Green living: How families can save money and reduce food waste

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(NEW YORK) -- After working for seven years in the corporate world as an aerospace engineer, Anita Vandyke said she needed to shed the material excess in her life and "give more."

Vandyke is now a zero waste lifestyle author and influencer promoting the protection of the Earth and its resources.

Vandyke, who lives in Australia, runs the popular Instagram account @rocket_science, where she documents her own minimalist and zero waste journey. She's also authored three books on zero waste living.

According to a 2020 study from researchers at Penn State, the average U.S. household wastes around 30% of the food it buys, translating to approximately $240 billion in food waste annually, nationwide.

The practice of zero-waste living traditionally means minimizing material consumption and waste to conserve natural resources and reduce pollution, Vandyke told ABC News. But for her, it also encompasses a mindset of cherishing all resources, including money, time and relationships.

Vandyke said her zero waste lifestyle was partly inspired by her childhood and upbringing by her Chinese immigrant parents.

"I learned all these kind of zero waste environmental tips out of necessity in terms of the frugal living that we had to do growing up," she said. "A lot of these tips and tricks are actually not only saving the planet, but they also save money as well."

As a working single mom, Vandyke said preserving the environment also means, to her, prolonging time spent with loved ones -- the "only nonrenewable resource that we have."

"We have to make sure that we look after our family, ourselves and also the environment in the limited time we have," said Vandyke, whose husband died this year from cancer.

After graduating from medical school last year, Vandyke is now working as a doctor in Sydney, drawing connections between her work in health care and her environmental habits.

"To have healthy people, thriving people who have good soil, good air, good water, we have to have a healthy planet," she said.

Vandyke assured anyone scared to plunge into a minimalist lifestyle that small changes can make a cumulative difference.

"Aim for effort, not perfection," she said.

Here are few simple ways Vandyke said families can reduce their waste and live greener:

Make a family grocery list

As simple as it sounds, Vandyke said keeping a running grocery list during the week is a convenient way to ensure you're not buying too much or too little before finishing your remaining food. She writes the list on a small whiteboard on the refrigerator.

"I also get people to contribute in the family," she said. "So if I need to buy butter or bread, they can write that ... and make that an ongoing list that is visible for the whole family to see."

Create an "eat first" box

It's easy to lose track of various expiration dates. To stay organized, Vandyke said she places items at the end of their shelf life in a box labeled "eat first" in the refrigerator. Her family then prioritizes finishing those "lonely" ingredients before buying more groceries.

Her household regularly has "mixed vegetable nights," coming up with creative ways to use all the scraps and leftovers in the eat first box.

"Before you go shopping, I like to see what's in the fridge, chop up all those things, make it into a curry, a stir fry, or fried rice, something that you can use up all your vegetables before you go out and buy any more," Vandyke said.

Compost

Composting is the process of recycling organic matter, such as leaves and food scraps, into a fertilizer that can enrich soil and plants.

As alternatives to the traditional compost bin, Vandyke recommends families buy a bokashi bucket, which ferments food scraps into a liquid fertilizer, or create a worm farm, which are odorless and relatively low maintenance.

"There's different types of benefits for different families, and you just have to find the right one for you," she said.

However, Vandyke said her favorite method of composting is actually not composting at all.

ShareWaste is a website that connects people who wish to recycle their food scraps with community gardens or neighbors with personal gardens who are already composting.

"What I do is I freeze my compost or put it in the fridge and once a week, I take it to the local community garden," Vandyke said. "That way, I don't have to upkeep anything because I have a small home. But this allows me to prevent waste in the long run."

Engage kids from an early age

By engaging children in zero-waste living, Vandyke said parents can cultivate environmentally conscious habits and an appreciation of natural resources from a young age.

For example, cooking meals with children is an opportunity to educate them on their food sources so they value the ingredients and don't waste them.

"You have to know that the rice that you make, or the broccoli that you have, all the fruit and vegetables that you have, you have to know where it comes from," Vandyke said. "It just doesn't come from the supermarket, it comes from a farm, it comes from a lot of resources to grow and make that food."

Vandyke said she also raids her household's recycling bins for cardboard boxes and glass jars that her children can then upcycle into jewelry boxes and other practical arts and crafts.

She also encourages parents to regularly bring their children outdoors to experience their natural environment and show them "what you're fighting for."

"The children appreciate nature," she said, and by taking them outdoors, it makes the concept of conservation "really tangible to them."

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