Cutting Food Waste? Make Mindfulness a Habit

Welcome to the second post in my series about reducing food waste. In post one, I talked about the problem of food waste and defined its scope. I concluded by noting that reducing food waste requires new habits for food shopping and meal planning, an idea I explore more here.

Food shopping habits are deeply ingrained. In North America, we are accustomed to seeing large volumes of food at stores and being inundated with messages to buy in bulk to save money. (Hello Costco.) More and more produce is pre-packaged, giving us little choice except to buy too much. Two-for-one or buy-more-save-more deals–a boon for retailers looking to get more dollars spent per shopping trip–encourage us to buy more food than we may need. Some foods have a very long shelf life and can be stored for a while but many, like produce and some dairy, cannot. 

Food media are starting to catch on, with articles guiding readers in how to use up leftovers and food past its prime. But old habits are hard to break. Any plan to reduce food waste has to focus on changing long-standing habits, and that starts with mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is a word we hear a lot today–perhaps too much–but it is essential to any behaviour change. It means, quite simply, taking a moment to think before you act. Habits, on the other hand, are a case of acting without thinking, of being on auto-pilot and just doing what you’ve always done. Mindfulness can disrupt old thought patterns and help break habits.  

In the context of reducing food waste, mindfulness can help us make better choices at the grocery store. It’s easy to be swayed by the bulk buying mentality or fall into a pattern of buying extra “just in case,” but if you are mindful and approach your shopping trip with a specific list based on a meal plan, you can overcome temptations and habits and focus only on the items you need. 

Mindfulness in this situation can be as simple as asking yourself a few questions before you put an item in your shopping cart:

  • Do I need this?
  • Do I have a plan to use it?
  • If I don’t use it before it’s past its prime, do I have a backup plan for it, e.g. freezing, roasting, baking?

And, if faced with the dreaded multi-buy offers, ask yourself: am I really saving money if some of that food is going to be tossed? What about the environmental cost of any extra packaging? 

A Plan for Changing Habits

It’s all well and good to say “be mindful of what you buy,” but it’s hard to translate that thought into action and transform an old habit into a new behaviour. People with a lot of focus and discipline may be able to change habits easily with a few mental reminders. I am not one of those people. I’ve always been a creature of habit and, despite wanting very much to break some of my worst habits, I was never able to make changes stick until very recently.  

Reading The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare changed everything. The book focuses on executive skills, which your brain uses to execute tasks. But the strategy they use to improve those skills applies to any behaviour change. (The book is fantastic for anyone who feels “scattered” at home or work and I highly recommend it.)

Basically, Dawson and Guare recommend a few standard steps: decide on a behaviour you want to change, set a goal, write it down, and set aside time each day–even 10 minutes–to work toward it. For the purposes of reducing food waste, I have adapted and simplified the Smart but Scattered approach.

Setting A Goal and Making a Plan

To improve your approach to food shopping, one goal might be: create a meal plan for dinner and focus on buying only the food I need. As Dawson and Guare explain, when setting a goal, it’s important to write it down. Seeing the goal in writing makes it more “official” and can make you feel more motivated to achieve it. 

Underneath the goal, write your daily practice plan, starting with just 10 minutes each day. For food shopping the tasks might be:

  • Day 1–Check the cupboards and fridge/freezer for foods that need to be used up.
  • Day 2–Review grocery flyers for specials. 
  • Day 3–Look up recipes that use what’s on hand or what’s in the flyer.
  • Day 4–Continue looking up recipes, if needed. If not, start jotting down meal ideas. 
  • Day 5–Finish meal ideas.
  • Day 6–Make shopping lists of only the ingredients you need for those meals and other essentials. Include amounts if it helps, e.g. “one large sweet pepper” so you’re not tempted to buy a package of three. 
  • Day 7–Finish shopping list. 

Of course the tasks are flexible, but the important thing is to devote 10 minutes a day to creating a meal plan and shopping list. As Dawson and Guare note, breaking a task down like this makes it more manageable. It also helps shift your thinking from “I don’t have time” to “Sure, I have ten minutes for this.”

If it helps, you can set a timer to help reinforce the notion that the ten-minute period is only for this task. And you can spend longer if you like, but the beauty is that you don’t have to. You’re focussing on small steps to change a habit, and ten minutes a day is a great start. (As someone who is easily distracted, I use the timer method for my writing and, let me tell you, it is life changing.) 

As you get further along, you can gradually increase the allotted time but I highly recommend starting small. 

Other Tips and Techniques

After writing down your goal and daily tasks, you can add a little more structure and support to your plan by following these steps, also adapted from Dawson and Guare: 

  • Include a start date in your plan so you have a firm date in mind to get going. Again, having it in writing can be highly motivating. It can also help with mindfulness, acting as a visible reminder of what you need to do and how you need to think about your food purchases. 
  • Set a reminder in your calendar for a consistent time to carry out your daily task. If you have to shift this around, it’s fine, but just having it in there will remind you to do it at some point each day. 
  • Set an end date, for example, four weeks from your start date, to gauge how you’ve done on average over that amount of time. 
  • Enlist the help of others. Tell your family what you are doing and ask them to help work toward the goal so you can all become more mindful of food waste together.
  • Dawson and Guare recommend that you include in your plans some positive statements about why you are making this plan, the benefits of it, and how you will feel if it succeeds. The main benefits here are reducing food waste and saving money, but you may have others you can add. 
  • Post your plan somewhere if you need a visual reminder of what you are doing and why.
  • Each week or month, depending on your preference, reward yourself for your efforts, even if you don’t quite reach your goal. Rewards could be a special dessert, a new kitchen implement, ordering in pizza, or donating to a food bank. 

Even with all your careful planning, you might very well veer off-list when shopping, and that is absolutely okay. The goal here is not rigid adherence to your list, but maintaining an awareness of what you are buying. This is where the mindfulness questions I listed above can come in handy. Keep them top of mind when shopping as a way to evaluate your choices.

And remember, you are not doing this goal setting and daily practice forever. It is a short-term exercise to change habits. If, after a few weeks, you feel the habit is ingrained, great! If not, extend the plan until the meal planning/shopping list routine feels natural. It may take a while, but it will be worth it. 

As for how to do your meal planning and shopping list, you’ll find more on that in my introduction to meal planning,  my meal plan post, and the next post in this series, Plan Ahead for Less Food Waste. (Follow this link to the final post in this series: Leftovers–Make a Plan to Use Them Up.)

I am writing this in the knowledge that many families have financial constraints that limit their food choices and for whom food waste is not an option. If you would like to make a donation to help people living with food insecurity, here are a couple of organizations I have supported: Food Banks Canada and Breakfast Club of Canada. Your local food bank would also welcome donations of food or cash.

Grocery Bags Image: 208299830 © Moneti |

3 thoughts on “Cutting Food Waste? Make Mindfulness a Habit”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *