How to be sustainable on a budget

It can be hard to think of the environment when you’re on a student budget. We tend to assume that most low-waste initiatives are expensive and time-consuming and we often dismiss them. However, food waste is a large contributor to environmental damage, and we might be more guilty than we think. Most of the domestic food waste in Canada could be avoided. On average, Canadians waste 140kg of food per household each year—food that could have been eaten! This waste is also costly, as it amounts to more than $1,100 a year. This is largely due to the fact that we buy in large quantities, cook too much and don’t know how to store our food properly. Here are some tips to increase the shelf life of your ingredients without spending too much money.

What to buy?

The first step is to rethink what you buy on a daily basis. You should really make it a habit to make a grocery list, and take a little bit of time to think about what you need and would like to eat. It might sound simple, but it is easy to fall into the trap of buying whatever first catches our eye at the store, without really thinking of how we will use it. As a result, a large portion of what we buy ends up in the trash before we’ve had the chance to eat it. And it turns out that vegetables account for 30% of the food we waste. With that in mind, focus on buying non-perishables, such as dry and canned ingredients, whenever you can. They keep for much longer than fresh products.

When it comes to fresh produce, we tend to overestimate the amount we will actually eat, and it ends up rotting in the back of our fridge. Well, at least that’s what happens for me and my roommates. The secret here is to try to buy fresh produce more frequently so that you have the time to eat everything you buy.

It is also essential to think of where your products are sourced from. Shipping food across thousands of kilometres has a huge impact on the environment, and some food might even be lost during transportation. Most of the time, we don’t realize that the products we go for are imported from all over the world, but we should try to be more cautious and look for alternatives that are locally sourced. This can just mean choosing products from Ontario over California, because the food has travelled less distance. And this really won’t hurt your wallet.

Buying seasonal fruits and vegetables is also a big step toward sustainable eating habits. Going for strawberries in December isn’t necessarily the best idea, because they won’t be as tasty and will have travelled much more. It’s not always an easy task, especially in Canada, and cravings do happen, but you can try to make the most out of seasonal products. You might even discover new recipes and vegetables you never thought you would taste. You should be on the lookout for our next seasonal fruits and vegetable calendar, but in the meantime, I will post a link to what's in season at the end of this post.

Trying to reduce your food waste can also look like buying strategically. For example, plastic packaging takes a serious toll on the environment and the quality of our food. While it’s best to avoid plastic packaging altogether, this can be a challenge. So, if you don’t have a choice but to buy something in a plastic container, try to go for the least amount of plastic instead of buying something that comes in several individual containers. Each time you buy yogurt or cream, keep your containers so that you can reuse them when buying in bulk. And you don’t need to get plastic bags for fruits and vegetables, they do not serve many purposes besides contaminating your food. You can use tote bags or mesh bags if you need to transport your products, they are a small investment but you will keep them forever.

Where to buy it?

Now, where you buy your products is also important. As I said, buying locally goes a long way, and it can take multiple forms. First, you can try going to bulk stores more often. There’s usually a large selection of every dry ingredient you could dream of, from legumes to pasta or tea… Sometimes you might even find some treats, like peanut butter, chocolate, or olives! Admittedly this can turn out expensive, so it’s not always an obvious choice. But that’s okay, you can always go to your neighbourhood grocery store. Sometimes they also have a bulk section where you can find some of your staples. Markets are an ideal place to find fresh local produce but unfortunately, Canadians do not have this luxury all year round. Alternatively, the supermarket is often our best option. The goal is simply to make the most out of what we’re given, and you can already go a long way by simply being mindful of what you buy, wherever that may be.

If your budget is too small to make any of these changes, you can look up local community groups online. There are many Facebook groups where people organize pickups, or simply some people who are looking to give away some extra food. This can be an alternative if you want to diversify your diet without spending too much.

There are also some community organizations like la Maison de l'Amitié, located in the Plateau Mont-Royal, which redistributes unsold food items for free.

How to store it?

A lot of our waste is directly linked to our inability to store food correctly. Most of what we buy could be kept much longer than its expiration date, including fresh fruits and vegetables!

Either we forget about the food in our fridge (especially when it is shared), or we do not have the time to eat everything before it goes bad. As a first step, you might want to try and clean your fridge. You will see that the ability to actually identify what’s in your fridge allows you to prevent a lot of ingredients from going bad. Don't forget to compost your scraps and spoiled food!

You can also try to make meals in advance. This goes back to my first point about the grocery list, you really want to think about what you would like to eat. You could save a lot of food and money if you just plan at least one meal ahead per week. You can then make your meal in advance and freeze it before your ingredients go bad. This also works for the old vegetables that you find at the back of your fridge. While they might not look as appetizing, once they’re cooked you won’t be able to tell the difference!

Additionally, you can cook two meals or portions at once, so that you can freeze them and save them for later. If this sounds too time- consuming for you, you could simply blanch— boiling your vegetables and soaking them in cold water afterwards— and freeze vegetables like carrots or broccoli straight after your trip to the store, they will keep for months. This also works for meat and fish, which can’t be kept in the fridge for more than a few days.

If you happen to forget about your ingredients in the fridge, you should really make sure that they are no longer safe to eat before throwing them away. We tend to think that fruits or vegetables have gone bad, but unless there’s mould on them or that they smell funny, there’s a pretty good chance that you can still eat them. You might want to incorporate them into pies, soups, stews, gratins, or even mash them. Our next recipes will focus on creative ways to cook with what’s left in your pantry or fridge.

Lastly, if all of these options sound too complicated to you, you could just give your leftovers to your neighbours or someone in need, you might make their day!

I hope you will try out these helpful solutions to reduce your food waste at home. Transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle doesn't have to be boring or expensive. Whether you feel guilty about not doing enough for the environment or you want to lead a healthier and more natural lifestyle without straining your wallet, some steps can be easily incorporated into your habits.

At the end of the day, you just want to become more mindful of what you put into your body and how it affects others.





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