Two-and-a-half weeks ago I decided to avoid buying any food with packaging for a week. I’m on eighteen days and counting.
I didn’t try to come up with a perfect rule because trying for perfection kept making me delay trying. I settled on the rule that I wouldn’t buy food that had any packaging or get food at a restaurant. I’d figure out on the fly what to do in border cases. I allowed myself to use food I already had.
It hasn’t been as hard as I thought.
I’m eating a lot more fruits and vegetables than usual.
I’m also cooking a lot more beans and peas from dry.
Instead of buying a lot of produce at once, I’m buying enough for a couple days.
Some things are harder to get, like bread.
I find I’m socializing more, or maybe I’m noticing it because cooking all the time means cooking more, and when people are over and I cook, they end up eating what would have been my leftovers. I would have thought I’d socialize less because people often socialize around food.
There’s a lot of free food around me, usually at meetings, mostly hard to eat when I won’t use the paper plates, plastic cups, plastic forks, and napkins. But since I bring plastic bags for shopping almost every day and a metal spoon to eat my packed lunch, I find I can eat it anyway. Only now I notice how much people throw out. Free food means a big pile of garbage that I’m coming to find disgusting.
People seem intrigued by the idea.
My produce vendor is used to me not accepting bags and we’ve made a game of it since even when he knows I won’t take it, he reflexively offers me bags. This culture is crazy. I also returned the rubber bands from the day before I started, so maybe I’m nineteen days in or more.
I think I’m eating pretty healthy. I can feel yet more fat disappear from my abs. Feeling the skin becoming thinner there creates confidence and security in an area I think most people feel insecure.
Ready-to-eat food isn’t that much more convenient than having lots of produce around.
Here’s a typical result from shopping over the past eighteen days, which I do about every two or three days. I had to take off the rubber band from the broccoli, which the vendor said he could reuse. He displayed the cherries in a plastic bag. I poured them into my bag and left the bag with him, which he said he could reuse. I believe him because the display bag was for grapes, so I think he was already reusing it.
The plastic container is soaking chick peas for cooking in the rice cooker / vegetable steamer / miracle appliance. I’m used to having dry beans, split peas, chick peas, and other legumes soaking all the time so I can cook them and have them ready in about an hour.
It helps to have a bulk food store a couple blocks away. I bring old plastic bags to refill. The plastic bag holding the fruits and vegetables is left over from before. I’ve reused it countless times.
Here is my breakfast every day, not just during this trial: oats, chia seeds, chopped fruit, and nuts. I happened to have a bag of flax seed powder someone left with me from before the experiment so I finished it. I had chia seeds from before (actually, about five pounds of them from a sale), so I switched back to them.
The apples come with a sticker on them, which you could call packaging. That’s the one thing I didn’t avoid. I read they’re edible, though, so maybe they don’t count.
The results of another trip, both to the bulk food store and the produce vendor. I buy a lot of nuts. Usually I only get unsalted but on a whim I got some salted, which is why two bags.
The bottle was from the olive oil I finished. The bulk food store has bulk olive oil, so I refilled my old bottle.
Another trip to the produce vendor. Okra seems to be in season. I’m eating tons of the slimy stuff.
The bowl in the upper-right corner that you see in nearly every picture is my compost bowl for trimmings. It’s there all the time. When it fills, I empty it into a bag in the freezer. When that fills, the next Saturday I take it to the people who collect it Saturday mornings in Abington Square, about a ten-minute walk from home.
The plastic container on the left has peanut butter, which I refill at the bulk food store. I’m going through a lot of peanut butter.
The jar had heirloom tomato puree from the Community Supported Agriculture farm I bought a season of produce from. I already had it from before this trial. The bowl of vegetables was what was left from a school event I went to. When it ended they were getting rid of what people didn’t eat. Since I brought plastic bags for shopping that day, they thanked me for filling up my bags with vegetables. I couldn’t believe everyone left the healthiest, best food.
The bread was this Scandinavian healthy bread I still had in my fridge from before the trial. It tastes delicious toasted with peanut butter. I thought I would miss it, but I haven’t missed it that much.
Here are some chickpeas left over from one evening I packed for lunch one day. It’s mainly chick peas, olive oil, salt, cayenne pepper cooked together, then I squeeze lemon in when I eat it. They sell roughly the same thing for $4 but in a container half the size. This was part of a batch about ten times bigger with ingredients that cost me probably about a dollar.
This experiment, though, showed me more than the cost difference. The pollution difference is crazy. Ten of those little containers is a lot of garbage. When you use that packaging, you’re helping create “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the world we live in.” I am too, and this experiment is helping me see how to decrease that.
Here are the bags full of the produce from the school event I mentioned two pictures ago. Purple cauliflower!
On the left is my usual oat, chia, fruit, and nut breakfast. On the right is some steamed spinach I packed as part of lunch that day.
The pecans in front don’t go into my cereal. They taste too good to mix so I pick them out to eat separately.
Another lunch. This one was split pea soup. I had some pita bread left over so I crumbled that into the plastic container when I ate lunch. I also nearly always pack nuts to snack on, which is in the plastic bag.
I mentioned the heirloom tomato puree. I decided to make a vegetable soup with it, with broccoli and cauliflower and such.
More vegetables from another event where people didn’t finish the crudite, but I had a bag to take them home with. I steamed them and ate them with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
I would have thought people would look at me funny taking vegetables home, but I got the opposite. They kept telling me they wished they ate more vegetables. I’m thinking, “They’re right here! I’m taking them because you didn’t eat them.”
Another lunch. Split pea soup and nuts.
Here are the bags I stick in my bag in the morning when I expect to shop that day. They add about an ounce of weight, take up almost no space, and take a few seconds to prepare. The bottle on the right is because the bulk food place sells dish soap, which I ran out of so I refilled there.
By the way, if you get plastic bags and tell yourself you use them all up, you’re lying to yourself. You get probably ten or a hundred times more bags than you need. I avoid getting them every chance I can and I’m swimming in them from when friends leave them when they bring stuff (probably convincing themselves that since they gave me their garbage to carry a few bottles of beer that they aren’t polluting but they didn’t have to get the bag in the first place).
People, you don’t need the bags.
On the left, I’m cooking split pea soup. It gets frothy for some reason. Usually I add ginger and carrots. On the right, I’m steaming broccoli. You can also see the big bag of chia seeds behind. I have four bags like that from the sale I mentioned above.
Another view of the broccoli and split pea soup.
Here’s that bread I mentioned having had already from before the no packaging trial, which I used up and haven’t replaced. Also peanut butter. The vegan turkey salad is a pre-made product I make open-face sandwiches with that was left over from before the trial and that I also didn’t replace.
Another view of the same things. I should mention that the peanut butter comes out of a container that grinds peanuts. You can see them going into the grinder so you know it’s one ingredient. The oil doesn’t separate like prepackaged peanut butter. I like this stuff more, plus I reuse the same containers.
Here’s a bag of dry split peas in a bag I had left over.
Split peas cooking another time from above. This particular evening two friends came over and I shared almost all of it with them, meaning I had to cook more times, but they were happy. One of them brought beer, so I had a bottle of beer. Since he paid for it and brought it over, I didn’t count it as my buying it.
Another lunch. This time nuts in the bag for snacks. Beans cooked from dry in the container. They don’t look great but they taste great. It’s easy to make them taste great by putting in more olive oil when they cook. And salt.
I ran out of salt the other day, by the way. The bulk food store sells salt, but it’s so fancy-pants Himalayan special stuff I might get regular salt in a salt grinder, which I don’t have, as the purchase that includes packaging, though I might count a grinder as a tool, not packaging.
Well, there’s a sample of what I’ve eaten.
I should mention I feel as productive as ever in this time. I’m writing about a lot of cooking, but it doesn’t take much time. Plus the fresh ingredients have more flavor than prepared stuff. If it seems like a lot, it’s only because I’m writing about two-and-a-half weeks of it in one post.
Meanwhile, eating at restaurants takes time too. I’ve long been surprised to find that eating out takes more effort than shopping, cooking, and cleaning. It doesn’t seem worth it.
I’m not sure when I’ll stop the experiment. The longer I go without packaged or restaurant foods, the easier it gets and the more it feels like buying packaged food will feel like defeat. Still, I know it will happen at some point.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees