Before we get to the zero waste budget meal plan, a few notes:
Zero waste, like all good things, has been hijacked by capitalism. It’s been co-opted into a movement which focuses on aesthetic results rather than being an accessible eco-lifestyle. I see this especially in food – where 100% bulk, high-end dry goods are mixed with expensive exotic produce – which makes zero or low-waste cooking seem impossible, especially for those on a tight budget.
Before we even get started, I need you to know that you trying to reduce the waste around food means you’re already succeeding at a zero waste lifestyle. Your zero waste budget meal plan doesn’t have to be picture-perfect or full of high-priced vegan swaps (likely packaged) to be healthy for you and the environment.
Zero waste starts with refusal which costs $0.
Zero waste changes must be sustainable for you.
Zero waste is more than a plastic wrapper.
I’ve written extensively about this concept. I myself began exploring zero waste while living in a food desert, without a car, and without stable income. I was producing nowhere near zero waste (and I’m still not because the Mason jar and “zero” waste is bullshit) but I was able to make real changes, particularly when it came to food.
Food and what we eat is probably our biggest trash-maker; conversely, it’s also one of the easiest ways to drastically reduce our waste.
Even when I had no money I made big steps. I walked or took the bus three miles round trip to the grocery store. I stopped buying “treats” that I couldn’t afford and came in plastic packaging. I bought unpackaged produce and extra large bags of rice and beans to make simple bulk meals. I stopped buying the fresh produce I thought I “should” that just ended up spoiling in the fridge.
While I’m very happy today that my husband and I are in a less stressful situation, I still try to apply the principles I learned during that time (don’t spend money on unnecessary stuff you won’t use, don’t worry too much about waste if you’ve got other things to worry about) when I go to the grocery store.
Now I’m going to share my most recent shop and zero waste budget meal plan – executed with the restrictions I lived with back then – as well as the ways you can modify it based on what you have around you.
As I mentioned above, we were on the line of being eligible for food stamp benefits for several months when I first started exploring zero waste. I think it’s a good baseline for exploring the real budgets people work with and the ways we can practice low-waste within those confines.
Per Indiana’s general guidelines for SNAP, my husband and I would qualify for up to $352/month if we made somewhere below (gross) $1,760/month. That’s approximately $5.85/per person, per day for a 30-day month. The reality is that number would likely be much lower as that’s the maximum.
Most put the SNAP benefit number at around $4/day, so that’s the number I’ll be targeting (and which interestingly lines up with our usual weekly budget).
The big HUGE caveat here is that I have access to fresh produce and bulk. I’ve written a long post about environmental racism and how dangerous it is and how it affects food access. This is easier for me because I have a car and the ability to get to the store when I need to. I’ve addressed this later on with shopping lists showing alternatives for different situations.
Based on all these thoughts, here are the general restrictions I set:
- I would spend no more than $4/day per person per general SNAP guidelines.
- I would use limited cooking supplies. I used one pot and one pan and cooked as if I had a hot plate (ie. one burner only) and a microwave. No blenders, food processors, etc. I did keep my little stovetop coffee maker.
- I would have access to my pantry items only because we keep very little on-hand.
Basically living the life I lived when we first moved to Indy. So nothing too out of the realm of believably.
zero waste budget meal plan list
Just to make things more realistic/simple for myself, I shopped at Fresh Thyme. While I do have a summer farmers market, it’s only around part of the year (duh), I’m not able to source a whole lot of variety, and it tends to be pricey. So this shop is much more typical of what I usually do.*
As you can see, the ability to avoid waste is almost impossible when in a food desert and lacking fresh produce. Luckily, many people have the ability to get to a full grocery store at some point during the month. You may also be able to get fresh produce at a market or food pantry too. Count it as a win if you’re able to supplement your pre-packaged food with fresh produce occasionally.
*Most of the metal, glass, and paper packaging highlighted above will be recyclable through municipal systems. Unfortunately, many people who suffer from lack of access to unpackaged goods are also boxed out of recycling programs. A few tricks I’ve used: bring them to local recycling drop-offs, toss your recyclables into your work recycling, or find a local business that recycles and drop it in their bin (sketchy, but it works).
And in the interest of full disclosure, I also had some pantry/fridge items that I used. I felt that realistically many people would have a few odds and ends available, so I let myself use them as well. In my pantry/fridge (yes, we really don’t keep much of anything in the house):
- ketchup & mustard
- garam masala
- chili flakes
- half head of cabbage
- vegetable oil
- nutritional yeast
- 1 cup dried beans
$36.11. I’d say this is pretty typical, although on the low end of our weekly budget. As I mentioned in my zero waste grocery shopping tips post, our budget is $35-45/week depending on what we need to stock up on. (We live in Indiana – a low cost of living area – which makes this pretty easy.)
As mentioned above, if we ballpark $4/day per person this zero waste budget meal plan should last us four and a half days. Because my husband occasionally eats lunch at work, this should last us a full 5-6 days.
Not much. Fresh Thyme has a solid bulk section, lots of unpackaged produce, and never cares that I use my own bags/containers. I have everything tared up and ready to go when I check out and have no problems. NB: waste is far more than what comes home with you! Fresh Thyme fills their bulk up from large packages which are either made of plastic or shipped in plastic. Waste is far more than what fits in a Mason jar.
- 1 plastic bag wrapped around cauliflower
- 1 twist-tie
- 2 rubber bands
- 2 tin cans (recyclable)
- bazillion produce stickers
I also saved all the odds and ends of our veggies to be used for stock. After that I’ll compost them. Food waste is also an important part of this equation.
what I ate
This zero waste budget meal plan is vegan kind of by happenstance but it definitely helped the budget. I’m vegetarian and have largely cut out animal products except for the odd locally-sourced egg or dairy saved from the trash (my husband works in a kitchen). My husband didn’t buy meat this week.
Whatever the circumstances, vegan or vegetarian meal plans are far cheaper when you’re cooking for yourself. Try cutting out meat and replacing it with a plant protein – you’ll be shocked at the savings.
Breakfast: apple and peanut butter with coffee.
Lunch: chopped vegetable salad with oil/salt/pepper dressing.
Breakfast: banana pancakes with peanut butter and foraged raspberries.
Lunch: leftover chickpea salad and sliced cucumbers with oil dressing.
Dinner: chana masala and roti (Good & Cheap recipe).
Breakfast: oatmeal with jam and bananas.
Lunch: leftover chana masala and roti.
Dinner: macaroni and cheese my husband brought home from work.
Breakfast: coffee, too hot to eat.
Lunch: potato salad (Good & Cheap recipe) and sliced cucumber and tomato.
Dinner: golden coconut lentil soup.
Breakfast: granola with sliced banana and coconut yogurt.
Lunch: potato salad covered with cauliflower cheese.
Dinner: leftover golden lentil “quesadillas” on roti.
Breakfast: an apple and peanut butter.
Lunch: golden lentil coconut soup.
Dinner: sweet potato and garlic pierogis.
That’s it: a typical zero waste budget meal plan. I feel like there’s enough variety that I wasn’t bored throughout the week, even working with limited supplies. A few favorite spice mixes are key to make things interesting without needing a ton of fresh extras.
How does this shop compare to yours regarding price, trash, or anything else you notice?