How to start going green when grocery shopping: frozen food (part 4)

Believe it or not, it can be pretty challenging for even the more advanced and savvy eco-friendly shopper to figure out ways to continue to reduce their carbon footprint. While it can be pretty easy going green in certain places of your life (like personal care products and household cleaning products), it starts to get a lot more difficult to address less obvious areas that we don’t even realize are wasteful.

We all have blind spots when it comes to our consumption habits, and it can take a lot of time before we have a reason to even begin to see where and how they exist.

This is all too apparent when it comes to grocery shopping, especially because there are competing, equally strong messages when it comes to buying sustenance. Unfortunately, the “be healthy, buy the healthy things!” and “save the planet! consume consciously!” missions don’t always align when it comes to each’s fad of the week.

In fact, once I started actively thinking about my food buying habits, I started noticing a lot of areas where I could improve.

Let’s continue our thought exercise from the last few posts. Imagine you’re in a grocery store, and you’ve done your produce and veggie shopping, your meat shopping, and you’ve gone through the dairy aisle.

Let’s head over to the frozen foods section. What do you normally grab, here? Are you the type to buy tons of pre-made meals? Do you grab meat substitutes? What about frozen veggies or fruit?

I’ll be honest: I actually really like having some frozen corn, peas, and string beans in my freezer, because they’re really great for making things when you’re running low on groceries and you’re in a pinch.

That said, I try to keep my frozen purchases to a minimum, because frozen goods often are not the most responsible choice you can make. Allow me to try to explain.

The chief value of the frozen section is convenience. When you’re looking for items of convenience, you’re usually looking for items that will save you time, effort, or both. Think about it: you come home from a long day of work, you’re tired, you grab a frozen dinner out of the freezer and throw it in the microwave. Easy-peasy.

In keeping with the Conservation of Energy principle, though, something that saves you time and energy doesn’t automatically mean that the time and energy you’ve saved hasn’t already been spent. On the contrary, when you pay for frozen goods, you’re paying for something that has already been done for you, through the effort and energies of another party. Think about that frozen dinner: in addition to all the energies expended in creating the individual ingredients, there’s now the added energy costs of

  1. getting those individual ingredients together in the same location
  2. processing those ingredients (often through factories) into food (I won’t get into it, here, but also consider how many chemicals and cheaper-quality substitutes are added to these foods so that they taste decent by the time they get to you)
  3. freezing and packaging those meals (more plastic waste is a pressing concern, here)
  4. shipping those products to grocery stores
  5. storing those products in the grocery stores
    ↳ a “fun,” tangentially related fact: home refrigeration accounts for 13% of all energy consumed by our food system, so you have to believe that grocery stores and their freezer sections consume significantly more (source)

What about the other frozen stuff?

Frozen veggies or fruits are better than full-on frozen dinners, pizzas, or meats, but not by a whole lot. The fact remains that frozen veggies still require additional energy to freeze/process and ship things, and frozen fruits are potentially sourced from the other half of the globe, making their energy costs pretty large (even if it is hidden to you by the time you open that freezer door). Moreover, even if they’re healthier and less chemical-ridden than frozen dinners, they still ultimately result in about the same amount of plastic waste.

It took me a long while to really appreciate exactly how fundamentally different the the priorities of convenience and environmental friendliness are, even if they can coincide.

Does this mean that you should never, ever buy frozen food again? Well, no, that’s not really what I’m saying, although it would probably be great if we all brought our frozen food consumption down.

Sometimes, it’s okay to prioritize convenience, especially if it means you’ll maintain your morale to continue fighting the good fight everywhere else in your life. Rather, I’m just trying to suggest that you be more mindful about the frozen goods you buy. Ask yourself when you reach for frozen things, “can I make this myself“, “can I get this fresh?“, or even “do I really need to buy this item this week? Can I find a substitute?

The takeaway, here, in a few words is this: find a balance that works for you, today, and use that to help yourself continue trying to find a way to improve for tomorrow.

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