There’s something so appealing about packing a meal and toting it to enjoy at an outdoor concert, at the end of a hike, or on a beach blanket overlooking the ocean. Too often, though, it’s easy to fall back on convenient packaged food, paper plates, and disposable containers. Since I’ve worked hard to make my kids’ school lunches waste-free, I figure, how hard can it be to pack the occasional picnic or beach lunch using some of the same tactics?
You too can pack a more sustainable picnic by using my ideas for a portable, zero-waste meal.
1. Put leftovers to good use. Take stock of your fridge and pantry to see what you might be able to incorporate into your feast. That jar of olives languishing in the fridge could be chopped and stirred into a pasta salad, and chicken or salmon from last night’s dinner can be minced and combined with a little mayonnaise to make a sandwich filling or a spread for crackers.
2. Avoid paper plates and napkins. Disposables are flimsy, and they can’t be recycled once they’re contaminated with food. Plus, isn’t it so much nicer to eat off “real” dinnerware? I’ve invested in a set of recycled melamine plates that are cute, lightweight, and make my picnic seem so much more special. And I find that cloth napkins are far more effective than flimsy paper ones.
3. Make everything finger food. There’s a reason sandwiches make such great picnic fare: they’re easy to eat without utensils. To make your picnic more efficient, think along the lines of sandwiches, tortilla roll-ups, spring rolls, or kebabs threaded on metal skewers. Vegetable sticks with dips, mixed nuts packed in reusable plastic tubs, and hand pies are also good options.
4. Pack only what you need. Tempting as it may be to tote everything you need for any possible situation, chances are you don’t need much. Pack just the amount of food you’ll need, and don’t go overboard with variety: A main course, a side or two, and a dessert is plenty. Your arms will thank you with the lighter load, and you’ll be less likely to throw stuff away.
5. The best picnic basket might not be a picnic basket. There was a time when I bought a new picnic basket just about every season, charmed by a cute design or a set of matching dishes cleverly stored inside. Inevitably, the baskets would be awkward to carry or were not large enough to hold my feast. They’d end up gathering dust in my storage closet, or I’d donate them to charity — what a waste! It might not be as cute, but these days I’m more likely to invest in a soft-sided cooler with a comfy carrying strap and plenty of room inside. Plus, it can be used for taking cold snacks to soccer games, transporting a large bowl of salad to a potluck, or taking groceries home from the store on a hot
6. Make your beverages double as ice packs. Speaking of repurposing, a backpacking friend taught me a good trick: Freeze water in a plastic container and it’ll keep your drink chilled. Packed in a picnic, it’ll also help keep your food cool. But don’t just fill bottles of water and line them up in the freezer or you’ll end up with bulging bottles, since ice expands. Instead, fill them about halfway, and freeze them on their sides. When the ice is frozen solid, add water to the other side — that way you won’t have to wait for the ice to melt before taking a sip.
7. Get creative with containers. I’m sure you are already good about not using plastic wrap, aluminum foil (which is only recyclable under certain conditions) or plastic sandwich bags. Even though some of these are recyclable, it’s often far too tempting to just toss them when you’re done with your picnic, rather than taking them home to clean them and recycle them. Instead, think outside of the box when it comes to packaging your meals. Use glass Mason jars for dessert — they’re far easier to transport than cupcakes. Make your own food wrap from cute printed cotton and beeswax, it’s perfect for covering a bowl or plate, or wrapping sandwiches. Repurpose a cardboard box by lining it with a clean tea towel to fill with sandwiches, baked goods, or cookies.