Written by Sarah Robertson-Barnes for The Zero Waste Collective. Please note that this post contains affiliate links.
Shifting to a zero waste kitchen can seem like a daunting task, with a major concern being how to store food without plastic. The use of plastic on food is nearly ubiquitous these days, from the in-store packaging (not to mention the upstream plastic we don’t see) to the ways we try to keep food fresh in our own kitchen and on the go with us.
Is it even possible to store food and prevent food waste without plastic? Yes! We can look to the old ways of storing package-free food as we move into a future with less plastic. You will find that many, if not most, of these suggestions can be implemented with things you already own. If you need to buy anything new for your kitchen, shop here. Let’s take a tour around your kitchen and begin eliminating plastic by zone and food type.
So you have finally found bread plastic-free, but now what? Bread typically comes in plastic to extend its shelf-life, but there are simple work arounds! Your fresh loaf can be stored in a cloth bag right on the counter or inside a bread box. Covering the cut end with a beeswax wrap works wonders to keep it soft. You can also stored pre-sliced bread, buns, and bagels in a cloth bag in the freezer. If you love bread, they won’t go off before you eat them!
Dry goods bought in bulk and stored in a mason jar is the quintessential image of zero waste, and for good reason! Jars are widely available, from thrift stores to your own recycling bin, and can be used in a million different ways. You may choose to bring them to your bulk store for liquids or sticky things, and decant dry items from your own bags into them before storing in your pantry. Jars let you see exactly what you have and how much. The absence of garish labels make your pantry more inviting - matching jars not required!
Fruits and Veggies
There are countless varieties of fresh produce available at different times of the year, but a handful of storage methods works well for almost everything. This is not an exhaustive list, so if you have a tip, please leave it in the comments!
Upright in water:
Just like a bouquet of flowers, anything with stems will do well in a glass of water. Whether or not the vessel needs to go in the fridge depends on the ambient temperature and humidity of your kitchen.
Good for: fresh herbs, kale, Swiss chard, asparagus, celery with greens, beet leaves, broccoli, green onions.
Submerged in water:
Other veggies hold their crispness for weeks when submerged in water. To do this, fill a large vessel or deep rectangular container with water to completely cover to food and change it every few days.
Good for: carrots, celery without greens, sliced bell peppers, radishes.
On the windowsill:
If you have a sunny windowsill, this is a great spot for things that could use a little ripening, such as tomatoes (which should never go in the fridge), stone fruits, or avocados.
In a bowl on the table:
Fruit bowls are a great way to add easy decor to your kitchen while displaying the produce you need to eat - and it doesn’t just have to be fruit! Find a basket or bowl and keep things that store best at room temperature in plain view. Be sure that the bowl gets good air flow and isn’t in direct sunlight. Pop things in the fridge when they are ripe to extend their life a few more days - no container needed. Note: store apples separately as they can cause other things to ripen too quickly or unevenly.
Good for: citrus, bananas, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, avocado, stone fruits, pears, pomegranates.
In a cool, dry place:
Older homes may have a root cellar, and for good reason. Some produce must be stored in a cool, dry, dark place such as a cellar, pantry, or cupboard. Use baskets or open containers for good airflow.
Good for: apples, garlic, onions, potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, winter squash, pumpkins, yams, melons.
In the fridge:
Some produce is tender and short-lived or requires steady moisture, so the refrigerator is the best place for it. Sturdy vegetables, such as a whole head of cabbage, can go straight into the crisper.
Cut produce can simply be put face down on a plate - keep a plate of “in use” produce at eye level to make sure you use it up first. Leave Brussels sprouts and mushrooms in your cloth produce bags and wash just before you use them.
Use containers with a lid (and a lid can be a bowl cover or simply a plate) for things like beets or artichokes to retain their moisture. Berries should be stored in open containers, but not stacked too deep on top of each other - wash just before eating them.
In the freezer:
Freeze fruit and veg cut into the desired size on cookie sheets and then transfer to a container or silicone bag. This method prevents the high moisture foods from sticking together and allows you to easily grab what you need when making a smoothie or stir fry. This is also a great way to store extra produce at the peak of ripeness for use in the off season.
Dairy and Meat
While reducing your intake of animal products is one of the most effective ways to cut your carbon footprint, you may still need storage tips while you consider changing your diet.
In the fridge:
Store cheeses (especially soft cheese) in an airtight glass container or wrapped in a wax wrap. Milk and yogurt is available to purchase in glass deposit bottles in many areas. Homemade yogurt can be stored in mason jars. Meat can be stored in airtight containers with a lid, or in the butcher paper it was purchased in.
In the freezer:
Meat can be frozen in silicone bags or in airtight glass or stainless steel containers. Portions can be separated inside the containers using parchment paper, which is accepted for composting in many municipalities. Be sure to label your containers with its contents and freezing date.
Liquids and Leftovers
Once again, this is where the mighty jar gets to really shine. You can store teas and simple syrups, homemade soups, beans, nuts, and even last night’s dinner in a jar. You can even freeze in mason jars! Be sure to use a high quality jar with a wide mouth, and leave about an inch of room below the shoulder of the jar. Allow food to completely cool before placing the jar in the freezer. Defrost at room temperature for several hours or soak in a bowl of warm water to loosen the contents.
It's a Step-by-Step Process
There are as many tips and tricks for storage as there are foods! You may need to play around a bit to figure out what works best for your home and budget. One of the best tips is to buy less at a time, giving it less time to go bad. Modifying your food storage is a good opportunity to evaluate your buying, cooking, and eating habits as well to further reduce food waste.
And about your existing plastic? Use what you have until your feel it is unsafe to do so, and then dispose of it according to your municipality’s guidelines. In the meantime, begin experimenting with options above until these sustainable methods become your new normal and you kitchen transitions to zero waste!