Packing for a Picnic or Potluck: Reusable Gear!

UPDATE: This is an old post that I’ve updated and shared at Works-for-Me Wednesday and Waste Not Want Not Wednesday.  In the six years since I first wrote this, my family has continued bringing our own tableware to many events, preventing a lot of trash!  We are very pleased that our neighborhood public school now asks families to bring their own water bottles or cups to events.  Earlier this year, I learned that I can buy great reusable gear and support my favorite school through Mighty NestThis is not a sponsored post; I am truly thrilled with Mighty Nest’s quality products and generous donation of 15% of the purchase price.


Picnic/barbecue season is here, with mounds of disposable tableware: soggy paper, bendy plastic, skidgy foam, spoons that scratch our mouths and melt in our coffee, forks whose tines snap off, knives that won’t cut anything, cups that are too cold or hot to hold without adding a layer of cardboard.  Everybody’s cup is identical, so we have to write our names on them.  What convenience!  What convenience?  Everyone seems to assume that when we eat outdoors we need a bunch of fake stuff.

We’ve started bringing our own dishes, utensils, and napkins when we go to picnics and some potlucks. We have an enameled tin bowl and plate, some melamine bowls, and some plastic cups that we use for this, as well as around the house.  (Most of the plastic cups are from restaurants that give kids a plastic cup that can be washed and reused–so we didn’t even have to buy them.)  We have a collection of random utensils (not part of our matching set) that we use just for these events and for sack lunches.  We use washcloths as napkins.  If hot beverages are likely to be served, we bring our insulated travel mugs or the ceramic mugs that were free souvenirs of something.  We pack this stuff into a plastic bag (we use them over and over until they wear out) and bring another plastic bag so that dirty things can be separated from any remaining clean ones on the way home.  Both these bags go into a canvas tote bag.  It’s one extra bag to carry (if our contribution to the picnic doesn’t fit in there, too) but it weighs maybe a pound and a half.  No big deal.

And then, at the party, we can tell which dishes are ours! Nobody throws away our food or drink when we’re distracted, because it’s obviously not trash.

When we get home, the dirty items go into the appropriate piles; the dishes get washed next time we wash dishes; the napkins get washed next time we do laundry.  What’s so inconvenient?

Real plates don’t blow away, let sauce soak through to your lap, or bend and spill food all over you.  Real utensils stand up to serving, stirring, cutting, and eating food.  Real cups don’t split if you squeeze them or rupture if you poke them with your fingernail, and they are a comfortable temperature for your hands on the outside while keeping your beverage at its intended temperature long enough for you to drink it.  You deserve real stuff!

Next time you have a party, consider using real dishes and utensils and napkins.  (Here’s some inspiration.)  Think of it as treating your guests like, you know, guests in your home–instead of messy people who ruin stuff.  Maybe they’ll help you wash the dishes, which is a great time for conversation.  If you don’t have help, but do have a dishwasher and use dishwasher-safe dishes, cleaning up is almost as easy as taking out the trash, anyway.

If you’re inviting more guests than you have supplies, consider asking people to bring their own stuff.  Exactly how to word this request, to make it sound like you care about your guests’ comfort and the environment instead of just being a cheapskate, depends on what kind of people your guests are and how you relate to them.  The ideal way to start doing this is for gatherings of an organization whose budget will be funding any disposable items, so you’re saving the group’s money rather than your own money and the other group members can see the benefit to themselves: “Please bring your own dishes to conserve [the group]’s money and the Earth’s resources.” Keep in mind that, until this request becomes common, lots of people are going to forget.  Loan them your own stuff, to the extent you’re able, and get some disposables to keep on hand in case of a shortage of real stuff.

After a few picnics with real stuff, we were so sold on the idea that we started bringing real stuff when we travel.  Of course, most restaurants that use disposable plates will not put your food on a plate you bring–they’re concerned that you’ll get food poisoning from your unclean plate, think it came from their food, and sue them.  But in situations where you serve yourself, you can use your own plate: for example, hotels offering a free breakfast have stacks of (usually) disposable plates, bowls, and cups next to the food, but you don’t have to use them.  It’s easier to be flexible about utensils and napkins, which in many food concessions are things you pick up for yourself–just don’t take any.  Check out these instructions for making your own travel utensil set in minutes, without sewing, using things you already have!

Many hotels these days offer microwaves, either in your room or in the breakfast area.  If you bring containers with lids, you can save excess food from your various meals and eat it later.  I did a lot of this at a five-day convention when I was pregnant and had to be careful about eating too much at once; it was a lot more pleasant to reheat leftovers two hours later than to throw away good food and have to buy more.

For trips involving multiple meals, bring dish soap (in a small bottle with cap) to wash your dishes whenever it’s convenient, and pack extra cloth napkins in your suitcase so that you can replenish your tote bag when you put dirty napkins into your laundry bag.

Yeah, it’s extra work…a little.  For us, just a few experiences with wonderful real dishes, followed by a few with disposable dishes whose inferiorities were horribly apparent by comparison, convinced us that it’s worth the effort.  (Just like diapers and handkerchiefs!)

6 thoughts on “Packing for a Picnic or Potluck: Reusable Gear!

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