A Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Real Food Zero Waste Kitchen

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The kitchen is probably the most versatile room in your house! You use it for baking, preserving foods, making coffee or tea, feeding your family, hosting friends, and more. Because kitchens are so multipurpose, it is even more important to find zero waste solutions to your everyday needs. We’ll teach you everything we know about setting up a real food zero waste kitchen in this post.

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The strategies and tips in this post will help you reduce your waste and support you in cooking from scratch every day.

real food zero waste kitchen swaps

Please remember to give yourself some grace in this process!

If you’re new to the zero waste lifestyle, we recommend thinking of zero waste as a journey, not a destination.

Find a couple of new strategies to try. Slow down and allow yourself to notice which of your habits, routines, or purchases result in waste. Start there!

What is real food?

Real food means cooking from scratch using the simplest, most natural ingredients. Cooking real food is often less expensive than buying prepackaged foods and is healthier.

If you already try to cook real food, you’re likely on the path to a zero waste kitchen! These two practices merge together naturally.

As someone passionate about cooking from scratch using homegrown or local foods, I’m excited to share some strategies to set up your real food zero waste kitchen.

waste free kitchen no waste

The Beginner’s Guide to Setting Up a Real Food Zero Waste Kitchen

Zero Waste Kitchen Cleaning

Tidy up with zero waste dishwashing

Did you know there are solid dish soap bars for dishwashing? Yep, like an old-school bar of soap from your grandparents’ bathroom except it’s made for dishes.

You stick the dishwashing soap block near your sink and either rub your scrub brush on the bar or hold it in the stream as you let the water run.

Learn more about zero waste dishwashing soap here.

However, running the dishwasher uses less water than hand-washing dishes! These are my favorite zero waste dishwashing tabs. You can get them unscented if you’re avoiding fragrance.

Read: 12 Simple & Effective Zero Waste Cleaning Swaps Worth the Switch

Keep your dishes clean using a compostable dish brush

Instead of a plastic dish brush, try a wooden dish brush with replaceable, compostable heads. There are also smaller brushes perfect for rubbing on your dish soap block!

Find a great low waste cleaning concentrate

The best cleaning concentrate depends on how exactly zero waste you want to be.

Personally, I use Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds that I dilute in a spray bottle for general cleaning. It takes about 1.5 tbs for my 16 oz spray bottle, which means I’m going to have this one plastic bottle under my sink for a LONG time. Read my Sal Suds review here.

However, you can also use Sal Suds for mopping, dishwashing, washing fruits and veg, etc…

If you are not open to using a product like Sal Suds, you can make your own all-purpose cleaning spray by adding 1 cup of white vinegar and 1 cup of distilled water to a spray bottle.

You can also buy cleaning concentrates that come in glass or compostable packaging.

Read: Zero Waste Toilet Cleaning 101

zero waste Dishwasher cleaning

Every month or so, I like to give my dishwasher a good cleaning. Previously, I was buying an all-natural dishwasher cleaner, but I didn’t like the plastic waste or the expense.

Now, I sprinkle baking soda on the bottom of my dishwasher and behind the silverware rack that sits in my door (I move that to the bottom tray of my dishwasher). Pour white vinegar and let fizz. Scrub the dishwasher with a rag or scrub brush and then run a cycle with it empty.

zero waste kitchen tips
You can find zero waste cleaning supplies at Plantish!
Clean glass stovetops

This is one of the areas that was the hardest to make zero waste! Before, I was using a plastic-packaged cream cleaner and razor edge cleaning tool to bring my stovetop to a bright shine.

Up until recently, I was using a Norwex cream paste to help polish my glass stovetop. I tried using baking soda and vinegar instead and was thrilled to get the same results using simple ingredients in my pantry!

Scrub sinks & crusty pans with Bar Keeper’s Friend

Packaged in a paper tube with a metal base and lid, Bar Keeper’s Friend is excellent at removing buildup on stainless steel surfaces. We also have a container under the sink and use it to remove baked-on buildup under stainless steel pans. It’s also the key to a bright and shiny sink!

Bar Keeper’s Friend is easy to find at a grocery store near you.

Polish stainless steel surfaces

Did you know that you can polish stainless steel with olive oil? Simply dab a small amount onto a clean rag and buff it into the stainless steel.

We have black appliances that show water droplets when we wipe them down unless we use my favorite glass polishing cloths. They’re perfect for cleaning mirrors, windows, and anything else that you want a streak-free shine on.

Read: 39 Simple, Intuitive Ways to Reduce Your Waste

Zero waste Floor cleaner

This is another place where I use Sal Suds! Simply dilute it into your mop water following the bottle directions and mop.

We also scored a steam mop for $5 at our local thrift store and I alternate mopping with Sal Suds and steam mopping.

Use zero waste dishwashing cloths and sustainable sponges

Did you know most sponges are made of a type of plastic? Instead, buy cellulose sponges that are completely biodegradable. We get ours here.

You can also crochet your own dishwashing cloths using cotton!

Cleaning rags or unpaper towels, not paper towels

I bought a big stack of lint-free cotton cloths several years ago and we use them instead of paper towels. (I will admit that we do have some recycled paper towels on hand for pet emergencies.) Almost every mess gets wiped up with a towel that we wash and reuse!

Replacing your paper towel roll is an excellent first step to living an ecofriendly lifestyle. Learn more about the best sustainable living tips from 20+ green bloggers!

Read: Why I Refuse to Use Costco Toilet Paper

plastic free kitchen products
Organic cotton kitchen towels

A couple of years ago, I bought a 12-pack of organic cotton flour sack towels. I slowly removed all of my other kitchen towels to just have this one type. I like having all white towels that I can easily wash without affecting the color.

Plus, the towels are easy to fold, stack, and organize. When you can, opt for eco friendly fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, or bamboo.

If you can’t afford new organic cotton, look for natural fibers that will not release microfibers in the waterways. Thrifted kitchen towels are even more sustainable than organic cotton ones!

Zero waste coffee with a Chemex

We love, love, love our Chemex. You can sometimes buy them used if you’re lucky, but we ordered ours new years ago. It is a simple glass carafe and ours has a wooden handle around the middle. You can use a reusable filter made of either cloth or metal to go totally zero waste.

I will admit that we prefer to make our coffee using the unbleached Chemex filters. They are easy to compost and are one of the few disposables we do buy. The flavor of the coffee is noticeably different to us and we’re okay with this amount of waste.

You can also find a stovetop percolator or French press at a thrift store!

Read: 31 Practical & Affordable Ways to Set Up a Zero Waste Bathroom

zero waste kitchen swaps

Setting up your zero waste pantry

Find your local bulk food store!

Check for co-ops or grocery stores with bulk bins. You may even be lucky enough to have a zero waste store near you!

Most bulk stores will offer either plastic pouches or paper bags for you to fill. Those are not necessary and if you are going zero waste, challenge yourself to bring a glass jar or two! You can also bring muslin bags to hold dry foods like beans and grains.

Find the tare weight for your reusable containers

Before you fill the jars, you need to find the tare weight. You can even do this at home if you have an electric scale.

Place the container with lid on the scale. Record its weight in ounces on the jar somehow (painters tape, permanent marker, etc).

At the bulk store, fill your jar and head to check out. The cashier will weigh the total jar to find the price of the jar and the items inside. Then, they will subtract the tare weight (the weight of just the jar) so you only pay for what you bought.

Read: Zero Waste Pantry Staples for Beginners

Honestly, this is the most intimidating part of going zero waste for a lot of people! How do you find a tare weight? What if the cashier doesn’t subtract the tare weight? How do you know exactly how many jars you’ll need to bring? What if you forget your jars?

I totally get it. This is different from regular grocery shopping and it’s easy to be a little nervous trying new things!

Most bulk stores offer some sort of alternative packaging if you forget your jars or have a problem. Choose paper over plastic. Pick one item you need to restock and see how it goes!

zero waste food storage containers
Shop with reusable produce bags

So much produce is sold in plastic! We already know that most plastic is never recycled and plastic films are even worse.

Bring your own produce bags to the store to carry home your apples and carrots.

Reusable produce bags don’t have to be fancy. You can simply reuse the plastic bags you have from before or make your own!

Opt for glass, paper, or metal containers

Although you may want to get all of your groceries using your reusable containers, you may not be able to do that at your local store. In those situations, look for products packaged in easily recyclable containers (glass, metal, paper) instead of plastic.

Especially if you can’t access a bulk store near you, you can still shop more sustainably by making intentional choices about the product packaging you bring home. Learn about our favorite place for low waste & organic shopping in our Azure Standard review.

Buy in bulk to avoid packaging waste

For any items you cannot buy from the bulk section or find plastic-free, try to buy in bulk! This will mean you have one piece of plastic to recycle instead of multiple. I also find that the larger bulk plastic containers tend to be thicker types that are actually more like to be recycled.

Read: Sustainable Baking Essentials for Beginners

plastic free kitchen products
Shop with your local farmer

This part can be tricky for zero waste because unless you are vegan, you will likely be met with some packaging waste. My egg farmer is not able to reuse our paper egg cartons so we get new ones every time.

We also order grass-fed, pasture-raised meat from a local farmer and they wrap it in plastic before wrapping it in freezer paper.

Although these purchases do result in packaging waste, we know getting local food from right where we live is way more environmentally sustainable than grocery store meat or factory-farmed meat.

Read: Where is the Best Place to Buy Grass-fed Beef? Our Best Advice

Buy the best quality animal products you can

If you do eat meat or animal products, try to source as close to the farmer as possible. This will reduce food miles and you can make sure the animal welfare standards meet your expectations.

Plus, if the farm is small enough, you may be able to have some influence on the type of packaging you receive.

zero waste kitchen products

Zero Waste Food Storage Containers

Glass jars are your friend

From shopping in the bulk bins to raising a sourdough starter, you can use glass jars for almost anything. You can even freeze them! Just be sure to leave headspace if you freeze so the glass doesn’t break.

Glass jars are perfect for long-term food storage, too. Save your favorite glass or even plastic jars in your pantry to hold your dry goods and oils. They are essential in a plastic free kitchen!

You can also turn your jars into pumps, spray bottles, and more with mason jar lids.

Read: DIY Vanilla Extract

Plastic free kitchen products

We cook from scratch every day. This means we bump up against all kinds of situations that are normally solved with plastic.

  • Try a silicone sheet tray liner instead of parchment paper.
  • Skip the plastic wrap entirely. Find your new favorite plastic wrap alternative here.
  • Ditch the plastic sandwich bags. We have a few reusable silicone bags or we bring actual sandwiches in pyrex.
  • Wash and reuse produce bags, freezer bags, and more.
  • Store meal prep and leftovers in glass or stainless steel containers.
Hit the thrift store for no waste kitchen tools and appliances

Buying used kitchen tools and appliances is great for your budget and is so helpful for the environment! The nice thing about buying used is that you’re the secondary consumer, so it doesn’t matter as much if you buy plastic. Your purchase didn’t initiate the plastic production; you are saving it from a landfill!

Next time you need a salad spinner or even a blender, check your thrift store or your local Facebook Marketplace! Sometimes people even sell new, unused products secondhand on Marketplace…It’s my favorite place to shop for secondhand items!

Cook with long-lasting cookware

We also cook with almost exclusively cast iron or stainless steel cookware. A lot of non-stick pots and pans have plastic handles and they also have Teflon coatings, which release long-lasting chemicals in the environment known as PFOS, PFAS, and PFBS. These are all possible carcinogens.

We actually use this under sink water filter to remove PFOS, PFAS, and other substances from our drinking water. (Bonus – use code MILKGLASSHOME to save 8% on your purchase!)

360 Cookware makes heirloom quality stainless steel cookware made in America! It’s an excellent option for cookware that will last a lifetime.

Setting Up a Zero Food Waste Kitchen

Food waste is a huge issue! Up to 40% of all food grown in the US is wasted. About 43% of food waste occurs in individual homes, meaning there is a lot of room for us to improve.

According to the RTS report Food Waste in America in 2022, the average American household throws around $1,600 worth of food in the trash every year!

Move beyond best buy dates

In the report above, the authors shared that “more than 80 percent of Americans discard perfectly good food because they misunderstand expiration labels.”

There’s something to be said for learning how to tell if food is safe enough to eat without a best buy date. These are marketing practices anyway and don’t truly indicate if a food is safe to eat.

This is more complex than I can explain simply here, but here are some resources on reading food labels from the USDA and food expiration dates from Real Simple.

Freeze perishables

Lots of foods can be frozen including bread and dairy products like butter, cheese, and even milk! You can keep nuts and any raw seeds in the freezer to keep them from going rancid.

We also freeze fresh produce in the summer to eat in the winter, especially berries.

Typically, we do freeze in plastic gallon bags that we wash and reuse over and over again. You can also freeze in glass jars!

Read: The Ultimate Guide to Zero & Low Waste Frugal Food Hacks

Stretch your meats with beans and lentils

Since we buy such high-quality (also expensive) meat, we like to make it last. We add a handful of dried or soaked lentils into lots of recipes to stretch our servings. This makes it easy to get extra fiber and protein without even noticing.

We love pantry staples and are big believers in keeping a well-stocked pantry!

plastic free kitchen
Can, pickle, jam, and ferment

Whenever you have abundant harvests, put your food away for later! Even if you’ve never canned before, you could make refrigerator jam or pickles. Lactofermented sauerkraut is an easy solution for too much cabbage. Try small-batch canning, too!

Read: Buy Produce in Bulk for Canning, Pickling, and Preserving

Follow a FIFO System

Just like a restaurant, you need a first-in-first-out (FIFO) system! Make sure the oldest food moves to the front and the newest food goes to the back. This helps ensure you don’t forget about the food about to go bad.

Use stems and leaves

Broccoli stems are great in stir-fries. Cauliflower, broccoli, and celery leaves are totally fine to eat (and nutritious!). Use as much of the plant as you can and anything you can’t, add to your stock bag!

zero food waste kitchen
Have a stock bag

Stash veggie stems, peels, and scraps in a bag in your freezer. When it’s time to make stock, simmer them together for extra flavor and nutrition.

Regrow from food scraps

Lots of plants can be regrown using the stem or roots. Stick spring onions in a mason jar with a couple of inches of water on a windowsill for perpetual green onions. You can also train lettuce heads to root and regrow.

Compost whenever you can

For any food you cannot use, compost! Don’t think of compost as trash; you’re creating a natural, useful product.

We have two different composting systems: a rotating compost barrel and a green bin for food waste that gets picked up by our waste company.

Read: How to Be Sustainable in Everyday Life

real food zero waste kitchen compost

I actually prefer the green bin because you can compost way more than you can in just a backyard compost bin, including fat, bones, and meat scraps! Those are not safe for a regular backyard compost and would otherwise need to go in the trash can.

If all goes well, you may not even have any non-compostable, non-recyclable trash to throw away! If you do, that’s okay. Before you take out the trash, snoop around to see which brands created waste and shop for alternatives next time!

Try a pantry challenge

Take a hiatus from grocery shopping sometimes and shop your pantry instead! This is a great way to use up older foods before they go bad.

Get our free pantry checklist here.

Only buy what you need

Easier said than done and I should maybe call this “don’t shop hangry.” If you shop with a grocery list and only buy what’s on the list, you’ll avoid impulse buys and unnecessary packaging.

It also helps to meal plan so you know exactly what you need!

Be flexible with vegetables

We normally stock the same 7 vegetables all the time to make cooking from scratch easy. They’re all versatile and can be used in several ways. They also all go well together, making it easy to load them up into soups, stews, and casseroles.

Don’t worry about whether the recipe is “right.” Focus on using up what you have. Half the time, you won’t even notice if you throw in a couple of mushrooms or an aging carrot.

Read: Azure Standard – Our Secret to an Easy Real Food Pantry

zero waste kitchen cooking tips
Have a use-it-up recipe

We love making soups and stews that can cloak a variety of leftover vegetables. I find that tomato sauce can cover a wide variety of flavors!

We love to make a veggie-packed marinara bowl where we cook up one pound of ground beef and then add…whatever we have on hand! It’s usually onion, cauliflower, celery, carrot, cabbage, zucchini, etc. Then we top it off with some concentrated beef stock and marinara sauce.

It’s so good that we make it at least once a week!

Read: Which is Better: Sustainable vs Eco Friendly?

real food zero waste kitchen swaps pin

Stick with us on your journey to a no waste kitchen

I’m in this with you! In 2022, I decided to transition from low waste to plastic-free on my path to zero waste.

Don’t worry – I’m not here to judge you at all. Zero waste isn’t a contest. I am your biggest cheerleader with every shift you make!

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How can I help you set up a zero waste kitchen?

Is this helpful? Are there questions unanswered? Do you need more info about zero waste food storage or plastic free kitchen products? Tell me in the comments so I can tailor this post to your needs!

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2 Comments

    1. Jean, Oh, I love to hear that! I agree that it is very rewarding. With baby steps over time, it becomes very simple and second nature. Thank you for visiting and for your comment!

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