It’s hard to do a post on this because a sustainable diet depends so much on location, culture, values, socioeconomic factors, and dietary restrictions. Not only can I not eat gluten, but I can’t tolerate grains, soy, or too much sugar or caffeine. Plus the way I eat was shaped by growing up in a country where celiac disease was considered a fake psychosomatic thing. For half my life, gluten-free options were virtually unheard of, and I got used to eating mostly whole foods without a lot of additives. I also happen to like Korean foods a lot (duh), or dishes I learned to cook on my travels, and some spices or ingredients essential to making these are imported.
As I wrote on Instagram, where I live now, it’s difficult to get necessary nutrients while relying exclusively on local produce year-round. Food miles account for only a fraction of our carbon footprint, dwarfed by emissions resulting from food production.
However, Mama Eats Plants inspired me to be more aware of the impact of imported foods (like the cacao nibs and shredded coconut I love), not just in terms of emissions, but other important issues like water usage, farmer rights, and cultural erasure. The social benefits of buying local can’t be overlooked, including supporting community cohesion and reinvesting in the local economy. So I try to source imported ingredients from companies that divert food waste, like Perfectly Imperfect Produce. That way I enjoy out of season produce without feeling deprived, and support a local female-owned business.
The foods listed below are ones I use most often. This changes based on where I’m living or my circumstances. Your list will be totally different, especially given my strange eating habits. Zero waste is highly individual, so these posts aren’t prescriptive- I can only write about my own experiences, but hopefully the principles (not buying too much, eating plant-based, using what I have) can be adapted to your situation.
- Coconut- Fresh Thyme carries organic, GF coconut flour. I use one quart size jar every three months or so.
- Almond- it’s cheaper and easier to make this myself. Just put almonds in a food processor and pulse! It’s so easy. I use this in smaller quantities- only about 1 pint size jar every three months. I try to limit almond usage because of the energy and resources required to produce it, and the way the bees are treated (almond milk is still a lot better than dairy, however)
Beans / Legumes
- Quinoa – not either of these things, but I eat one quart maybe 3x a year for the protein. It is imported, but I don’t want to eliminate this from my diet completely for fear I won’t be able to tolerate it again.
- Chickpeas – I like having two types of beans on hand at all times. In Paris, I bought these fresh, but in the US, I generally go through 1-2 quarts bulk dried garbanzo beans per month. I always keep a few cans on hand, or buy canned if I can’t find gluten-free bulk. In my area, Whole Foods has BPA, BPF, BPS, nylon, and polyester free cans. Eden Organics is another good brand for oleoresin lined cans. Click here for a full chart of BPA-free cans.
- Black or pinto beans – 1 quart per month. People find this gross but I typically use these instead of pasta, just pour sauce directly on cooked beans. I add beans to everything- salads, bowls, curries, soups. I try to buy kidney beans or navy beans when I find them, for variety, but they aren’t always available gluten free in my area.
- Mung beans – I usually eat half a quart in a given month, and soak a little in water (like ten minutes), then pulse in a food processor, mixing with onions or sour kimchi for a savory pancake. No need for any other ingredients.
- Green or red lentils – it’s hard finding these gluten-free in the US; in France, it was easy finding locally grown lentils. We even had bulk lentil pasta. I’ll stock up on bean pasta if I’m traveling and find it in-store, or buy bean pasta in a cardboard box if I’m cooking for guests.
- Almonds – one small bento bag raw almonds per month (more if I’m eating almond flour tortillas, which is rarely), for flour or snacking. I like these in a grain-free granola with pecans, berries, seeds, and walnuts.
- Pecans – these grow locally (well, in Southern Ohio), so I get one medium bento bag per every one to three months.
- Walnuts – also local, one small bento bag per month
- Cashews – can only find these imported, I get one small bag per every 1-3 months for milk and cheese. I prefer making nut milks and alfredo type sauces from nut butters, so if Fresh Thyme has cashew butter, I stock up on that instead.
- Peanuts – I buy these less often in the winter since I only use them for pad thai and spring rolls and I mostly make these foods when it’s warmer out, I can’t explain why. I can’t explain most things I do
Seeds and dried fruit
- Hemp – I get these at Fresh Thyme because the Whole Foods bin is generally contaminated, people are not careful! I go through one small bento bag of raw hemp seeds per month (about half a quart size jar)
- Sunflower / flax seeds, raw – one pint-size jar of each lasts me six months, idk if it’s ok to keep them that long but I haven’t gotten sick yet
- Pumpkin seeds, raw – Lately I’ve been buying one small bento bag every two weeks, but other people have been eating the burcha I pack so this might not accurately represent my rate of consumption. During the season, I didn’t buy these at all and just ate them from pumpkins or squash
- Dried flaked coconut- one medium bento bag per every three months
- Cacao nibs – one pint every three months
- Sesame seeds – one pint twice a year
- Avocado – I buy this packaged, once every six months. I try to use sparingly
- Olive oil – one-quart size jar every month
- Coconut oil – (packaged) I mostly use this for my body, hair, and under my eyes, one-pint size jar every month
- Hemp oil- packaged in glass, I use this just for pesto or as a supplement
- Organic maple syrup is all I use! Sugared and processed directly into my own jars (Fresh Thyme also carries this on tap). Six-quart size jars last a year.
- Ok, I use dates also, I forgot. I go through one pint every two months, I like to just eat them whole with almond butter and dipped in cacao powder, like Amanda from Mama Eats Plants.
- Tahini. I eat hummus every week, so I buy a giant glass jar (as big as my head, is the most accurate measurement I can give you) from the Middle Eastern store that lasts up to six months. I buy sesame seeds unpackaged (my quantities are irregular though) but I haven’t tried making tahini yet.
- Vegan mayo- I can make this, but sometimes I really screw it up, aquafaba is so difficult for me. I buy one jar of Fabanaise every one to three months, for those times when my vegan mayo is inedible.
- Cacao powder- one small bento bag lasts me, like, a year. You can buy organic cacao powder in bulk at Sprouts (throwing it back to when I was in Arizona) or Fresh Thyme, but next time I’ll just buy fair trade in packaging.
- Cashew, peanut, or almond butter- one jar per month or less, and I only have one jar of nut butter at a time. I use this in place of flours for pancakes and mug cakes or cookies, or to make nut milk / creamy sauces more easily (thank you Archana for the tip).
- ACV- one quart jar every six months (on tap at Fresh Thyme, although you can make it at home)
- Applesauce or pumpkin – I use this in place of eggs for baking and make it myself
- Coconut aminos – purchased in a glass bottle, once every six months or less
- Activated charcoa – also in a glass bottle, I use this very infrequently, mostly just to whiten my teeth.
- Xylitol – (packaged, one 1 kg bag per every two years) this is a sweetener but I don’t want to scroll up. I really just use this to strengthen my enamel, I don’t like it as a sweetener in food
- Olives – from the salad bar, I go through like a jar a week, I think people would be grossed out by how many saturated fats I ingest in a day
- Celery, garlic, mushrooms, and onion are staples of my cooking, as well as tomatoes. I eat tons of local greens and root vegetables in the winter, and berries and apples for fruits- but again, I like avocados, oranges, lemons, etc (a family friend just gave us some homegrown oranges, I never had oranges grown at this latitude before! They were delicious but had a lot of seeds). My family tried growing avocado here, the plant grows like crazy, but produces no fruit.
Herbs / spices
- Turmeric – the following applies to all my spices; I purchase these in very small quantities for freshness (like one Weck mini mold jar every three months). Mostly my friends from Sri Lanka and India bring back their homegrown spices, but they are stupid cheap at Whole Foods if you buy them unpackaged. In Cleveland, I like Chuppa’s for bulk spices, and in Paris, Marche d’Aligre.
- Whole black peppercorns (I like my friends to bring this, it’s much spicier than the stuff I find in stores)
- Basil (fresh, always, I soak this in olive oil for a nice dressing)
- Chili (whole peppers usually)
- Nutmeg (whole)
- Salt (I only buy finishing salt, a practice I picked up in France)
- Oregano (fresh or dried, I always have oregano essential oil on hand for fighting colds but don’t like it in food)
- Gochujang – my grandma or her sisters bring this, organic, from Korea, in their own containers
I used to buy tea in bulk but I can’t handle caffeine anymore, it makes me too wild. And I don’t like cumin or curry much.
For recipes, I usually like Detoxinista, Minimalist Baker, My New Roots, Mama Eats Plants, or Live Planted. I tend to use cauliflower and beans instead of rice and roast a lot of veggies and just heap hummus or guacamole or tomato sauce over everything, although I do get fancier for guests.
When I go shopping, I only take one or two jars for wet items (olives, vinegar, oil) and bag the rest, transferring them later (transferring really doesn’t bother me, it takes two seconds to pour everything into a jar). So it’s not like I’m carrying around a ton of stuff with me all day. I have a car now, but in Paris I carried everything, and when I first started zero waste, I took a bus to go grocery shopping, which taught me to pack light. I always tare my jars at the store because the scales vary, and take a photo of the tare and PLU number so the cashier can subtract the weight at the register. I don’t call the store ahead of time or wait to shop when they’re not busy, because usually, I can only shop on my lunch break, also who calls people on the phone? In eight years of zero waste, only once has anyone ever said no to putting something in my jar (ice cream at Amorino, and a week later they complied with my request). In fact, usually, cashiers round up the tare weight of my jars, or they get sick of subtracting, so they call the manager over to void transactions and give me a lot for free. Like, I think I’ve paid for olives only once since moving to the US.
Certain things are cheaper in bulk- tea, nut butters, beans, spices, cacao anything, coconut, seeds, and vinegar. Olives, oil, nuts, pasta, and flour are pricier (not almond flour), but it evens out because I’m not buying disposable or unnecessary items over and over again. In the Midwest, I prefer Fresh Thyme over Whole Foods for bulk because their bins are more likely to be gluten-free (plus they have bulk nutritional yeast which I go through in quantities I’m not comfortable sharing here) and I generally stay away from the kind with a scoop, sticking to lever bins. I know Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, but… it’s so cheap (cheaper than Fresh Thyme), so I continue shopping there, if only for things like unpackaged mushrooms, Fabanaise and salad bar falafel.