I guess, over time, everyone develops a system. The way one goes about regular weekly tasks in order to get the ordinary stuff done efficiently— perhaps almost mindlessly— while we focus our brain power on other, more important things. I certainly have one. I mean I did.
Years ago, when our family decided to do a Year of No Sugar, I had a different routine, a different system, and a significant portion of the discomfort of that year-long project was trying to find a way to develop and establish new norms that fit our lives’ new parameters. At the time I wrote about doubling the time I spent at the grocery store: overnight I went from buying the week’s groceries in one hour, to buying the week’s groceries in two hours.
At the time I thought that was pretty impressive, but that alteration seems like a cakewalk to me in comparison with what’s happening now.
I’m including a photo of the weekly grocery list I made up this morning. In my system, I loosely plan out the week’s menus on the left-hand side, and list the ingredients for each dinner on the right. The new rub in my shopping, of course, is that I have to go wherever the disposable packaging isn’t, and very frequently that place is not the supermarket.
So where once I would get pretty much everything in one fell swoop, place it all neatly in my reusable bags and come home, now I am running all over town, and occasionally, all over our county, trying to get things like produce and meat and cheese without the landfill fodder. Take tonight’s dinner: shrimp risotto.
Normally I buy one pound bags of frozen wild-caught shrimp, deveined and shelled. I’ve bought it so many times I could probably find it in the fish freezer blindfolded. But I know this product has both an inner and an outer plastic bag, and I’m still unsure if these can be recycled in any way. A trip to the local fish market down the road might be the solution, but can I convince them to put shrimp in, if not my own container, at least a recyclable plastic container, rather than a disposable bag? Cross fingers.
Then I’ll head on to the next town over where there is an actual free-standing butcher. They sold me meat in butcher paper last week, so I’m hopeful to get the beef for my beef stew, if I get an amiable counter-person. Cross fingers.
Then I’ll head to the health food store. There I can get things like carrots and celery without plastic bags- perhaps a rubber band or a twist-tie will be involved here or there, which I keep and reuse. I bring my own mesh bags, but if I run out they have a roll of biodegradable bags on hand. YES!! I try to limit how much produce I buy there since it is significantly more expensive than the supermarket, which sometimes translates to better quality, but not always. Things like garlic and lemons can probably be found without packaging at the supermarket for less. Cross fingers.
But first I will head to the Italian specialty shop Al Ducci’s, which I’ve discovered will sell me both bread and cheese wrapped in paper, just paper. Again- it isn’t cheap bread and cheese, but it is fabulous, and I can get by without plastic wrap or cellophane windows, which is huge.
So now I can go to the supermarket, having exhausted all other shopping options. When I’m done I’ve visited five different stores, all in a town thirty minutes from my house (except the butcher which is another 15 minutes further). You can understand why, if I run out of bread at home like I did yesterday, I found it easier to make bread than get in the car to go buy it. An hour’s trip for bread? Forget it.
During our Year of No Sugar, after I got past the initial learning curve I found that I got much more efficient— there were only so many things I could buy after all— and my shopping trips fell to only thirty minutes a week. I’m not sure such a simplification will be possible for Year of No Garbage, however. Rather, what’s required in thinking about groceries reminds me of a more European sensibility. When I was a college exchange student in Italy years ago I was quite amazed at how many different specialty stores the Italians went to just to gather their basic meal ingredients: butcher, baker, outdoor markets with special hours for vegetables… the supermarket was a small, uninspiring affair, and seemed to exist primarily for things like toilet paper and sad-looking frozen dinners.
A lot of this comes down to a European emphasis on very high quality, very fresh ingredients, made by hand. Everyone loves this idea in principle, of course, but for Americans factors like cost and convenience clearly outweigh healthier, fresher, more delicious food. We’re busy. We’re on a budget. Food has to fit in around the important things; it must be practical.
For many Europeans I’ve met, practical can take a flying leap. Food doesn’t fit in around the more important things- it is the important thing. A few years ago we were lucky enough to be invited to a wedding in Paris and I noticed that the things Americans tend to spend all their wedding budget on were done comparatively minimally: the dress, the flowers were all tasteful but… simple. The father of the bride proudly explained to us that essentially all of the budget had been spent on THE FOOD.
And what food it was. How many wedding dinners would figure in your most memorable meals? But that’s what was important.
So, to summarize: we’re eating more… carefully. There isn’t a lot of extra food around the house these days (want a snack? If you aren’t up for apples with peanut butter you’re out of luck) and I’ve temporarily stopped packing Ilsa lunches- luckily her school has some pretty good food options as school lunches go. I just haven’t gotten the hang of it enough yet. I still haven’t figured out how to buy chicken at all. Red meat from the butcher or fish from the fish market, in addition to being more expensive and inconvenient, isn’t cryo-shrink-wrapped in fourteen kinds of plastic, so I’m not buying as far in advance as I once did: I no longer buy a pound of ground beef if I don’t think I’ll use it for six days. And yes, this all involves an extra amount of driving around in my gas-powered car, so there’s that environmental impact to consider.
Oh my. But I have faith that, with time, I will develop some strategies. I’ll get a new system.