1. Rent a Tree. Yes, you can rent a potted Christmas tree! This is more widely available in the UK, but companies within the US are starting to offer this service (Californians and New Yorkers, you’re in luck!). It is simple, convenient, and of course much friendlier for the environment. Keep your eyes peeled for more tree rental options as it catches on in the States.
2. Buy a living tree. Don’t do what I did and let your tree die after Christmas. The goal is to have it for many future Christmases! After Christmas, transfer your tree to a larger pot, or transplant it into your garden. Decorating and caring for your live tree can be the beginning of a special tradition.
3. Buy a smaller tree. Big trees require more resources to grow. The smaller the tree, the more environmentally friendly.
4. Buy locally grown. Plastic trees are not better for the environment than cut trees. And though cut trees are usually sourced from Christmas tree farms and don’t contribute to deforestation, it takes a considerable amount of resources to create these ornamental plants that will sit in your house for only a month each year. It’s still best to try the above options first, but if you are deciding between a cut or plastic tree, opt for a locally grown cut tree. If you already have a plastic tree, use it for as long as possible. Toward the end of its life you can even upcycle its branches for homemade garlands and wreaths.
5. Make a tree out of pine needles and twine. Christmas tree yards are usually happy to let you collect their spare pine trimmings. Tie these trimmings to a tomato cage and get creative! Or make a janky tree with rope like we did this year^ (add two more lines to make it tree-shaped).
6. Make a tree out of branches, like this gorgeous specimen of Bea Johnson’s (Zero Waste Home).
7. Decorate your house plant or a tree outside!
Green Christmas ornaments
1. Popcorn and cranberry strings. Thread a needle and string those things!
2. Citrus slices. A little citrus goes a long way: thinly slice your oranges or lemons and thread a string through each. Hang them on your tree to dry. Eat what you don’t hang!
3. Yarn, ribbon, mardi gras beads. Anything stringy can be thrown on the tree!
4. Pom poms. You can do a lot of things with leftover yarn bits, but one of the funnest activities is to make pompoms. One year I went bananas for these, making earrings, key chains, present-wrapping bobbles, and most of all, tons and tons of ornaments.
5. Dough. Mix 2 cups flour, 3/4 cups water, and 1/2 cup salt (a preservative) together. You can also add cinnamon for scent. Knead, and mold your dough into your desired shape. Cut a paper clip into three sections and insert one piece into your dough as a hanger. Cook at 300 degrees F for about 30 minutes. Once they’re cool, you can either hang them as-is, or paint them.
6. Cookies. My Czech grandmother used to hang pretzel-shaped chocolate gingerbread cookies on the tree for the kids to find. The combination of pine and gingerbread scent was one of the highlights of Christmas morning.
7. Felt ornaments. Run an old wool sweater (or one from Goodwill) through your washer and dryer. Now you have felt to embroider or cut into shapes.
8. Pine cones. Tie some twine around them and voilà—they’re an ornament!
9. Second-hand decorations. Goodwill and other thrift stores have great ornament selections during the holidays.
Green Eggs and Ham
Have a very veggie Christmas.
Most Americans are accustomed to eating meat with every meal, and for gatherings and celebratory affairs, meat is a must. But… what if it wasn’t?
What if you let your family know that this year you’re putting the environment first (and giving them the gift of health)? Or what if you do what I’m going to, and slip them some Impossible Meat in secret?
If you forego the Christmas ham, you might face some initial protest, but if your family is any kind of reasonable they’ll eventually relent to the mouthwatering veggie dishes you put before them. It’s admirable to start a new tradition that keeps up with the needs of our changing world.
What many meat eaters may not realize is that vegetarian and vegan meals can be absolutely delicious. Though meat is an easy punch of flavor in a dish, you don’t need meat to make food taste good.
Winter is the best time of year for the dabbling vegetarian. Hardy vegetables, such as winter squash, root veg, and dark leafy greens are not only healthy, but keep you warm and full. Drown them in olive oil and pair them with some protein, like quinoa, wild rice, beans, and roasted pecans, and you’re good to go.
To eat sustainably, you’ve gotta eat less meat and dairy. Seasonal eating supports local farming and reduces the demand for carbon-heavy transportation and storage. But it also means your food will be fresher and likely more flavorful.
Reduce that food waste!
If you made too much food, send your family members home with leftovers. Give it to a nextdoor neighbor. Keep a small amount at hand in your fridge—enough to eat over the next couple days—and freeze the rest!
. . .
During the darkness of winter, we need space to relax and enjoy the presence of family. Being creative together can result in hundreds of dollars back in your pocket and free art therapy. Especially if you have kids, a sustainable Christmas will engage their artistic side, keep them busy, and teach them the skills of crafting, collaboration, and observation.
Ah, the holidays… the most wonderful and wasteful season of all.
Let’s get straight to it: below are ideas to sustainify your Christmas. (Get ready for some rinky-dink pictures from Christmas past!)
In this post:
Consider Secret Santa
Charity gift cards
Chip in with others to buy one high-quality present
Make a treasure box
Give thrifted items
Gift a potted plant
Gift something edible
Gift a digital subscription
Quality over quantity
the best sustainable gift
Wrap them in…
Decorating your presents
Make them. Homemade gifts are foolproof. Even if you don’t view yourself as “artistic” and end up with a mound of melted Femo, your giftee will appreciate the effort. Make clay figurines, necklaces, friendship bracelets, photo albums, cardboard puzzles, herb-infused olive oil, fruit-infused spirits. You can experiment with a craft like crochet or embroidery, or paint some pottery at a paint-your-own shop.
Yup—give away your gifts. If you haven’t used them for a year or won’t use them in the future, repurpose them to a better candidate. They’ll never know where the gift came from (just don’t accidentally give it back to the person who gave it to you).
Consider Secret Santa
Gift-giving can be a headache and a genuine strain. And how often are presents really needed, wanted, or used? In our family, we open gifts in an environment of such chaos (amid chatter, dessert, and sprinting children) that we barely know whose gift we’re opening. What’s the point of the environmental and personal stress?
The solution: Secret Santa!
Our family recently converted to Secret Santa, and it’s a blessing. It’s not only a fun game to play, but it makes the one gift you receive so much more special.
How to do it:
Set a dollar limit for all Secret Santa presents
Throw your names in a Santa hat.
Take turns drawing a name.
Buy a present for the person whose name you draw: label it with their name, but do not write who it’s from.
Take turns opening presents and guessing who they’re from.
Send or drop your present on your giftee’s doorstep. Ordering directly from an online store is a simple way to send your gift, but if you send from your house, don’t put your name on the return address! Use the organizer’s return address instead.
Gather over Zoom to take turns at guessing who your present is from.
Note: remove all tape and non-paper from your shipping boxes before recycling. Be sure to flatten the boxes: unflattened ones take more space in the recycling truck and require more trips.
Charity gift cards
This year, many of my presents are in the form of charity gift cards. There are a handful of companies that make this easy, giving you the option of mailing a physical card to your recipient, sending an e-card, or printing one out. Your giftee can select their favorite charity to donate to.
Intermediary companies do take a percentage of the card’s value, however. If you’re uncomfortable with this, you can organize a charity gift exchange with family members where you directly donate to a charity of their choice under their name.
A third option is to participate in a sponsorship program. Many animal welfare organizations allow you to sponsor an animal directly. Others, like World Wildlife Fund, have the option of “adopting” a species in exchange for a gift bag and plush toy of that species. Though this donation goes into WWF’s general fund and not specifically to helping that animal, some of the toys are pretty darn cute—and for kids, it’s a great educational tool.
Chip in with others to buy one high-quality present.
Rather than purchasing many little knick knacks that your recipient will never use, consider joining forces with other family members to get something they’ll really appreciate.
I’ve started giving my nephew and young cousins meaningful gifts from my childhood, and accompanying it with a short blurb about the gift’s significance: a hat I used to wear to the renaissance fair; the little masks I brought back from Guatemala; my favorite book; a jacket I thought was really cool in high school; a special baseball my dad and I would throw. Even for adult family members I have done this, and they usually end up being the most appreciated presents.
Whether you’ve outgrown something, would rather not be reminded of it, or want to pass its glory along, bestowing sentimental items onto special people is an undervalued form of gift-giving.
Make a treasure box
For kids, this is a lot of fun. Your treasure box can consist of handmade, recycled, and less meaningful items. Last year I painted a shoebox to resemble a treasure chest, cut some spare gold fabric into coins, and added some miscellaneous treasures and fun snacks. To go the extra mile, make a treasure map and have your kid find the box in your garden.
Give thrifted items
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with thrifting for presents. Often items are good as new and totally unique. Second hand shops carry jewelry, kitchenware, games, holiday decorations (great for wrapping decoration), books, records, and loads of wonderful potential-gifts.
I’m usually transparent about where I got these gifts because I’m proud of my thrifting, but you can keep it a secret if you’d rather. Despite their source, the second-hand gifts I’ve given have been good as new and extremely well-received.
Gift a potted plant
Live plants make people happy. They’ll (hopefully) last for years and they respond to human care. They can be planted outside or kept as a house pet, named and decorated. They bring life and air to a home.
Gift something edible.
Gift homemade preserves. Bake a Christmas loaf or make candied nuts. Personalize homemade cookies by writing the giftee’s name in frosting or carving out shapes that remind you of them.
Assemble a basket of themed foods: health foods, regional foods to acknowledge future travels, favorite foods, or nostalgic foods from childhood.
Focus on personalized and meaningful gifts over the amount of gifts you get each family member. One thoughtful present that fits them to a T will be more than enough.
The best sustainable gift
I’ve gone on gift sprees where I buy sustainable gifts for all family members—reusable utensils, metal straws, reusable Q-tips, cloth produce bags, etc. Though these are nice gifts with a clear message, they are not necessarily wanted or used. Your giftee might not use straws at all, or they may not be ready for reusable Q-tips—and in the trash those go.
Sustainable products are all the rage now. This is wonderful—but only when they function to minimize waste. If we buy loads of redundant sustainable products, they are no longer sustainable. Aim to buy what’s needed, rather than adding to someone’s collection of stuff.
Of course, the nature of gift-giving means that we don’t always know what is needed/wanted. Therefore, do your homework: interrogate another family member who has intimate knowledge of your giftee’s situation. Peer into their windows at night for signs of a compost; go through their trash to see how many bags they use.
Don’t do that. But… if you’ve determined that your giftee doesn’t have a compost and is interested in starting to compost, the gift of a compost service subscription is a pretty sure bet.
Compost services can be surprisingly cheap. You’ll buy a bin for your counter (or below the sink), and when it’s full, you’ll empty it into a larger bucket in your garden or on your deck. You can usually opt to have your compost picked up weekly, biweekly, or monthly. The provider will turn that compost into fertilizer.
Wrap them in…
Buying virgin cloth isn’t better than using paper; it requires a large amount of water and energy to produce. But cutting up old clothing, or purchasing used curtains or sheets from Goodwill is a great way to wrap.
Recycled and recyclable wrapping paper
Not all wrapping paper can be recycled in your curbside bin. Those glitter or foil-embellished sheets can’t be processed, and some recycling experts even say plain wrapping paper should be left out. When you purchase wrapping paper, look for paper that says “recycled” or “recyclable.”
If you’re gifting a scarf or bag, use them to hold another gift.
Used wrapping paper
Save the wrapping paper from presents you receive, and reuse them. This means… no ripping!
A used paper bag
Save those bags throughout the year! You can either cut up the bags to use as wrapping paper, or use smaller paper bags to hold presents.
Beware of the gift bags you purchase: glitter or plastic cannot be recycled, and beads or decorative handles must be removed before recycling.
Decorating your presents
Instead of buying bobbles, ribbons and bows (which cannot be recycled), use natural and compostable objects. Decorate with pine needles, rosemary, (plastic-free) candy canes, pine cones, dried citrus slices, cranberry bunches. Instead of ribbon, use compostable twine or yarn. Any ornamental thing about the house that you no longer need could potentially complete your wrapping—you can even cut up old clothes to use as ribbon.
To beautify your recycled wrapping paper or fabric, have fun with potato stamps! Or do some painting: my sister enlists her children to draw and paint on large sheets of plain paper, which results in beautiful and uniquely wrapped gifts.
To feed two birds with one scone, make origami cards. They can act to both identify who your gift is to/write a message, and decorate your present.
Living with less is an important part of embracing a sustainable lifestyle. I’ve been writing about the benefits of letting go of material things, but I would feel fraudulent if I didn’t explain my life-long semi-phobia of loss.
For me, letting go of anything—old calendars, greeting cards, clothing, used school books—has been a challenge. Since childhood I was deeply averse to loss, and my adult frugal-mindedness is likely a product of that. Waste was a version of loss that I couldn’t (and can’t) stand: wasted resources, wasted money, wasted energy; lost time, lost potential, lost opportunity.
Early on, this aversion to loss motivated most of my actions, leading to habits of uncompromising thoroughness—resulting in harsh internal self-reprimands if I failed to do something “perfectly.” Making decisions entailed leaving no microscopic depth unplumbed before I could reluctantly face the hazardous “no” that came with any “yes.”
I have never been able to keep up with the passage of time, fighting it ferociously, constantly behind and holding onto the ephemeral. I hated turning another year older, even as a kid. I resisted and procrastinated all the milestones of adolescence because it meant leaving behind the warmth, nurturing, and playfulness of childhood.
This fear of loss planted its deepest roots in the idea of losing my parents.
Maybe because I hadn’t experienced real loss in childhood, I was keen to sabotage this ease by channeling the grief of an impending version of myself—one that had already lost. As a 12-year old, I found a way to grieve with future Yenny, looking at my parents with paralyzing sadness, for periods barely able to believe they were presently there, as their eventual loss felt so tangible. It truly seemed like the present was a nostalgic memory.
As artists, my parents worked from home and prioritized doing everything as a unit, encouraging expressions of creativity and engaging with an observant and compassionate eye. To them, everything was valuable. The lint from the dryer was valuable because who knew when it would be perfect for a project? Most things were too dear to get rid of, resulting in a home of beautiful clutter.
My dad had single-handedly built our little house with doting detail and artistic ingenuity, using found materials to decorate the interior. With my sister in college by the time I was born, my parents and I shared everything. We existed most of the time within two rooms—I slept on a fold-out couch in the living room, which I loved for its caressing centrality. I was a shy kid, and somewhat ill-fitting when it came to social endeavors and understanding pop culture. The way I processed the world and communicated with it didn’t seem to be fully grasped by anyone except my parents; they saw me—especially my dad.
He was an older dad, raising my sister for 19 years before I was born, and inhabiting his role of father with the entirety of his being, for both of us. I won’t go into all the ways he was a wonderful dad or how he was extraordinarily creative, intuitive, and thoughtful, because it would fill a book, but I trusted him completely; I adored and idolized him.
There were times, seeing my dad sitting alone, hunched quietly over a drawing he was working on and making several small, swiping additions to the paper per minute, when I simply couldn’t leave him to play with friends in the other room. The loneliness he seemed to emanate would make my heart ache. He may not have felt lonely at all, but I felt lonely when I looked at him. Too conscious of time’s passage, I was terrified of the moment the chair he sat in would be empty.
Now that I know the term “separation anxiety,” I assume that’s what made it so hard to walk away and play with my friends, but it was deeper than that. If I had a negative thought about either of my parents, keeping it to myself seemed a betrayal; so I had to verbalize it to them. I couldn’t say anything negative about them to others without being riddled with guilt, so I didn’t.
When I wished on a fallen eyelash or birthday candle, I would silently chant the same memorized thought—praying for my parents to live long, happy, and healthy lives. I loved them with single-minded devotion and was deeply protective, as they also functioned somewhat on the fringes of society: my introverted dad was not easily understood by less sensitive folks and his kindness could be taken advantage of. It was my parents’ money and resources and I was so averse to losing.
It took me until college before I was able to relax a bit. For the next few years, my parents traveled between the Bay Area and Beijing, spending time with my mom’s family, and thriving. Within this time, my dad was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma.
My experience of letting go started when my dad died at the end of 2014, two weeks after I graduated from college. What I was most terrified of losing, had gone—my dad and the treasured bond of our small family (and with that the cherished remnants of childhood and cascade of related losses; art-making, friendships, and previous aspirations)—so there was no point in being “precious” anymore.
Attaching things with too much weight had, up until recently, kept me from fully living in the present. That prolonged and premature grief for my dad when I was younger didn’t dilute the grief I felt when I finally lost him. It hadn’t served any purpose except diminishing the joy of my time with him.
Until then I had taken experiences, situations, emotions, and possessions as seriously as if they were permanent, infusing sentiment into areas where it was unnecessary. Now I tend to find catharsis in moving on with gratitude for what I had, for taking a breath and pushing forward, instead of lingering in the past. There is nothing to be served there.
Today I’m ruthless with my pruning. First boyfriend’s handmade stuffed animal from childhood? Gone! (I gave it back.) Documents on my old laptop that I didn’t have time to rescue before donating? Gone! (I regret that now.) 80% of my possessions when I moved back to the West Coast? Gone! (In the hands of friends).
I’ve been slowly understanding over the years that everything is fleeting, and now I look forward to what else enters my life. I’m over being afraid of what leaves it. There is nothing permanent, and I find that thought soothing. If there is nothing you can ultimately hold onto forever, then why battle with so much desperation to hold onto a single inanimate thing? Time can pass and you can say goodbye, because with loss comes renewal.
We don’t need art to survive. But without it, we would simply be not dead.
We live for flavor—it’s what makes us human. Visual art, dancing, music, fashion, entertainment, sports, technology, pizza: we could live without them, but much less fully. Culture and personality are shaped around extraneous things.
But when it comes to extraneous material expressions, such as most of the things we own, how do we find balance? At what point do objects no longer enrich our lives? And when our drive for flavor evolves into a taste for excess, how do we pull back while acknowledging (and embracing) our need for the unnecessary?
What is minimizing?
A growing movement says they’ve found the answer to happiness: chucking all your stuff out.
Minimalists advocate condensing our possessions into a well-curated pool of only our most beloved things. Extreme minimalists are left with a bald apartment partly because they didn’t love anything they owned. But for the rest of us, crafting our space intentionally can help articulate what we stand for—as not only our aesthetic, but our experiences, passions, and values are reflected back at us.
Minimizing isn’t about stripping your house bare, but of wading through the dilution of generic possessions to eliminate what doesn’t move you or serve a distinct purpose. Humans actually need so little to survive, that I doubt there is a happy one who lives with only what they need. Living this way isn’t what minimizing is about: you can keep your wall paintings. But just as a pithy sentence or small tomato are most potent, boiling down what you have celebrates your personality with abundance.
Identifying your clutter
In my view, minimizing is to differentiate the flavor we live for and the excess we live in. By minimizing, you are setting standards and establishing habits.
Each of us has a different definition of “enough.” By enough, I’m not talking about the tent, canned beans, bottled water, and blanket we need to survive. I’m talking about the point at which we feel whole, yet unburdened. We’ve grown up with a lot of chatter around what comfort, success, and satisfaction looks like; we’ve become reliant on things society has taught us to need. It will take most of us time to reconstruct our understanding of what we need to be happy.
My strong suspicion is that we need much, much less to be happy, and in fact would be much, much happier with less. It only requires some experimentation before we get a sense of how good it feels.
Start by doing a sweep-through of your house, getting rid of any possessions that aren’t used regularly or don’t “spark joy,” as Marie Kondo, queen of decluttering, recommends. Once you get used to the idea of letting go of things, you’ll realize how much weight you were unconsciously carrying, and how capable you are of living without the seeming comfort of “more”.
At first, your clutter might seem essential: old books, once-cherished nicknacks, gifts, the “just in case” miscellaneous awaiting their moment of use. But the more you navigate your surroundings with a shrewd minimalist eye, you will begin to see those things for what they are. Of course, some of these things will never stop feeling essential to your life, and that’s fine. Yet other things might no longer serve you, but are too precious to give away: pack them up and put them in storage.
When you begin decluttering, you’ll inevitably get rid of some things that you’ll come to mildly miss. Do not regret your decision to give them up, or let this stop you from marching onward—some inconsequential loss is part of the process. Finding your sweet spot takes trial and error.
When you strip off your weighted blanket of possessions, you’ll find that you are just fine: all you need is yourself, your loved ones, and a few beloved or useful things. You’ll develop more confidence because you no longer rely so heavily on what’s around you, and with this clarity and room to breathe, it’ll be hard to fathom how you lived otherwise.
Sentimental items: to keep or not to keep?
You can have warmth for the role an object played in your life, while acknowledging that its role has been fulfilled. If it no longer brings you joy, but sits in your house simply because of the meaning it once held, it’s become dispensable: let it go.
We don’t need to hold onto something physical to carry meaning with us or to solidify the existence of past experience. Moving on does not negate or disrespect what the object symbolizes, and commanding the confidence to recognize that it’s no longer needed at this stage in your life is liberating.
That said, if your chotchkies still hold warmth and joy, keep them. And if they hold warmth but not joy, put them in storage!
Things you rarely use
If you adore a shirt that you’ve only worn once, it might be time to let it go. You can continue to let it rest in your drawer, hoping for its unlikely time to shine, or you can:
Gift it to someone who would make better use of it.
Put it in storage. If you haven’t missed it after 6 months (or more if it’s seasonal), give it a new home.
Give it a limited second chance. For example, “I will wear it one more time before I give it away.” Or, “I will give it one more month, and if I haven’t worn it, I’ll give it away.”
Rotate the toys
What happens when you keep all your puppy’s toys out for them to play with? Your puppy gets bored with them. Dog owners are therefore advised to keep some toys out of sight, rotating them in to stimulate interest.
Our drive for novelty, and tendency to accumulate and guard possessions, is our inner puppy at work. Instead of throwing your toys out for new purchases when you’re bored, select a few to rotate in and out of use.
For example, if you tend to buy a lot of shoes, tuck a few into storage: when you pull them out to exchange for your current batch of shoes, it’s like discovering a pot of gold—and your interest in them is reignited. (Note: this doesn’t work as well if your things are particularly in vogue, so for longevity’s sake, avoid buying into fads!) Try making this a tradition every year on a special day—New Years is a good one.
You can also arrange “stuff rotations” with friends. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating: like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, You can partner or group up with friends whose taste you appreciate, and swap dish sets, dining room chairs, bed spreads, kid’s toys, etc., either permanently or on a rotating schedule. Just remember to note which things originally belonged to whom!
Look for redundancies
Is there anything in your cabinet that has just a marginally different function than something else you own? For example, do you need an emersion blender, a bullet blender, and a blender-blender? The answer depends on the life you lead. But for many of us, the benefit of doubling or tripling up on equipment is meager.
Don’t entertain your scarcity mindset
If you collect and consume like there will soon be nothing available to you, there will soon be nothing available to anyone.
We are territorial creatures. Our reptilian complex drives us to compete for resources, establishing and protecting what’s ours. Nowadays competition takes the form of modern warfare, politics, sports, business, and even consumerism. We want to be and to have the best—to be acknowledged and admired: what simpler way to do this than to gather as many coveted resources as you can?
Though competition is arguably necessary today, our instinct for it is out of date: it was established in a world in which resources were difficult to come by and our personal supplies were constantly under threat. But in the 21st century, where resources are scarce in a drastically different way, it’s important that we stop this hunting and gathering.
Fear of Mistakes
Are you afraid of giving something away because you can’t get it back? Do you have a hard time making decisions because “yes” to one thing means “no” to another? Do you collect things you don’t need, in case it could be useful down the road?
It’s normal to experience all of these at times. But if fear of regret is overbearing, perhaps because of an internalized negative experience, it will play on self-doubt, diminishing your confidence and leading to inaction. Since every voluntary thing we do requires decision and comes with a potential “wrong” decision, we don’t want to get stuck in this habit. We need to be able to make mistakes.
Sometimes fear of mistakes is the result of a loss, or an experience during which resources were truly scant. Sometimes it comes from the insecurity that what you have or who you are isn’t good enough—the classic source is a childhood urge to appease stern parents. Sometimes it’s because we’ve made a high-consequence mistake in the past.
Fear of mistakes can lead to many things, including a very cluttered house! If you are uncomfortable throwing anything away, lest you regret it later, you might hoard. If you agonize over shopping decisions, you might decide to not decide, and bring home all of your options. If you have everything, you never have to find yourself unprepared, to compromise, second-guess, or wonder what life would be like otherwise.
If you struggle with this paralyzing form of perfectionism, minimizing might be just the thing for you. It’s great practice to simply let go and stop caring about mistakes for a moment.
Let yourself regret the purging of your Tupperware—it’s not the end of the world. Let yourself make concrete, decisive actions with things that don’t have feelings. Start from a clean slate as you bring things into your home, so that more clutter is no longer welcome.
Accepting calculated loss is a skill that comes more naturally to some than others. At the heart of your fear of mistakes might be a fear of loss: fear of lost opportunity, unfulfilled potential, missed experience.
For those who need more practice (like myself), keep in mind that certain loss is traded for significant gain. We can learn to be content, even happy, without having everything. We can learn to put less weight on decisions; we can learn to be ok with “wrong” decisions, or accept that perhaps (if a life isn’t on the line) there’s no such thing. We can carry so much less burden.
Leaving possibilities untapped and curiosities unfulfilled, though painful and counterintuitive—especially for the info-loving millennial accustomed to googling definitive explanations to every ambiguity—is sometimes necessary. “Leaving things be” doesn’t oppose your thirst for understanding, your adequacy, or whatever else might feel threatened, but can help you achieve balance.
When you let go, when you move on, when you give away, when you choose not to buy, you are leaving some potential untapped.
I attended an artist talk recently, during which the artist described her evolving relationship with “loose ends” in her work: “having things that constantly have potential and not fulfilling it is unsettling,” she said, “but it’s also sustainable and beautiful.”
Contending with the guilt of not completing something is exhausting. But before I heard it framed as this artist did, I had never considered that unfulfilled thoughts, ideas, and creations can in themselves be beautiful. When is something really complete, anyway?—there is always more potential!
With loss comes unfulfilled potential. When you reduce what you have, you are inherently stifling and refusing the development of a relationship with an object. But when you accept the loss that comes with saying no to an item, you are also leaving room to focus on other things: you are being selective about the potential you fulfill.
Take a clue from nature
Nature leaves things inherently unfinished—existing in cycles, sustaining systems with no conclusion, presenting no closure before death, and from death, yielding life.
Finite resources are only finite because we make them so; we create an end to natural materials, systems, cycles—turning them into non-degradable plastics and storing them to sit, “used,” in landfill.
In nature, beyond the triumph of staying alive and imparting life, there is no final success to be achieved, no accomplishment that is enough: and this is sustainable. Why don’t we learn from this? Humans are animals after all. If we go with the flow, accept the cycles that appear in our lives, exist more fluidly, we don’t have to constantly be fighting against nature. There will never be one surmountable thing that satisfies us—not the status we acquire, not the money we make, not the things we buy.
Adopt an attitude of abundance
By taking a step back from our need to control what happens in our lives, we are not giving up our agency, but taking it back. Taking things less seriously, both material achievements and experiences, can help us feel less tied down, more open, and more forgiving. We can become more generous with possessions, knowledge, talents, and emotions.
But how can we take materials less seriously if, in our efforts to be more green, we aim to treat resources with the value they’re worth—to use them stingily? How can we afford to have an attitude of abundance?
Clarification!: we should take our resources seriously when by “our” we are referring to the planet. When we are referring to our own wealth, we can afford to have an attitude of abundance.
Having an attitude of abundance is to acknowledge that the world provides bountifully for you, even if your material possessions are slim. It’s to “count your blessings” without clutching them too defensively, because you recognize that unknown gifts await you.
You are abundant: you are not smaller than others, your stuff is not inferior to others. What you have is wonderful; you don’t need much more. In fact, there is a lot you can afford to give. Spread your wealth of energy, knowledge, and material to others, and to the environment.
• It’s scary to think of living with less when you equate it with compromising ease, security, or freedom. But having less does not limit you: once you step back from the comfort zone of “more,” you can love living with less. It streamlines processes, simplifies decisions, removes distraction, overwhelm, and guilt. It saves time and money, provides focus and clarity, and keeps you in the present. You aren’t losing, but gaining—by defining, molding, and bringing to light aspects of your life you want to enhance and cherish.
• Embrace the person you are right now by fine-tuning what’s around you instead of adding or replacing. By pruning what’s physically in your life, you can discover meaning and joy from what you’re left with, and each object has a clearer role in your life.
• Purging your house introduces loss: you say goodbye to things you’re familiar with, sometimes to things you later wish you’d kept. But this superficial loss is great practice for letting go, because it’s nothing you can’t handle.
• Your primal instinct for survival is part of what drives you to compete for resources. Though these tendencies are of a bygone era, you are forced to contend with them when it comes to consumption of any sort. When temped to accumulate, ask yourself who you’re competing against, and why.
• You are always evolving. Look at life as a process rather than a ladder to climb. Look for the beauty in what you have and where you’re at, because satisfaction isn’t guaranteed in the next, bigger thing.
• • •
We often see “upgrading” or buying new things as an expression of growth. But reducing what you have fulfills that purpose much more thoroughly and harmoniously.
However, as much as we like to downplay our reliance on stuff, it can’t be denied that stuff is an extremely important part of solidifying our identity. Likewise, stuff plays a big role in our frame of mind: if we wear clothes that make us look like a giant baby, after a while we’ll feel like a giant baby. For now, we can’t divorce ourselves from stuff and we shouldn’t. But we need to learn to be more purposeful about what we surround ourselves with, and keep it to the minimum.
It’s up to us to regulate our purchases—dodging ads and dismissing temptations, while buying what we need to be comfortable.
Our concept of what we need to be comfortable is not only relative, but adaptable. Just as we can quickly adjust to a more indulgent lifestyle, it doesn’t take long to feel disinterested in that indulgence when we live more conservatively.
Not unlike our appetite for food, our degree of reliance on stuff is influenced by our social circles, upbringing, the media we consume, the amount of money we make, our awareness of environmental issues, the people we idolize, and our feeling of security in the world. If we become reliant on buying as a source of happiness—or display of success, expression of affection, fulfillment of habit, standard of comfort, feeling of competence, etc.—it may be important to cut back and re-adapt to a trimmer lifestyle.
I’ve written on how to practically buy less, but here I want to focus on how we can quell our emotional reliance on new purchases.
In this post:
Make ethical restrictions on your purchases
Recognize ego depletion
Seek out novelty in other ways
Find internal satisfaction
Make ethical restrictions on your purchases
If you’re passionate about workers’ rights, aim to buy fair trade products.
If you’re passionate about supporting the local economy, limit your shopping to local businesses.
If you’re passionate about the environment, make guidelines around buying from green brands, buying organic produce, cutting out meat and dairy, and cutting down on what you bring home, shopping second hand.
If you’re passionate about reducing waste, identify plastic-free products, and make rules around how many pieces of plastic packaging you allow into your home per week.
If you care about bees, buy organic produce and local honey.
If you care about local agriculture, join a farm share, frequent your farmers’ market, or purchase local products at your grocery store.
If you care about food equity, purchase from stores that have food donation programs.
If you care about food waste, prioritize food you know will be thrown away at the store: food near its expiration date, wonky or bruised produce, damaged packaging, cartons with a broken egg.
If you care about animal welfare, make limitations regarding the animal products you consume (if going vegan or vegetarian is too daunting, try becoming a “flexitarian”), don’t purchase leather, feathers, fur, horns, or hooves, or research which companies source their products through humane practices, and limit cosmetics to those that don’t rely on animal testing.
This sounds like a list of things that only people in privileged situations can afford. To be sure, such choice is a privilege. But you don’t need to spend more money to live by your values. Reducing what you buy, while funneling your purchases toward a meaningful purpose is a great way to all at once support a cause, the environment, your budget, and your emotional wellbeing.
Be specific with your focus, your intentions, and your guidelines. These rules don’t need to be hard and fast, unless that works best for you. Try keeping to your ethical restrictions 80% of the time to start. Progress over perfection.
Recognize ego depletion before you buy
Ego depletion is a theory in psychology that suggests how cognitively-demanding tasks corrode our reserves of self-control. These corroding situations include ones that are emotionally fraught, present an abundance of choice, are unfamiliar, contradict your beliefs, require intense concentration, or engage your willpower. It is thought that low blood sugar also leads to ego depletion.
You can see how according to this idea, you can land yourself in an unfortunate cycle that is hard to break from.
Brownies soothe emotional distress, blood sugar needs, and your struggle against willpower (to resist the brownie). But if you’re trying to eat “clean” or lose weight, that brownie may be loaded with guilt and contradict your beliefs. It will then contribute to more emotional distress and consequently reduce your willpower, while simultaneously presenting a situation where willpower is required (to resist eating more).
The same thing can apply to soothing yourself with material objects. When your ego is depleted, it may be harder to resist impulses to buy.
To break this cycle, reduce your exposure to situations that require self-control: remove that temptation! Engage in things that satisfy basic needs for “autonomy, competence, and relatedness,” as F. Martela, … R.M. Ryan write in their book Self-Regulation and Ego Control. “These invigorate the sense of self.” Internal strength and vitality is the anecdote to both ego depletion and over-reliance on external comforts. “Additionally,” she says, “exposure to nature, mindful attention to the present, and benevolent acts can similarly yield positive, energizing effects.”
If all else fails, take a break: change activities, take a walk, sleep on it.
Seek out novelty in other ways
Humans crave novelty. One of the most convenient and intensive forms of novelty available to us is in buying new things. To damped that temptation, we can fill our novelty tank with more productive and natural changes to our routine.
Spend your money on experiences.“You can like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences are part of you. We are the total of our experiences.” -Cornell University researcher Dr. Thomas Gilovich
Change up your environment. During the day, even minor shifts to your routine can make an unconscious difference: work in different rooms if you can, or turn your seat/desk so that light hits you from different angles. If you don’t work from home, take a different route to work. Change up what you eat. Hang out with different friends. On weekends, explore: take hikes, go camping, visit new restaurants.
Learn constantlyandget your creative juices flowing. Listen to podcasts, read books (or listen to them), watch documentaries, take notes on your observations and ideas. Work on a creative project, sign up for a class, join a social group, explore a hobby. Indulge your curiosity!
Schedule in something to look forward to each day. Whether it’s cuddling your dog or attending a class, we need to know there’s something enjoyable awaiting us—everyday. Write your plans down at the beginning of a week, or every morning. For variety, try not to repeat the same activity two days in a row.
Set tangible goals. Set small weekly goals, larger monthly goals, and lofty (but possible) goals you’ll need to work hard to achieve. Accumulating possessions is often a way to fill a void. If you’re working toward something you’re passionate about, with a concrete plan for execution, a timeline, and milestones to meet along the way, you’ll feel a sense of purpose and worth that’s crucial to undermining your dependence on stuff.
Don’t be discouraged by the inevitable hiccups that disrupt your plans. Adjust your goals accordingly. If you drop your goal, it isn’t a failure, but perhaps a sign that it should be re-oriented.
Find internal satisfaction
Easier said than done, right? But as with most things, practice makes perfect: consciously discouraging our impulse to lean on the external supplements of “stuff” can help us feel experiences more fully over time.
Do your best to live by your values: Care about the environment? Prioritize it. Care about kindness and generosity? Bring in your downstairs neighbors’ Amazon box even if they don’t do so for you. I recommend making a list of three things you value most and two concrete ways you can take steps toward living more closely by them.
Make a list of non-material things that make you happy, and try to incorporate at least one each day. Plan something you’re looking forward to down the road—a vacation, read-a-thon, movie night, virtual game night.
Practice gratitude: Writing three things you’re grateful for everyday is a good way to train yourself to get in the mindset of focusing on what you have, instead of what you don’t. If you feel gratitude toward someone in particular, let them know. Keep those social ties alive.
Spend time with animals: Playing with an animal increases our levels serotonin and dopamine. Hang out with a friend’s animal, go to a dog park, volunteer at an animal shelter, say hi to cats and dogs you pass, bird watch. If you’re in the position to adopt a fuzzy friend, many shelter animals need a home.
Smile: It makes you happier! In addition, relax your shoulders, push them back, and tilt your chin up. A confident stance can temporarily enhance the feeling of confidence.
Help others: Actively helping others, whether you know them or not, actually boosts your emotional wellbeing. Tapping into your compassion and acting on it decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation. Reach out to friends who are going through a rough time and let them know you’re there; send a care package; donate to a charity; volunteer.
Connect with others: We need social interaction, and we’re not getting much right now. See if your friends are up for a weekly or monthly activity—a virtual game night, movie night, or a socially distanced picnic in the park. Scheduling in a recurring activity lends some structure and predictability to our social lives, and reminds us that our friends are there for us.
Reconnect: When you happen to think of someone you care about or appreciate, shoot them a text to let them know. Check in on the people that matter to you. Share memes. Send a letter. Keep Zooming.
De-stress: Meditate, keep a journal, get enough sleep, exercise.
Get out into nature: There’s nothing more energizing than being outdoors. Nature has a magical ability to rejuvenate, helping us gain perspective and a sense of peace. Even 15 minutes is said to make a difference for our wellbeing and creativity. Have a picnic, take a hike, read a book or do yoga in a park, stare at the sky, sunbathe.
See a therapist: We could all use one! A therapist wants to hear you talk about yourself. They care about helping you through problems, big and small.
In our society, men are discouraged from sharing their emotions and expressing vulnerability. This is a human need that should be taken away from no one. If you have few emotional outlets, it’s even more important for you to work with a professional. Therapy is no longer viewed as taboo, but a healthy and mature avenue for self-exploration.
You don’t need to settle for the first therapist you meet with. Make sure they’re a good fit, and if not, keep looking—a good therapist can do wonders.
This morning while I checked my email in the front yard, I noticed an unattractive, wormy black bug crawling in the shadow of my laptop. I’m not a fan of bugs. I blew two hefty gusts of breath, to which it immediately reacted by cowering against the edge of my computer, body bent, and frozen in shelter.
This bug was doing exactly what I would do if a giant sent windstorms my way. I felt for it; I let the bug stay. I even blew off another bug that was headed toward my laptop, because two was too much. Bug 1 leisurely strolled laps around my computer, and I even helped it out from between two sheets of paper where it got stuck.
Moral of the story: you can learn to be affectionate for anything, because you see what you choose to see.
Have you ever learned to like something you dislike?
We’re used to tossing out the old for the new because it’s hard to ignite passion for something we see everyday. But is it because that item is valueless? If we observe what we might be overlooking about a possession, we can, without much trouble, summon affection for its merits and its quirks.
Sometimes we do need a change. Humans need novelty and stimulation, and I won’t suggest you should deprive yourself of that—even when it comes to buying unnecessary things. But do me a favor and before you do, try to look at your old things from the point of view of someone who dearly loves them. You might remember that you do.
• • •
Like eating, which we (hopefully) do everyday, our relationship with spending is not simple: we are expected to bypass the high definition rewards of an exceedingly advertised activity while still engaging in the it—in moderation—daily. It’s a huge ask, and many of us struggle.
To pinpoint your illusive definition of “enough,” consider that what you’ve become familiar with might not be what you need to thrive. Your adaptable self might have assumed the role of someone either living in or striving for a certain ideal of material comfort, when it isn’t optimal for you. Give the non-material areas of your life some love, and in the meantime, use the above tips to buy a little less. We are constantly searching for “more” to meet our “enough,” when I think for many of us, we’ve already bypassed it.
It’s not surprising that so many of us are addicted—whether it’s to shopping, gaming, social media, drinking, drug-use or anything in between.
When there are powerfully pleasurable things in the world, and powerfully negative experiences, anxieties, and pressures, it’s only logical that we take advantage of easy bursts of available pleasure. Unfortunately, modern pleasures are all too pleasurable, and without care, self-medication can quickly get out of hand.
Whether your consumption takes the form of addiction or disorder, compulsion or impulse, habit or custom, it is something most of us can benefit from adjusting. This is not to say we should dial back our desires, but that we should fulfill them consciously, and, in the context of material consumption—in moderation.
In this post I will list strategies I’ve employed when I’ve badly wanted something that made me feel worse when I had it. My want revolves around food. No source of joy should become a burden or crutch; once so, the stress of leaning too firmly on it can plant you in a mucky quagmire with no plan for extraction—because the first tool you turn toward to elevate yourself from it is the thing that got you there.
The binge cycle
Bliss: Feelings of euphoria can take over as you begin your activity. It is a powerful feeling, as if this consumption is better than anything else. However, the bliss is short-lived.
Guilt, self-loathing, regret: Quickly, you may begin feeling repulsed by your actions and want to stop, realizing it is no longer joyful. However, stopping may feel nearly impossible because the urge (and hope) for eventual satisfaction is so strong: yet satisfaction may be hard to attain, if ever. You may feel shameful for yet again engaging in this behavior, weak for your “enslavement” to it, and guilty for going against certain values; e.g. if you care about the environment but just bought five pairs of jeans you don’t need, that internal conflict can be extremely demoralizing.
These negative feelings become associated with the activity and drive you to loath it, especially right after it’s over—and for some addictions, “purging” that activity/substance is common, which can enhance its allure next time. You may have negative associations with certain products or places as a result of a binge.
Isolation: Throughout your addiction you may feel alienated from others who don’t struggle with this activity like you do. You might further distance yourself, declining to take part in social activities, or conceal your amount of consumption, “sneaking” in a fix. If your behavior has impacted those close to you, your health, or your bank account, feelings of shame and isolation can escalate.
Obsessing and craving: You may be consumed with thoughts about your activity—both with thirst as you think about your next fix, and with shame at your single-mindedness. If you hear or read phrases associated with your activity, you might feel your brain light up in excitement, sometimes unconsciously. Such reminders of the activity, other emotional triggers, and the negative feelings of regret, inadequacy, and isolation that result from engaging in your activity may drive you to crave its pleasure; it becomes the one thing that can soothe you. This rivalry of disgust and obsessive dependence keeps you feeling trapped, while the intensity of a craving often overpowers rational thinking.
Ritual behaviors: As you prepare to engage in the activity again, you might notice patterns emerge: you may start scouring the internet for shopping ideas or stocking up on alcohol several days before a binge. When you begin a ritual behavior, it’s like the act of pushing a ball downhill—it’s the beginning of a compulsive cycle that builds powerful momentum. When engaging in ritual behaviors, you are committing, sometimes unconsciously, to engage (or “use”), while often feeling a strong sense of conflict.
Self-medication/using: You might enter the activity with the intention of only indulging a tiny bit to taste that feeling of euphoria, but quickly your agency seems to dissolve.
This toxic cycle makes the urge to use, binge, and splurge incredibly alluring, but there are things you can do to soften that pull.
Fight the urge to splurge
Reduce your exposure. Unsubscribe to emails from retail companies, limit your social media time, and avoid hanging around shopping-dense areas if you don’t need to. If you have to buy a specific item, go to a specialty shop; avoid shopping malls. If someone else can pick up that item, ask them to do it instead—you don’t need the temptation of other products and their seductive advertising.
Know your triggers. Once you’ve identified what you are vulnerable to, you can make a plan for either avoiding these things or increasing friction around attaining them. If every time you order Chinese food, you end up ordering 5 different dishes and wasting half of what’s already in your fridge, you can plan to order beforeyou get hungry, treat yourself only when you’ve emptied your fridge (or frozen what’s in your fridge), or when you’re around friends to share it with.
Mitigate holiday shopping frenzy. For most adults, the holidays can be an anxiety-filled time. Those who ordinarily have a handle on their consumption can be triggered by holiday spending and addictive behaviors can emerge. There are a few things you can do to mitigate the rush of November and December: Holiday shop throughout the year; introduce Secret Santa/Pink Elephant to your extended family; consider a charity gift exchange; make your gifts!; don’t shop when stressed, anxious, tired, or lonely; strategize to avoid your triggers while shopping; go for quality, not quantity; set a budget; recycle holiday ads and coupons you receive in the mail; focus on pre-holiday fun—listening to holiday music, stringing lights, decorating cookies….
Address negative emotions. Shopping may be keeping you from addressing your mental health in more appropriate ways. Try not to suppress feelings of discomfort or pain, but sit with them. Work through them with a friend, therapist, or in a journal. To help ease the challenge of facing your emotions, surround yourself with a soothing environment (bathtub, music, scented candles) and non-triggering forms of comfort (animal or human cuddles, hot tea, soft blankets, a book). Recover from your self-reflection with something other than shopping that brings you joy (your favorite movie, a nap, a walk, seeing a friend).
Surround yourself with a positive network. Often our interest in things is a result of the people we hang out with. If sustainability, emotional wellbeing, or saving cash is important to you, it may be worth gravitating toward people whose ideas of fulfillment do not revolve around products or appearance.
Declutter. If you’re surrounded by reminders of your overspending, guilt and shame can follow you around the house. Oftentimes purchases are motivated by negative feelings brought on by a previous purchase—so get rid of anything that has a negative association.
Track your spending. Detailed tracking isn’t for everyone. Counting pennies, calories, or instagram likes can become an obsessive act in itself, and many shopping addicts think excessively about money as it is. But if you think tracking is up your alley, give it a try: Download a budgeting app and log every purchase. Like with using cash instead of credit cards, this is a way to make your purchases feel less abstract and build mindfulness around your habits. If tracking doesn’t help you reduce your spending in a way that feels healthy, you can track only the problem purchases, keep a rough list in your head of your daily total, or simply write down the things you buy without noting their price.
Keep track of your savings. Every time you say no to a purchase or buy second hand, keep track of what you saved. Give that pot of money an aim (and a name! “Self Care”/“Solar at Last!”/”Underwater Basket Weaving”) that doesn’t involve purchasing more virgin materials, unless they’re a sustainable investment—something for productivity, passion projects, wellness, or experience.
Understand your behavior. Keep a journal to record your behaviors, their triggers, and the feelings and thoughts associated. Look for patterns that can help you understand when, where, why, and how it happens. Make a list of things you can do to distract yourself when temptation or cravings arise. Make a list of rational phrases you can say to yourself when rational thinking is fuzzy.
Learn more about shopping addiction. Listen to podcasts, read books or blogs, watch documentaries. You will be able to put a name to certain behaviors, and the feeling of alienation will ease; you are not the only one who struggles with it.
Seek out affirming hobbies. Join a club, start hiking, learn a craft. Work toward a goal that has nothing to do with shopping and that satisfies your needs for growth, confidence, and joy.
• Ask 5 Why’s. When you identify a positive goal to strive for, following it with 5 why’s will clarify your underlying motivations and determine what’s holding you back from achieving it. 5 Why’s is a good way to bring forward subconscious conceptions so you can address whether they are accurate, and get to the heart of your consumption so you can move forward more purposefully. For example:
Goal: reduce my reliance on stuff.
Why? Because needing to life with a lot doesn’t reflect who I am and what I value.
Why? Because I know I can be more self-sufficient and I used to feel comfortable living with less.
Why? Because I had a solid support system that made me feel full.
Why? Because I prioritized friends and family.
Why? Because I had more time and mental space.
You can keep going with more why’s. It goes real deep real fast.
Ask for help. There’s no shame in it. Telling your friends about your struggles can be a huge weight off your chest. They’ll be more sensitive to your needs if they’re aware of your triggers. Tell them what they can do to be helpful, and let them know what isn’t helpful. Being able to connect with your group, especially if you’ve detached yourself, can be tremendously grounding. You can also talk with a therapist, online forum, or addiction group.
Unlike other addictive activities, you can’t quit shopping. If you could strike the behavior completely from your life, things would be more simple. But unless you go off the grid (not impossible!), you must learn to manage your impulses while still tasting your forbidden fruit. Here are some strategies to rein in your spending:
Consider the logistics. Before you purchase an item, take a moment to ask yourself some questions: Where will you put it? When will you use it? How will you feel if it isn’t used? How quickly did you grow tired of something similar? Do you own something similar already? After a few months, will you still be excited about it? Will it be in style a few years down the road? Can you afford it? Are you absolutely in love with it?
Bring it down a notch. If you start bringing down the monetary, environmental, or social impact of your spending a little bit at a time, it could help slowly break the destructive cycle. A lowered degree of guilt can lower your need for retail therapy. Start by identifying what would ease the negative feelings associated with your habit: would buying second hand, only purchasing ethical products, or only purchasing from local stores enlist positive or empowering feelings? Guidelines can also be away to narrow your exposure to temptations.
Be aware of decision fatigue. After a full day of decision-making, we are more prone to impulse-buys: avoid shopping in the evening, and if tempted by an item, sleep on it.
Sleep on it. If you find something you like, give yourself 24 hours to mull it over. You may end up being glad you didn’t spend that money.
Put it off for 30 days. For pure “pleasure” purchases or bigger buys, try waiting one month before committing. If you still want it then and can afford it, buy it without guilt.
Leave your credit cards at home. Carry only cash so that spending money feels tangible. If you shop online, ask yourself if you would be willing to pay cash for it.
What if I don’t buy it? Think about the positives that come with not buying, rather than the negatives of buying. Consider that if you don’t buy this particular product, you are allowing someone else to enjoy it. Consider that you are discouraging retailers and manufacturers from creating more resource-intensive products. Plan how you can better use that money instead—on donations, experiences with loved ones, necessary acquisitions.
Learn about the environmental impact of buying. Though you might avoid this for fear of facing your guilt, it is important to know the impacts of your purchases. Having a better understanding of your actions and a concrete motivation to curb them might just be the impetus you need to reign it in.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” (Theodore Roosevelt).There’s always more money to be made, compared to what you’re making. There’s always a better car to drive, compared to the one you own. You can live a life without satisfaction, or you can love the one you have.
Remember that the grass is always greener. As you are deciding on a purchase, and after you’ve made a purchase, keep in mind how the modern overabundance of choice affects the satisfaction we feel about our decisions. Even if your purchase was a great selection, the tease of unfulfilled potential produced by saying no to other choices can lead us to quickly grow tired of what we have, in pursuit of what else is out there.
Discover the joys of thrifting. I. Love. Thrifting. If you don’t already love thrifting, you will love thrifting. There’s something so much more rewarding about discovering an item after a thorough chase, and taking it home for a fraction of the price it was originally sold for. You never know the unique discoveries you might make, and you can be confident you won’t cross paths with someone wearing that same piece of clothing. Unlike what many people think, second hand items and clothing are not dirty (just wash it when you take it home if you’re worried) and often they’re barely used. You can be guilt-free when it comes to your wallet and your environmental impact. Just remember to treat that item with care so you can re-donate it later. I. love. Thrifting.
Recognize needs vs wants. Sometimes we’ll rationalize a need for something when we simply want it. Waiting 30 days is a good way to see if your life is barren without it, but otherwise, be aware that your craving brain does not have your best interests at heart. In that moment, it will rationalize that money grows on trees and the environment is greener for it.
If yes, then no. Often when you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. Remind yourself what you might be denying your future self by fulfilling that temporary desire (e.g. if I say yes to this pair of pants, I’m saying no to spending that money on a nice meal this week; if I say yes to this jacket I don’t need, I’m saying no to a stress-free closet; if I say yes to indulging in this entire quart of ice cream, I’m saying no to peace of mind, or peace of digestion). Make sure that when you purchase, you are not displacing another priority.
With the introduction of credit and debit cards came an escalation of shopping addiction. Cards were created to take the friction out of buying; like junk food, they were designed to up our consumption. In a cashless economy where online shopping is immensely popular, the ease and instant gratification of buying builds year by year.
Amid this and alluring advertising, and our reptilian love of dopamine, and our age-old instinct to accumulate, and the stress and loneliness of a modern world, we are fortunate if we don’t form an addiction. But if we do, there are absolutely tools for healing, including professional counselors who would love to help.
Please reach out with your thoughts on addictive behavior and compulsive shopping!
“I sometimes find,” said Albus Dumbledore,“that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.”
In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore remedies this by using a magical basin called a Pensieve, into which “one simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.”
The Wizarding World is brimming with stress-relieving storage containers and life-simplifying gadgets. Us muggles could use some real solutions—and not silly ones like the internet (psh) that only complicate things.
But—don’t despair! For we in fact have a bloody brilliant, electricity-powered, non-magic invention that rivals Dumbledore’s:
. . . . The FREEZER!
The freezer is so miraculous, even wizards are using it! Advertisement in Witch Weekly:
The Frozen Pensieve is a place to dump your immediate food-related burdens, not only decluttering your kitchen, but your overstuffed brain. If wasting food—or losing galleons (money)—makes you anxious, throw that anxiety into the ice box! With a ready stock of preserved food at hand, you can access it at your leisure, no longer threatened by the guilt and regret of a spoiled dish.(Disclaimer: Frozen Pensieves run small. Use the undetectable Extension Charm to enlarge.)
Food waste is an issue everywhere. The freezer is an essential tool that, in my opinion, should take center stage in magic and non-magic food storage routines alike. But for those of us without House Elves, a few things seem to keep us from growing comfortable with using it.
Common freezer hurdles
Freezing my food = never seeing it again
My freezer is too small (not a problem for wizards)
I don’t know the best way to thaw food
Freezing and Thawing takes time and effort
I like eating my food “fresh”
I hate freezer burn
I’m concerned about refreezing defrosted food
I’m not sure what to freeze
I don’t know how long is too long
Hurdle 1: freezing my food = never seeing it again
Keep a simple, written log of what’s in your freezer: Attaching the list to the front of your freezer door at eye level means it’ll be hard to unintentionally banish your food to its icy depths. Remember to continually update your list.
If you store certain foods in designated areas of your freezer, map out your inventory by shelf or section.
Use freezer bins: Sometimes all you can do is look for a pocket of space to jam a container into. But if you keep your freezer divided into compartments by food type, you’ll find it easier to fill and empty. You can buy bins online or reuse shipping boxes or shoe boxes—really any kind of box.
Examples of bin categories: frozen fruit + dessert; lunch + dinner leftovers; bread + flours; nuts + spices; meats + dairy; sauces; store-bought frozen meals.
Label your food: With every container you add to your freezer (excepting store-bought items), give it a label that specifies what it contains and the date you add it. Food can be hard to distinguish once frozen, and we might procrastinate investigating it, letting it occupy space unnecessarily—or we might give up on the “mystery food” altogether.
For those resistant to labeling, I recommend at least labeling sauces, soups, or other liquids—even if you’re sure you’ll remember what they are. Since we tend to store things in the freezer indefinitely, there is a high likelihood that you will eventually forget what that ambiguous liquid is.
Hurdle 2: my freezer is too small
A full freezer actually works more efficiently than an empty one. That said, it’s best to avoid overpacking it, keeping air vents free to circulate cold air.
This is easier said than done when you’re an active freezer-user, and especially if you share yours with several people; freezer space can feel awfully cramped.
In an ideal, food-waste fighting world, freezers would be as large as refrigerators, and refrigerators as small as freezers (just as recycling bins should be as large as trash cans, and vice versa).
But for the world we live in, here are some work-arounds for limited freezer space:
Don’t be afraid to dip into your freezer for a bite throughout the week. Think of it as an active and ever-changing inventory rather than a cavern where your food goes to hibernate for a year. Also remember that although frozen food might not look appetizing, it will transform once heated!
Evaluate your freezer before grocery shopping: Adjust your grocery list according to what’s already available at home—in your freezer, fridge, pantry, and counter—to avoid redundancies. When faced with novel and enticing options at the grocery store, we tend to get carried away with our purchases—ignoring the fact that frozen leftovers await us at home. But if we’re routinely aware of what specifically exists in the freezer, we can easily factor it into our meal plan and grocery goals—arming ourselves with a strategy before entering food wonderland.
Unify your storage containers so that they’re square (instead of round); it’s more space-efficient. It’s helpful if your containers are stackable, but if you don’t have unified sets, bins are a good way to keep your freezer tidy and compressed.
Save your glass jars: I try to buy jams and condiments that come in glass jars, both to cut down on plastic, and for the free Tupperware! Though these are certainly not unified container sets and therefore are less stackable, their size diversity comes in handy. As it’s best for space and food quality reasons to leave minimal air in your frozen containers, smaller jars are great for this. Read about how to freeze glass jars.
Re-package boxed food: As you eat your way through store-bought frozen food, ditch the box and re-package the contents tightly. You can cut out and adhere the reheating instructions to the top of the new container.
Hang bags of food: Stacking high can result in avalanches. Instead, try stacking low and filling the space above by suspending food from your freezer’s shelving with binder clips.
Update your ice box: If your household creates a sizable amount of food waste, it might be worth investing in a larger freezer, or a chest freezer. Like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, it’s worth having the ability to save any overwhelming food for a later date.
Hurdle 3: I don’t know the best ways to thaw food
It’s best to either thaw your food slowly in the refrigerator, or during the cooking process.
You can also defrost your food by soaking it in cold water (change the water out every half hour) or in the microwave.
Avoid leaving food in the “temperature danger zone” of 40-140 degrees F for more than two hours, as this is where things have the potential to start getting dicey. Therefore, don’t thaw your food on the counter.
It is also not recommended to defrost food by running it under warm water. You want your food to either be substantially hot (above 140 degrees) or cold (below 40 degrees).
Hurdle 4: freezing and thawing takes time and effort
As I mentioned in my last post, I can be obsessively lazy, bent on streamlining food storage processes to require the least amount of effort. I used to overlook my freezer, believing I could save time and energy by simply making sure I ate all my food before it spoiled. But I found that with even irregular instances of food waste, there is significant time and energy squandered in the cooking and prepping of food that won’t be eaten. Getting into the habit of freezing the food you might not immediately eat will save you time in the long run.
Hurdle 5: I like eating my food “fresh”
I get how you feel. Cooking, freezing, and reheating does add a component of processing to your food, which may cause you to worry about compromised quality and nutrition. But consider that you might not be giving your Pensieve enough credit.
Though most veggies should be cooked before being frozen, heat actually makes certain nutrients more available. This is true for tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, asparagus, and spinach, among others, where antioxidant content is boosted and vitamins can be better-absorbed.
On top of this, compare a bag of spinach that you steam and freeze to raw spinach that lounges in your crisper: the frozen spinach is preserved at the point when it begins to freeze, while the refrigerated spinach is deteriorating in nutrient content each day it is not eaten.
Spinach preserved via freezing or canning is more nutrient-rich than spinach that’s spent a few extra days in the fridge—because it’s been preserved early in its post-harvest life. In fact, after a week post-harvest, refrigerated spinach loses half of its folate. Vegetables lose between 15 and 77% of their vitamin C after a week. By the time these veggies enter your home, you have no idea how long they’ve been in storage—so eat them, or cook and freeze them, as soon as you can.
Hurdle 6: I hate freezer burn
Freezer burn appears as ice-crystally or discolored areas on your food, and is the result of moisture loss. Though it can affect the quality of your food, freezer burnt food issafe to consume. You can always trim off the burnt areas and eat the rest.
To prevent freezer burn:
Make sure there isminimal air within your food’s packaging or container. Re-package store-bought items that aren’t wrapped tight.
For a plastic-free option, you can wrap your food in bee’s wax wrap and then stick it in a container, or place the wrap right over the top of the food in its container.
Make sure your freezer’s temperature isbelow 0°F, and avoid raising the temperature with large batches of hot food (chill it in the fridge before freezing).
The longer your food spends in the freezer, the higher the likelihood of it developing freezer burn. To avoid this, eat itwithin a few months.
To be extra clear, freezing your food for more than a few months is perfectly fine—but to avoid freezer burn, eat it as quickly as possible.
Avoid over-crowding and under-crowding your freezer. You want room for air to circulate, but enough frozen items for your freezer to efficiently maintain a low temperature.
Hurdle 7: I’m concerned about refreezing defrosted food
The idea that you cannot refreeze defrosted food is a myth. Any food—even meat—can be refrozen, as long as it hasn’t lingered on the counter for over two hours or spent too many days in the fridge. Tina Hayes, a USDA registered dietitian, says that “it is safe to refreeze raw meat, as long as it’s not spoiled.”
The myth that food can’t be refrozen may come from instances where food handlers didn’t have enough information about their thawed food. For example, when I worked in food rescue, we would not accept frozen meat that looked like it had been thawed and refrozen. This was not because food shouldn’t be refrozen, however: rather, in this setting we had to assume any thawed food may have been improperly handled and exposed for more than two hours to warm conditions, since we had no proof otherwise.
Freeze any cooked food that you won’t eat in the next three days: if you won’t immediately eat (and finish) fresh pastas, sauces, take-out, baked goods, cooked meats and vegetables, throw them in the freezer. This may involve dividing food into separate containers, depending on what’s freezer-bound and fridge-bound.
Of course you can move most of these things to your freezer later, but the danger there is forgetting about doing so. It’s better to get into the habit ofemptying any freezable groceries into the freezer when you bring them home, and to freeze large batches of cooked food right after cooking.
Items that don’t spoil easily can be kept in the fridge (condiments, cheeses, hardy produce, unopened yogurt, eggs, recently-bought items.)
Freeze any pantry items you won’t quickly finish: bread, herbs, flours, nuts, dried fruit. Make sure these items are well-sealed and tightly wrapped.
A lot of what you freeze will depend on freezer space. But if you have the space, and you’re in doubt of whether you should freeze something—freeze it! If you don’t have the space but you want to freeze something, work your way through eating your frozen food before buying more fresh groceries.
Hurdle 9: I don’t know how long is too long
Have you ever discovered an item from 2016 in your freezer and wondered if it was ok to eat? The podcast Every Little Thing did! In one episode, a family had eaten four-year old frozen fish. It tasted fine, and there were no ill-effects, but the family wanted the opinion of an expert.
“As long as the food remained frozen,” said food safety and foodborne pathogens expert, Haley Oliver, on the podcast, “it’s not going to be unsafe.” She said that “the process of freezing is designed to stop the growth of microorganisms. That’s why freezing works. So from a safety standpoint, it’s good for the long game…. This becomes the difference between quality vs safety. It’s not going to be unsafe. It’s just that the quality will have reduced over time.” So, you don’t need to throw your frozen food out after a year. It just might need a little extra seasoning.
If you are not already intimate with your muggle Pensieve, don’t feel overwhelmed. When it comes to the freezer, you can hardly go wrong. The main things to remember are:
Freeze any food that you won’t immediately eat: even if you plan to eat it later in the week, freeze it. Find tips on best practices for freezing here.
To avoid overcrowding and freezer burn, don’t forget to chip away at your frozen food. Keeping a list of what you have in your freezer and labeling your food can make it easier to locate your food, and to incorporate it into your meal plan and grocery list. But if you forget about a frozen food item in the back of your freezer, it should be safe to eat even years later.
As you thaw your food, avoid keeping it in the temperature danger zone (40-140 degrees F) for more than two hours: you should not thaw it on the counter or under warm water.
Food waste comes with many casualties…. the environment, social justice, and your wallet. American families lose nearly $2000 each year due to food waste. The freezer is your shortcut to stamping out this problem in your home.
I’d love to hear your freezer tips! Email me or comment below.
Short on friends at the moment? Warm up to your freezer! Your freezer does something miraculous—something no human friend can do (silly humans): it can nearly stop the clock on your food’s life! It is the fountain of food youth, conveniently presenting you with a perfectly preserved meal from weeks ago.
Your freezer helps manage your time and menu, it declutters your fridge, it nourishes you at a moment’s notice, it listens to your problems, and it carries no threat of virus transmission. What a luxury. But it can also help you significantly cut your food waste, saving you money and doing good for the world.
In this post:
Basic freezer tips — best practices in freezing
Start freezing these things — items to move from your pantry and refrigerator to your freezer
The positive to being negative
Cooked food: rule of thumb — when and what to freeze
Optimism bias — how optimism bias plays into the food we waste
If in doubt, go the frozen route — default to the freezer
Take the shortcut — freezing saves time and energy
Basic freezer tips
Many of us reserve our freezer for frozen food like ice cream and hot pockets, leaving it an empty cavern of icy air. When you rarely interact with your freezer, it can feel impossible to reduce food waste at home.
Rather than reserving your freezer for already-icy things, use it to hold any food from your fridge or countertop that won’t be eaten right away: your bread, chinese takeout, bananas, homemade casserole, apple pie, tomato sauce… even guacamole. Here are some basic freezer tips to get the ball rolling:
Divide bulk food into serving-sized portionsto freeze. It’ll be much easier to reheat as needed.
Use ice cube trays to freeze sauces, hummus, pestos, tomato paste, and guacamole.
Your guacamole’s texture might change slightly, but freezing is a good way to prevent browning and waste. This is also a great way to preserve avocados if you have too many—make them into guacamole to freeze. To thaw, leave it overnight in the fridge.
Keep your freezer full, but not jam-packed. A full freezer is more energy-efficient than an empty one, but air needs to circulate. As with your refrigerator, keep the air vents unblocked.
Keep your food wrapped tightly and sealed to prevent freezer burn. Fill your containers nearly to the top while leaving room for the food to expand. Repackage pre-packaged food as you work your way through it.
Use airtight containers to preserve color and flavor if you’re likely to freeze food for long periods of time. Glass and stainless steel are great for plastic-free packaging.
Useglass jars to freeze food and liquid: Cutting down on plastic is an important part of a low-waste lifestyle, and reusing your jam jars is economic and non-toxic. Contrary to what many believe, it’s perfectly fine to freeze food in glass, with a few precautions:
Leave about an inch of space at the top of the jar, and the lid screwed loosely on. Your food, especially liquids, will expand as they freeze. Once frozen, you can tighten the lid.
Opt for wide-mouth jars: the contents are easier to get out later and there’s more room for expansion.
Be mindful as you pack and open your freezer—no one wants broken glass on the floor!
Thawing frozen glass jars in hot water may cause them to break, so plan ahead and stick them in the fridge to defrost overnight.
Unless you’re using canning jars, it’s best to let scalding-hot food cool a bit before filling your jars, to avoid thermal shock. Avoid letting your food cool on the counter for over two hours—use your fridge instead.
Start freezing these things
Converting your freezer into a permanent home for certain staples is a simple and rewarding adjustment (you’ll save so much bread from molding!) Nuts, grains, spices, and any dry good that you typically think of as shelf-stable are still vulnerable to time, temperature, moisture, and sniffing pests.
Bread: freeze it!! Slice your loaf before freezing. Toast the slices to thaw, or let sit at room temperature.
If you like the texture of untoasted bread, keep a portion of a loaf on your counter and the rest in your freezer.
You’ll be surprised how quickly bread defrosts at room temperature. If you remove a slice from the freezer and let it sit for around half an hour in a bag, it’ll be perfectly fresh.
I also tend to store bread in my fridge, since my freezer gets full. I have not noticed moisture loss in the fridge, as some do. Beware though: although the fridge slows the growth of mold, it doesn’t prevent it. Once food is out of the freezer, don’t doddle with the eating.
Bread butts: If you don’t like eating the hind quarters of your bread loaf (they’re great toasted, though!), collect them in a designated container in your freezer. When you’re ready, defrost them in your oven and throw them in the food processor to make breadcrumbs.
You can freeze other breadlike products like tortillas, baked goods, and raw flour. These are some of the few frozen items that can be thawed at room temperature.
Nuts: nuts can go rancid pretty easily. Even if stored in air-tight containers and in a dry, dark place, time is not their friend. If you don’t think you’ll get to your nuts quickly, freeze them! Refrigerating is a temporary solution as well. Thaw frozen nuts in the fridge, at room temperature, or through cooking.
Butter, hard cheeses, and shredded cheese: Freeze them! Soft cheese may not fare as well in the freezer. Thaw in the fridge.
Milk: if you don’t drink a lot of milk, you may find it spoils before you’ve finished the bottle. Freezing milk is a great option if you intend on baking or cooking with it. Thaw frozen milk in the fridge. If you drink thawed milk directly, you may notice a difference in texture.
Note: for your refrigerated milk, avoid storing it on your fridge door, where it is subject to fluctuating temperatures. Keep it within the fridge and preferably in the lower-half, where it’s cooler.
Eggs: Eggs can last a while in the fridge, but if you’re worried you won’t get to them within 5-6 weeks, you can freeze them. Freezing them in the shell can cause the shell to crack as the liquids expand: divide your eggs based on how many you’ll use at once when you’re ready to defrost them, crack them into containers, and whisk the whites and yolks together within each container. Put these in the freezer. Thaw in the fridge.
Fruit: Freeze cut fruit that may soon be overripe. Use them in smoothies, “nice cream,” or add them to dessert or breakfast. If you have the luxury of a wide and spacious freezer, spread your chopped fruit on a tray, let freeze, and package them into containers once frozen.
Veggies: Freeze your vegetables for soups, sauces, or stir fries. Thaw in the fridge or through cooking.
To prevent vegetables from becoming mushy or discolored in the freezer, steam or blanch them (dunk them briefly in boiling water, then transfer to ice water) to retard enzyme action. Onions and peppers are exceptions and can be frozen raw.
Ginger and spices: you can store a partially-used ginger root in the freezer. Pull it out and grate it as you need.
The freezer is also a good place for dried herbs and spices, as they tend to lose their flavor over time. They like cold, dry storage—but where do we often see them kept? Right next to the stove! Especially if you have a bountiful array of spices, or if you cook less often, best to move them to the freezer. The fridge is also a good option.
Herbs: it’s unfortunate that herbs are usually sold by the bundle. If you’re not making a party-sized batch of pico de gallo, it’s easy to let half your cilantro go to waste. Freeze your herbs by adding them to ice cube trays and pouring olive oil or water over them. Add the frozen cubes to your cooking as needed. Alternatively, you can hang-dry your herbs, crush, and store them.
Food scrap treasure box: collect edible food scraps like leftover herbs, broccoli stems, lemon rind, carrot stems, and vegetable peels in a container in your freezer. When the container’s full, use this flavorful assemblage to make soup, stock, or sauce! Thaw in the fridge or through cooking.
The positive to being negative
Cooked food: Rule of thumb
Accurately estimating how much food you will eat in the coming week is a learned skill. And when it comes to reducing your food waste, it takes trial and error and mindful observation.
Here’s a simplerule of thumb for how to reduce the amount of cooked food, or “leftovers” wasted at home:
Identify what you think you’ll eat in the next three days. Freeze the rest!
A three-day cutoff may sound short, but that’s because we tend to be overly hopeful about how productive we’ll be with our future endeavors. No matter how much evidence we have from the past that we will not single-handedly finish a pot of pasta before it spoils, we are still inclined to believe that this time we will.
As you plan your meals for the week, grocery shop, and select what to put in your freezer, be aware of your propensity to predict that 1) you’ll need more food than you really might need 2) you’ll eat more healthy food, like veggies and fruits, than you might eat 3) you’ll cook more than you really might cook. Being realistic, sadly, should not be a realistic expectation.
A note: I implied above that you might want to buy fewer vegetables if they will realistically end up a mushy pile at the bottom of your crisper. Since it’s good to have a supply of healthy foods in case you get inspired, here’s where the freezer shines once again! Freezing your veggies means you won’t need to buy as many weekly, as less of your shopping will go to waste. Instead, they sit happily in the ice box, awaiting your consumption—no time pressure to speak of.
If in doubt, go the frozen route
Do not let that Chinese takeout languish, hoping you’ll get to it at some point. Be an active participant in reducing your climate footprint. If you’re unsure if you’ll eat it soon, just throw the dang thing in the freezer!
Question:Can’t I wait a few more days to freeze my food, in case I end up wanting it on day 4?
Answer: Of course you can. But if you haven’t eaten it by then, it’s likely you’ll put it off one more day, then another day, then another… especially if you have other options in your fridge or tend to order in.
Plus, by then its freshness will have unnecessarily waned, or you may forget to make the transition to the freezer… or you might lose it in the clutter of your fridge… or forget that it exists altogether. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.
It’s simple enough to pop frozen food in the microwave when you’re ready to eat, so why wait?
Take the short cut
Lowering your expectations to match reality prevents you from being disappointed. It’s sad, but true. So if you give yourself room for error by getting friendly with your freezer, you’ll succeed more easily at reaching your waste reduction goals, and feel bolstered to continue pushing yourself.
My inner perfectionist likes to play the game of How Precisely Can I Plan My Food for the Week? which involves producing minimal waste while expending the least amount of effort. Because freezing food is an extra step, I used to avoid doing so—and food would go bad. Then I’d be frustrated at myself for both the wasted food and the lapse in judgment.
I’ve since learned to default to the my handy freezer and avoid the drama. It truly is the shortest and least effortful route to waste reduction success. The time and energy spent cooking your food is no longer wasted when it spoils, and that more than balances out the effort it takes to freeze and thaw it. We are not perfect! Luckily, our pal the freezer is there to help mitigate our tendency to be human.
The fact that you and I can have a mini polar climate in our kitchens is a serious feat and privilege. The freezer is about as close as we get to slowing time, and most Americans are lucky enough to have their own! Your freezer should not be overlooked.
Most foods and meals can be seamlessly frozen and thawed, and I recommend doing so with any prepared/cooked food you won’t eat in the next three days. Instead of looking at your freezer as a place to keep icy things from thawing, look at it as a preserver of freshness.
Assume that you’ll forget, lose, and neglect %40 of your food before it spoils, even if you have the best of intentions. Life gets in the way. Most Americans underestimate how much food they waste, so make life easy for yourself by utilizing your freezer.
Time is no one’s friend, and shelf-stable food is not exempt. Even when tightly sealed and stored in a cold, dry place, foods like nuts, grains, and spices will lose their flavor. For long-term storage, use your freezer.
No one can succeed at stamping out their food waste on their own. Accept help from a reliable, frozen companion.
Helping to normalize imperfect food in our wider culture can help remove some of the shame commonly felt among recipients of food pantries. Rescued or recently-expired food is not trash, and we’ve got to continue emphasizing this.
If we accept and consume food that’s less than perfect, we should not feel “less than”. Somewhere along the way we’ve come to the conclusion that buying only spotless and uniform products validates our own worth; that buying imperfect food means we are stooping to lower standards.
Where in our lives does perfection serve us? Why do we so often feel it’s a measurement of our value? If the look of our food was a commentary on our own status, wouldn’t we choose the food with the most character, integrity, and—honestly!—natural beauty?
Below are a few of the basic rules I follow when grocery shopping. Over time and with enough of us chipping in, we’ll communicate to our stores that we understand the reality and benefits of imperfection: we don’t support the behind-the-scenes food waste that makes perfect possible.
Buy the ugly food
A few wilted leaves? Bruising or dings? Oddly small? Oddly shaped? Broken egg? One moldy berry? Whenever your natural reaction toward a piece of grocery store produce is “next, please,” most likely this is exactly how every other customer will greet it. That food will be left behind, eventually swept to the bowels of the store by an employee.
When you catch yourself passing something over because of appearance, stop yourself: what would it cost you to simply remove those three wilted leaves, or that single moldy berry? If you rescue these foods, you are directly preventing the food waste that would occur if they stayed on their shelf.
Two important notes!:
1) if one day you choose the large sweet potatoes over the neglected sweet potato nubbins, please don’t beat yourself up. Don’t be bullied by guilt; just do your best and shop intentionally.
2) sometimes we mistake blemished produce as rotting produce. These two very different states are sometimes hard to distinguish, and in our busy lives they’ve become interchangeable (bruised/ripe/different = bad/rotten/spoiled). What may look like a pear that’s “gone bad” for example, might well be a pear at the peak of its ripeness. When handled and housed among impractically large and heavy piles of fruit at the grocery store (an appearance of abundance is more enticing to customers), a perfectly ripe pear will unfailingly acquire some dings and bruises.
As an inverse example, those firm, round, uncompromising tomatoes you see at the market are bred for durability during transportation, storage, and handling, and are most likely underripe when you buy them. Unlike easy-squished and wonky-looking heirloom tomatoes, they are not gems of taste and texture, but of longevity.
Buy the damaged packaging
Mildly dented cans, dented cartons, broken lids, ripped boxes, dirty wrapping—none of these will impact your food or your experience of it as long as the internal bag or seal is intact. If not bought, these are the products that will be left behind and likely thrown away. However, if the safety seal or internal bag is broken, or if your can is sharply dented so that the metal forms a point or crease, leave these products on the shelf.
In short, if you have no memory of when you purchased your food, feel free to use these dates as a guideline; but give them no more weight than that. With the exception of baby formula, date labels are not regulated, they are not an indicator of food safety, and they cause an unacceptable amount of food waste.
When you shop, consciously select the food that is nearing the expiration date. If left on the shelf, that food will likely end up in the trash, not because it’s spoiled, but because the arbitrary nature of date labels are commonly misunderstood by the average customer. Since you are not the average customer and know not to give them clout, you can rescue the items that others overlook.
Note: when I worked in food rescue, we referenced a company guide that articulated how far beyond the expiration date our products could be donated. Though no law requires stores to remove products by their expiration date, they do so at the behest of the customer. As food rescue organizations and their recipients can attest, this food is capable of having a life after the date has passed. Use your senses to determine whether food is fresh: food is often fresh for days, weeks, even months (dry goods, non-perishables) after that date has come and gone, depending on the product and how it’s stored. Stay tuned for a date label guide.
In addition to implementing the above tactics as you shop, you can reduce your consumer footprint by opting out of the supermarket system: shop at local farmers’ markets, sign up for a farm share, support local businesses, or subscribe to rescued grocery delivery. These approaches are not accessible to everyone, but if you are lucky enough to be able to apply them, you can benefit health-wise as well.
Within the supermarket system, you can also cut down your impact by supporting sustainable brands, limiting the plastic packaging that comes with your food, and checking that the produce you buy is sourced locally.
Having the economic means to choose to eat fresh fruits and vegetables is a gift; being confident that you can easily alleviate any pang of hunger is a gift. The ability to afford all the food we want—and even more food than we need—is a responsibility that we are often not taught to wisely navigate.
As we progress as a society, there are a lot of things we need to unlearn. We are steadily realizing that our revulsion toward imperfect food is irrational and antiquated, passed on and adopted without question. It is so gratifying to consciously shift value from typically picturesque products to the charismatic runts of the grocery pile, because you align your shopping with experiential action rather than material satisfaction. If you do this, you are helping to re-establish balance and moderation in a system grounded in excess and depletion. You are advocating for our planet and its inhabitants and aligning your priorities to match the realities of the world.
Though it might sound like I’m proposing that you lower your expectations in favor of damaged or less plentiful selections, I’m actually asking you to raise them. Rather than denounce the benefits of our food system, I’m asking you to embrace them.
Limited by access, many people don’t have the good fortune of choosing to live fully by their values or enjoy the liberation that those choices bring. If you do, you have the ability to spend your money in a way that can evoke pride, fulfillment, and meaning, and in a world that revolves around buying, that’s no small privilege.
When we waste food, we might lament over the wasted resources that went into growing it. Lost resources are hugely problematic—but food waste affects our planet in other powerful ways: for one, it is a significant contributor to global warming. Not only does agriculture contribute to a third of greenhouse gas emissions while 40% of agricultural product is wasted, but food that decomposes in landfill also releases methane (a potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.
“Climate change is a major issue related to food security,” says Karl Deily, President of Sealed Air Food Care. “Weather patterns are becoming increasingly erratic, and extreme weather caused by a changing climate is making it more difficult for farmers around the world to succeed.” This means a couple things: farmers and farm workers, who make up half the population of developing regions, who are subject to some of the most acute poverty around the world, and who make up the highest poverty rates of any labor market in the US, will have it even harder. And, when climate change threatens the production of our food in a world quickly out-populating our supply—who will feel those effects first, but developing countries and low-income communities?
Our globe has warmed barely 1 degree Celsius in the last century, yet crop loss is already an issue across the world. Carnegie Institution estimates that about 5 billion dollars of crops are being lost each year due to this measly 1 degree. Every year, farmers are seeing a decrease in about 40 million metric tons of wheat, barley, corn, and other grains.
Looking beyond how our food system is impacted by climate change, low-income populations have been especially vulnerable to the effects of global warming. If you’ve heard the term environmental injustice, you’ll know that minorities have been the hardest-hit and the last to be served when it comes to climate-caused natural disasters, rising sea levels, and of course, global epidemics.
Preventing food waste can improve global food security by easing the effects of climate change on food production and on disadvantaged populations.
Time to embrace Impossible Burgers and oat milk
Adjusting the richness of our diets by removing (or lessening) meat and dairy is one of the biggest things we can do for the environment.
A diet free of meat and dairy is far more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than cutting down on car and plane travel. At the same time, you’ll reduce the destruction of endangered species, ecosystems and carbon-sequestering habitats. You’ll reduce water use, pollution of air and water, bacterial contamination of our food supply, animal suffering, and, obviously most important of all, your risk for heart disease.
“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” says Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.” It’s in all of our interests to cut down.
If you need baby steps, start by reducing the beef in your diet, and focus on limiting wasted meat (use that freezer!). Replace your cow’s milk with oat milk or one of the other excellent dairy alternatives. Cows have a substantially larger climate “hoofprint” than other animals; go for poultry or shellfish if you have the option.
To vegan or not to vegan
If you’re not vegan, I’m not interested in convincing you to become one. There’s a silly cultural friction between vegans and non-vegans that obscures the graveness of our need to cut down on animal products: conversion tactics, morality battles, judgment, and stereotyping are counter-productive for all of us. What’s more important is understanding the environmental, social, ethical, and health implications of your diet—and really understanding it.
Because of the vegan typecast, I am sometimes embarrassed to admit my dietary preferences, despite these preferences being an incredibly positive addition (not limitation) to my life.
I ate meat and dairy most of my life and it was a process to find the internal conviction to remove them—and when I did, I went slowly. Though it’s one of the best changes I’ve made environmentally and emotionally, I know how difficult it can feel to initiate “going to the other side.” But declaring your faithful allegiance to one label isn’t always necessary. Flexitarian is a great way to propel your journey toward a lighter footprint.
If you are interested in reducing your consumption of meat and dairy, it’s not only drastically easier now than five years ago—but actually enjoyable! There are loads of great alternative products available, and more coming.
I actually feel a thrill of gratitude every time I buy a plant-based product. Unconventional foods can be hard to access, and for many—even those who are lactose intolerant—this choice is simply not on the table. The more demand there is for these products, the sooner they can appear as staples, regardless of location.
For more info about the climate footprint of your food, the New York Times put together a great resource that lays it out.
Choice is a gift
Most people want to do right by the environment, animals, and humankind. But there’s a common notion that can come in conflict with this.
It seems innocuous enough to feel that as long as we’re spending our hard-earned money, it can be spent without reservation—and that as long as we are paying for our products, we’d better get exactly what we’re looking for. Choice is a national right. Right?
But we often forget that for many, the luxury of choice isn’t so near at hand. With food physically or monetarily inaccessible, choosing what to eat is a freedom that not all Americans share.
While we shop, it’s important to remind ourselves that most liberties come with a price not always visible. Beautiful, bountiful food at our fingertips all year round—this comes with a tremendous amount of food waste that aggravates both climate change and food insecurity. The abundance we enjoy in our markets is the product of an unjust food system that many are locked out of, and buying in excess only exacerbates this.
If you’re reading this, frivolous spending is likely not a regular habit for you; you don’t need to be nagged about it. But, as I threaten to morph into a damp blanket, I promise—rather than trying to hammer in a sober state of depression while you shop for groceries, I actually want to help reinforce your love of buying food: every trip to the grocery store is a chance for you to participate productively in our food system and create more ethical standards within it.
Gathering your weekly groceries should be a pleasurable experience… it should be full of possibility and even inspiration, as cooking is a creative process and eating is simply the best thing ever. For those of us lucky enough to feel the joy of a grocery store and the fulfillment of a balanced meal, I am absolutely not saying we need to forfeit that. But now in addition, when we enter those one-way automatic doors, we have a mission that makes filling our cart even more worthwhile.
We need to expect more from our supermarkets and challenge their role in our societal ecosystem. We need to tell them we want nothing to do with routines that exacerbate human and environmental strife—which are always tied. We do this through our purchases, and more importantly, our lack of purchases.