I'm not an advocate of making everything at home - frankly, that sounds like a recipe for exhaustion. I cook daily (or, usually, twice daily), and am always on the lookout for shortcuts to make my time in the kitchen a little faster and easier. For example, while it's possible to make almond butter at home, since I can buy it in bulk in my own containers at a local grocery store, I skip the homemade version in favor of the much easier store-bought variety.
But, certain foods aren't available without packaging, or aren't available near you without packaging (the selection of bulk foods at grocery stores varies so widely from store to store and region to region). So, in case you're committed to being zero waste and haven't been able to find a few of your favorite kitchen staples package-free, I've compiled a list of common foods you can make at home using basic ingredients. One bonus: the homemade version is often healthier than the store-bought version (for example, you aren't going to be using any trans fats when you start with whole, simple ingredients instead of opening up a package).
The items on this list start with really simple, commonly found bulk ingredients and fresh produce, so that they can be made without creating trash. I've included some of my go-to recipes, but of course feel free to search around for a different version that you like better!
- Alternative flours: Can't find oat, almond, coconut, or other specialty flours in your bulk aisle? Give the base ingredient a whirl in your food processor to make your own.
- Applesauce: Homemade applesauce is a favorite of mine in the fall, when apples are really abundant. Core and roughly chop apples, and add them to a pot with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a few cups of water. Let the mixture cook until everything is nice and soft, then mash it a bit with a spoon or potato masher. You can also run it through a few pulses in your food processor if you'd like to recreate the smoothness of store-bought applesauce.
- Cake/brownie mix: If you used to rely on these to make quick treats, why not make your own mix to keep in jars in the pantry? A few minutes of prep time up front to combine the ingredients saves time later and creates a trash-free equivalent to boxed mixes. If you were a devotee of a particular brand, a quick Internet search can yield tons of copycat recipes to follow.
- Granola: Granola is a mainstay in many bulk departments, but even so I prefer to make my own because that helps me avoid excess sugar and other processed ingredients. Making granola at home takes only a few minutes of hands-on time, and this versatile recipe lets you use whatever ingredients you already own.
- Herbs: If your nearby grocery doesn't stock herbs package-free, you can make your own by hanging homegrown or store-bought fresh herbs up to dry, before storing them dried in airtight containers. Fresh herbs can also be purchased inexpensively at the farmer's market at the height of summer, and drying them ensures you'll have something to do with the excess. Drying herbs is also an excellent thing to do with your overgrown herb plants as you put your garden to bed for the winter.
- Pasta: If you can't find dried pasta in the bulk aisle, making fresh pasta isn't too hard - and, you can form it into any shapes you'd like, such as ravioli, spaghetti, or orecchiette.
- Pickles: Making your own is a hipster/homestead rite of passage, and unique flavor opportunities abound. I adore garlickly dill.
- Premade beans: In lieu of purchasing canned beans, I now make double batches of dried beans and freeze what I don't use, so that I always have cooked beans on hand when I want them.
- Salad dressing: The simplest kind is just oil and vinegar, but you can also add herbs, shallots, garlic, mustard, sesame seeds, or anything else that sounds good. The additions of avocado or hummus give it a nice boost of creaminess.
- Stock or broth: Homemade stock and broth are so simple to make, and you'll save money and resources by not buying them. Boil whatever you have left over from cooking (vegetable scraps, chicken bones) into a rich, fragrant broth, and keep it in the refrigerator or freezer so it's always there when you're ready to cook with it.
- Tofu: I haven't been able to find bulk tofu near me, and I've sorely felt the lack. One of these days, I'll set aside time on a weekend and finally try making my own.
- Tomato sauce: The kind from the grocery store usually tastes a little off to me, with its sugar and preservatives, so I've been a devotee of the homemade kind long before I became zero waste. I make a simple version by cooking down onions, garlic, fresh tomatoes, herbs, salt, and a little olive oil until it tastes heavenly. I like to make huge batches of this in the summer and store it in my freezer for the tomato-less months of the year.
- Tortillas: Tortillas usually come packaged in plastic, but if you think I'm going to live without homemade tacos you're dead wrong. This recipe has just three ingredients (masa corn flour, cornstarch, and water) and is simple enough to make on a weeknight. They also keep well in the freezer!
- Yogurt (dairy and nondairy): Using milk bought in returnable glass jars or a homemade nondairy milk, you can yogurt! You'll need to buy premade yogurt or a culture the first time to get started, but after that you can keep using the same starter over and over again.
- Vanilla extract: Unless you can find alcohol package-free, this may not be totally zero waste for you. But it uses such a small amount of alcohol and lasts for so long that it's still a good bet.
- Granola bars: Granola bars are so easy to make, and you'll avoid all of the questionable processed ingredients that seem inevitable in the packaged variety. Look up a recipe according to your favorite flavors (chocolate cherry, for example), something in your pantry you'd like to use up (like amaranth or dates), or a copycat version of a store-bought favorite.
- Nut butter: Whir any nut in your food processor with a little bit of oil and salt until it becomes smooth and buttery - this will take ten to fifteen minutes, so settle in for the long haul.
- Crackers: I recently made crackers for the first time and was surprised at how easy they were. There are tons of variations out there, so look for a recipe that suits your tastes or uses whatever you have on hand (I tried whole wheat rosemary and whole wheat caraway crackers with good success).
- Potato chips: Turn thinly sliced potatoes into potato chips by roasting them in olive oil, salt, and maybe a little garlic. Use a mandoline if you have one to get thin slices, or a knife works just fine too.
- Candy bars: Purchase chocolate chips in bulk and melt them slowly in a double boiler, adding other ingredients to suit your fancy or to re-create an erstwhile favorite (Homemade caramel? Peanuts? Pretzels? Almonds? Go for it!). Easy versions like these are a particular favorite in my kitchen.
- Baby carrots: If you or your kids l-o-v-e baby carrots as a snack, chop whole carrots into sticks at the beginning of the week and store them in your fridge for a quick, easy snack.
- Kombucha: Brew your own version of this delicious fermented, probiotic-rich tea. Bonus: store-bought kombucha can be expensive, and this homemade version is way cheaper (besides the starter, it uses just sugar and tea!).
- Nondairy milk: Oat milk, nut milk (cashew, almond, hazelnut, and more), and soy milk are all easy to make at home. You can make a plain version or dress it up with vanilla, honey, or dates. I gravitate toward oat milk and cashew milk because they seem to be the quickest for me; they only take about 5 minutes to make, and store in the fridge for days.
- Tea: Can't find bulk dried tea in any stores near you? Grow your own! Plant lavender, lemongrass, yerba mate, mint, or another herb in a pot or in your garden, harvest the leaves and let them air dry (or even use them fresh), and steep them in hot water to make tea. If this sounds onerous, don't worry - once your plant is thriving, it's really easy. Or, you can purchase fresh bunches of herbs at the farmer's market, which is a good alternative if you don't like gardening or tending plants.
- Cold brew coffee: Like kombucha, this can be overpriced at the store but is imminently brewable at home.
- Hummus: One of the only packaged foods I miss are those tubs of Sabra hummus that used to be a mainstay in my fridge. Lately I've been trying to be better about stocking homemade hummus. Swap out the can of chickpeas that the recipe suggests for ones cooked from scratch - a slow cooker makes that step more low-maintenance. And, if you can't find the tahini sauce that the recipe calls for package-free, a good alternative is to make your own or do without it (I think hummus sans tahini is just as good!).
- Jam: I love this tutorial, which lets you rely on whatever fruits are currently in season. Canning the jam for shelf-stable storage can be fairly involved, so I'm a fan of just keeping the jam in your refrigerator and using it up more quickly.
- Ketchup: Homemade ketchup can be hit or miss, so I'll leave it to you to find a recipe you like. It may take some experimentation, but since the experiments all but require you to eat massive amounts of homemade french fries, who could complain?
- Mustard: From-scratch mustard is not as tricky as it sounds. Beyond mustard seeds (which you can hopefully find in bulk in the spice aisle), it just uses a few things you likely already have at home.
- Sriracha: You can make your own sriracha from fresh chili peppers! Kept in the fridge, it will last for months.
- Vinegar: I was excited to find out recently that it's possible to make vinegar at home! I can find bulk vinegar at the grocery near me, so I haven't tried the homemade version - but if you don't have a bulk option, this would be a fun experiment.
I'd love to hear - what do you make at home these days? Any favorite recipes, or packaged foods that have been harder to do without? Zero waste kitchen hacks the rest of us should know about? Do tell!