Tired of Throwaway Food Packaging? The Best Solution Is to Start Cooking

Sure, it takes time, but you'll get the results you're looking for.

wok filled with homemade food

Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

A headline caught my eye this morning. It said, "How to get rid of throwaway culture." I could see it was a graphic made by a great Toronto illustrator, Sarah Lazarovic, who is known for her fabulous "Buyerarchy of Needs" and "A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy." I didn't click on the graphic, though, because I didn't want to interrupt the flow of thoughts the title alone had triggered.

"How does one get rid of throwaway culture?" I started musing to myself. Of course, it's a question I've chewed on for years as a lifestyle writer for this website, but in the early morning hours, with my house mercifully silent and the sun just starting to come up, I felt like I might have access to some fresh insights. 

I realized all of a sudden that if I were to give a blunt and honest answer to someone who asked me specifically how to reduce food-related disposables in their lives, I'd reply, "Time." 

I think this is an uncomfortable truth that too few people acknowledge. The fact is that our reliance on disposables was born out of a hunger for convenience, of wanting to bypass the natural and necessary amounts of time required to accomplish the basic daily task of cooking for ourselves and our families, but that comes at a cost, which we now understand to be the colossal amounts of single-use plastic clogging and suffocating our lakes, rivers, and oceans.

"Oh, but there are eco-friendly alternatives!" we hear, things like biodegradable paper packaging and bio-based plastics and bamboo utensils and reusable silicone bags and highly-recyclable aluminum, and who knows what else. Just look in the health food aisle of any grocery store and you'll see endless claims about every item's presumed eco-friendly packaging.

But even these "solutions" require uncomfortably large amounts of resource inputs, not to mention energy to make and transport. They still contribute to landfills and take varying lengths of time to break down, and frequently contaminate recycling waste streams because we don't know exactly what they're made of. We dislike thinking about these aspects of our green packaging, though, because it threatens the sense of entitlement we've developed regarding how convenient it should be to do everything.

The inconvenient truth is that the only way you can really, truly get rid of food-related disposables in your life is to put in the time that's required to prepare food for yourself, and your family if you have one, and to pack it for eating when you're away from home. There are many days when it's a total annoyance, the last thing I want to spend an hour or more doing, but I have yet to find a more effective way to cut down on single-use packaging and plastic waste.

I am frequently bewildered by (a) how many people express surprise at the amount of cooking I do (because I can't really see how it could be otherwise if I want to avoid buying overpackaged, inferior food and spending a fortune on prepared food), and (b) how many well-intentioned people are unwilling to—pardon my phrase—suck it up and put in the work that's required to eat well, shop on a budget, and slash their waste. This isn't about skill, it's about priorities. When it comes to this, there are no cutting corners, no matter what anyone (including green marketers) tells you. 

One solid option is to take your own containers to be filled by restaurants for takeout orders (if you really can't cook) or at zero-waste bulk and grocery stores (to avoid overpackaged ingredients). But even this practice is a huge time suck. You have to make multiple stops, which doubles or triples the length of your shopping trip, take the extra time to tare and label containers ahead of filling, and weigh them at checkout. All of this is well worth the effort, but it undeniably takes a lot of time, usually far more than most zero waste experts like to admit.

The good news is that, once you realize there's no way around it, dedicating an hour or two to food prep every day (or a longer chunk of time on weekends) adds tremendous value to your life. You gain health, savings, skills, satisfaction, and perhaps even pleasure. It is not lost time in the way that scrolling through social media makes you feel at the end of a day; rather, you'll always finish cooking with a sense of accomplishment and tangible (hopefully edible) results, not least of which is a significantly reduced amount of trash in your kitchen waste bin. Pack that food for work lunches, road trips, picnics, and more, and you'll be even further ahead—no wasteful impromptu overpackaged snacks.

An hour might seem like an enormous amount of time to find in your day, but when it comes to feeding yourself, that should be the absolute least you can do. Most of us have that time tied up in much less productive ways (think social media, mainly), so try to carve it out consciously and cook for yourself, thinking of it as an environmental act that will reduce your packaging waste more than any kind of shopping spree on an eco-friendly lifestyle products website.

Cooking gets faster with practice. Last week I discussed dinner plans with a friend as we sat on the beach, supervising our children swimming in Lake Huron. Less than two hours later I posted a picture on Instagram of our dinner—grilled skewers, salad, and steamed rice—to which she responded, "You just whipped that up after the beach?!" Yes, because these things become easier the more you do them. You will reach a point when pulling together a quick family dinner becomes as fast or faster than ordering takeout. I know this because I do it.

Just cook for yourself. Make it from scratch. Check out this list of 20 foods you can make to avoid plastic. If you're serious about wanting to cut down on disposable food packaging, you will have to push yourself out of your comfort zone, block off a chunk of time, and start working the ingredients yourself. There's no other way. 

And now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'll go read Sarah Lazarovic's latest graphic.