pick it up with your bike or just go to the store that is most accessible on your commute without worrying about price as much!  Next, shopping once a week means you are prepared for the week to come.  You know what you have in your pantry and fridge and, thus, you’ll have some idea of what you want to make for your meals.  Even this small step, being stocked up by the time the week starts, can save you from the ever tempting trap of delivery/take-out/fast food, which we all know is less good for us, less good for the planet, and just generally less tasty than food we make ourselves!  Plus, I find when I have all my supplies right off the bat, I can pre-prepare some foods to streamline my work week.  For example, on Sunday (okay, usually Monday morning) I cut up and prepare salad and salad dressing for the entire week.  That way, on most weekday mornings, I just have to assemble the veggies and head out the door!  Last, making shopping an event makes it fun.  In our house, we look forward to Saturdays.  We know we get a Farmer’s Market treat, and it’s an uninterrupted time together to to plan something we are both invested in.

Last Word:  I strongly believe considering our food choices is a cornerstone in attempting to live a more Earth-friendly lifestyle.  We all have to eat right?  This post was all about the little tweeks we can me in getting that food in order to avoid food waste, stay away from too much packaging, and begin considering the foods we actually choose!  I hope you learned something new, or were inspired with a new idea.

I was obsessed with these pepper wreathes this fall
at the FarMar.

What do you think?  Do you do any strange things when shopping because you feel they reduce your impact on the planet?  Any suggestions for me to try out/research?  I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Sources: 

  • Parfitt J, M. Barthel, and S. Macnaughton.  2010.  Food waste within food supply chains:  quantification and   potential for change to 2050.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 365: 3065-3081.
  • Webber C.L., and H.S. Matthews.  2008.  Food-miles and the relative carbon impacts of food choices in the United States.  Environmental Science and Technology 42:  3508-3513.

5 Weird Things I Do: Morning Routine

Hey all!  I know it has been a while.  What can I say.  School.  Life.  The usual things that get in the way of my blogging.  Have I told you guys that I am running a Sprint Triathlon in April?  It’s crazy right?  Like I need more to do.  It’s been pretty great though.  I’ve been swimming, biking, playing soccer, and discovering that I might actually like running!  I’ve been training for the past month or so, and I discovered a new favorite blog:  No Meat Athlete.  This blog is great starting from the adorable jogging carrot, right down to the health and running advice.  I stopped by there a few mornings ago during my usual blog trolling/procrastination loop before getting down to work and saw the most recent post about weird things this blogger does now that he is a vegan.  I loved it, mostly because I thought it was all cool, familiar, and not really that weird.  But it got me to thinking, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thus far telling you guys about new things I am trying to do to make my impact on the earth itty-bitty-small, but I’ve totally neglected to tell you all the things that have changed in my life over the past few years as I strive for this goal.  Some of these things are big, some are small, and some are totally weird.  I just think of them as so normal now.

So, over the next little bit, I will be sharing with you short lists of the weird things I do in my day to day.  Some of them might seem pretty normal to the hippie-eco set, but I hope to teach even the old hat eco-nerds some new tricks.  Here we go with installment one!

Five Weird Things I Do- My Morning Routine:

1.  Baking Soda and Coconut Oil Face wash

My new face washing routine.
Excuse the blurry picture, but this is pretty much what it
looks like before I combine the two ingredients.

I found this little gem months ago and quickly added it to my Pinterest board for future reference. I had been using the Neutrogena Facial Cleansing Bar because it comes in a paper box and I didn’t have to buy a new plastic bottle every time I needed new face wash. However, I was always a little bummed that the bar came wrapped in a little layer of cellophane plastic. So close, yet so far. I’ve always had problems with mild but persistent acne and the Neutrogena had really done the trick for clearing it up and lasted for a really long time (read: it was super cheap!).  Additionally, I wanted a face wash with as few chemicals as possible.  Your skin is your biggest organ, and everything you put on it gets absorbed to varying degrees.  I do not want to put a lot of random chemicals on my body and just hope for the best.  This  was another semi-plus for the Neutrogena face bar.  Everyone should run their skin care products through the Environmental Working Group’s, Skin Deep Database.  It will tell you a lot about the chemicals and risks associated with all sorts of health and beauty products.  But I digress.

So, I was a little resistant to trying this new technique, because I was relatively pleased with my current solution   Despite my reservations, when the time came to buy new face wash about a month ago, I found an on sale coconut oil that was 1) organic, 2) in a glass jar, and 3) did I mention on sale?  I decided I had to go for it!  I figured, I use baking soda for everything and if this doesn’t work I can use the coconut oil for cooking.  How does it work then?  The jury is still out.  I have super, super sensitive skin so each time I switch face washes, there is an awkward period where I get small break outs, so that is still happening.  Additionally, I’m not sure I’ve been doing it 100% right.  The instructions on the website are different than the ones on the pin, which are the ones I have been following.  Right now, I am using a pinch of baking soda and a very small amount of coconut oil (size of a pencil eraser) 3 times a week, then washing my face with warm water and a wash cloth the other days.  My skin looks a lot healthier aside from the slight increase in blemishes.  I have no dry skin and it has evened out my skin tone a bit.  I’m going to give it till the end of April, and see if things clear up the rest of the way.  After all, I have been exercising about 20x more than usual and falling into bed at night without rinsing my face sometimes, so it’s hard to say if this is working great or not.  Someone else should give it a try!  Let me know how it goes.  It’s for sure got less chemicals and plastic associated with it than any other face washing routine I’ve tried.  And, I feel like my face smells nice after…


2.  Baking Soda Deodorant

My deodorant!

Unlike the previous item, this is tried and true for me!  In high school, I was always very self-conscious about sweating a lot, and I was even using one of those over the counter, prescription strength deodorants at one point.  I went back and forth about this into my undergrad days, and then my little sister’s best friend’s mother (long connection, I know) got breast cancer.  This was during the time when researchers were just starting to explore a possible link between aluminium-based components in deodorants and development of breast cancer.  The jury is still out about this health link, and I would encourage you to check out the National Cancer Institute’s summary of the data here.  In either case, I’m not really one for messing around with possible cancer causing agents, so I decided I needed an alternative.  I started off with a sea salt spray deodorant that you can find in most stores, which is Pink Ribbon endorsed.  That worked pretty well, but later that year I was starting to really think about cutting back my consumption of single use plastics.  I read an article online that said baking soda could easily be used as a deodorant.  I gave it a go, and it works so well, is so cheap, and so easy that I will never go back!  All you need is a reusable container and an old make-up brush.

Fair warning, this is not an antiperspirant.  However, everyone I know who I have convinced to actually give this a try has ended up loving it!  Antiperspirants use those aluminum-based ingredients to actually clog up the pores in your armpits, preventing you from sweating.  And did you know that sweating is actually really good for your body?  It helps you maintain your temperature and gets out bad stuff, like toxins you might have absorbed through the skin.  That’s one of the reasons people feel so great after coming out of the sauna!  So, when you initially make the switch you might feel extra sweaty, because your pores are trying to get rid of all those clogging agents you’ve been rubbing on everyday for years!  After the adjustment period, I (an those who I have gotten to try this!) felt less sweaty and smelly overall!  Seriously.  Do this.  If you aren’t into straight up baking soda, there are a ton of recipes for smelly-good homemade deodorants on the internet.  If you don’t want to make it yourself, and you have some extra cash, my boyfriend has been using Lush’s solid deodorant bars as of late.  He loves this one.

I have not yet sold D Lo on the green smoothie,
so his is sans kale.  Hello toes!

3.  Drink My Breakfast Smoothie with a Stainless Steel Straw

Yes, I love smoothies.  They keep me really full until lunch time, they give me a lot of energy in the morning, and, because I’m obsessed with green smoothies, they give me all the benefits of dark leafy greens!  I also love straws.  Maybe it’s a leftover from my childhood.  I had stopped using them for the most part because they are made of plastic…and you just throw them away.  However, when we moved this summer, our new roommate had a ton of straws in this cute little container.  I couldn’t resist and started using them again.  Bad Rachel.  The solution?  I used my birthday amazon gift card to buy these cool, reusable, stainless steel straws!  It really is the little things guys.

4.  Coffee, Coffee, and more Coffee!

My morning and afternoon pick-me-ups.

I, like everyone else in America, need my morning cup of Joe   Unlike normal people, graduate students need at least two cups of coffee a day (on average) to keep on trucking.  I’m only half kidding about this.  Anyway, as a result, you can end up purchasing a lot of coffee, which comes with the baggage of a recyclable plastic lid and cardboard sleeve and non-recyclable cup.  Plus, $1.50 or more for a cup of coffee every morning can really add up over time!  I generally opt for the cheaper, less wasteful solution of making my coffee at home.  I purchase my coffee in bulk, and store it in a reusable container.  Then, I brew two cups every morning.  The first cup, I drink hot right then and there.  The second cup I put in a reusable glass jar (which probably used to house peanut butter!) with a little soymilk and stash it in my office fridge as soon as I get to campus.  By the time I need a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, I have iced coffee!  I save money, and I cut down on waste.  Win, win.  Need more reasons to remember your reusable mug or just make coffee at home?  Check out this awesome infographic by Mother Nature Network:

5.  Get on My Bike and Ride!

The Silver Fox (my bike)!

I love my bike, and I love biking.  Our little town is the most, extremely bike friendly place I have ever lived, so it makes biking a lot more convenient.  I bike to school almost every weekday, and I bike to quite a few of my weekend destinations.  D Lo actually doesn’t know how to ride a bike (gasp!), so that is on our to do list for 2013!  Bike riding makes the most sense for a lot of reasons.  It costs no money and makes you healthier, while driving your car costs you money and leaves you sedentary.  For me, getting to and from campus each week would involve 20 miles of driving.  My poor car only gets about 20-25 miles to the gallon when I’m driving in town.  So, driving to work each day could easily cost me 4-5 dollars a week (thanks CA gas prices).  That doesn’t include the cost of parking on campus (7 dollars a day…and a lot per quarter.  Honestly, I’ve never checked it out because I know I can’t afford it!).  Additionally, when I’m driving I’m just sitting there.  News flash, I sit at work all day.  Being an ecologists usually means that for 9 months out of the year I am sitting in front of my computer/microscope/lab bench not really moving.  The other three months, hopefully, I am doing field work and running about outdoors!  However, during the day to day that is the non-field season, by biking to work I burn about 65 calories each way (according to this calorie burn calculator).  So, biking is the obvious choice for both my wallet and my health.

Biking is also a great choice when it comes to ecological thinking.  Each week, by biking to work I keep 0.01 metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere (based on this carbon footprint calculator).  That might not seem like a lot, but it adds up over time!  That means each year, just by biking to work and no other destinations, I can stop 0.56 metric tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere!  That’s a lot, all thanks to little ol’ me.  I know biking to work isn’t reasonable for everyone, but surly there is one location you visit at least once a week where you could bike instead of drive?  Maybe you can make a little extra effort and start a carpool to get to work?  Get creative!

Last Word:  I get really sad when when people start talking about their feelings of helplessness when it comes to the environment   That little voice in our head that says “What I do doesn’t really make that much of a difference” can be really discouraging.  Unfortunately, in some ways, that is true.  We need a real societal shift in order to get our world back on track.  But where do societal shifts start?  That’s right, with individuals.  Like me.  Like you.  We really can do this!  These “5 weird things” were changes to my life originally, and changes require activation energy, but once I overcame inertia and just did it, I don’t even think about these things anymore.  They are just…my life.  Pick one, or two, or more and give them a try.  To quote Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, don’t nothing just because you can’t do everything.  

What do you think?  Are there things you do on the daily that others think are strange?  Share them with me, I would love to give them a try or talk about why you choose these actions.