How to Pack a Plastic-Free Picnic

Don't let a picnic be an excuse for single-use plastics. There's a better way!

family picnic

Getty Images/recep-bg

If you're looking for something fun to do, pack a picnic dinner and take your family or friends to a park or another beautiful spot to eat. There's something about sharing food outdoors in fine weather that makes a meal taste more delicious than when it's eaten at home—not to mention giving you a wonderful memory to treasure in the winter months that return far too quickly.

The downside of modern-day picnics, however, is the plastic waste they tend to generate. There's an unfortunate tendency to view picnics as an excuse to transport food in single-use disposable containers, serving it on disposable plates with plastic cutlery and cups. Sure, it means cleanup is easy at the moment, but really, it just puts it off to a later point, when cleanup takes the form of landfill management and volunteer beach cleanups to collect single-use plastic trash. 

What follows is advice on how to pack a plastic-free picnic. The great thing about investing in some good reusable containers, storage bags, and serving tools is that it makes picnicking easier than ever, and you might find yourself wanting to do it more.

1. Put Food in Reusable Containers

Pack homemade food as you would put it in the fridge for storage, using reusable containers with sealable lids or mason jars (and please note the emphasis on homemade, as this is the easiest way to reduce plastic packaging waste). Put these into a cooler with ice (see below) and bring some utensils along to serve right out of the container. I'm a fan of Klean Kanteen's TKCanister set that keeps food cold or hot for hours, making picnics even easier. Apparently, you can even transport ice cream in them, though I haven't tried it myself.

Keep in mind that you don't have to pre-pack everything. For example, to reduce packaging, you can take along things like a loaf of bread, a whole watermelon, whole vegetables for snacking, a chef's knife, and a cutting board to slice up when you're ready to eat. It doesn't all have to be done and sealed in Ziplocks before leaving the house.

2. Pack Your Own Ice

I like to put ice cubes from my freezer into a stainless steel food storage container and use that as an ice pack in my cooler. That way, it serves a double purpose—keeping food cold and providing ice for drinks. For longer trips, I will freeze a block of ice in a sealed container and use that to keep things cold.

3. Take a Cloth Tablecloth

The invention of single-use plastic tablecloths is an atrocity. Instead, just bring along a cloth one to spread on a picnic table or on the ground. It makes the whole dining experience far more pleasant and it is easy to wash in your next load of laundry. Hang to dry.

4. Use Real Dishes and Cutlery

Using washable dishes and cutlery for a picnic does not require much more work than disposable ones. You'd have to carry the disposables out anyway in a trash bag, so why not pack your dirty plates and cutlery into a bag or sturdy grocery bin and put them in the dishwasher at home? If you're worried about ceramic plates chipping, take some lightweight camping plates. 

5. Think About the Drinks

Skip the single-use, single-serve beverage bottles. These create an enormous amount of waste and are easily avoidable. Fill a large insulated thermos or individual water bottles with water, punch, or lemonade ahead of time. If you're serving a larger crowd, consider investing in one of Life Without Plastic's beautiful stainless steel drink dispensers that hold more than 2 gallons.

6. Use Reusable Cups

Say no to the red Solo cups! If you have insulated cups or wine tumblers, pack those for beverages. They have the added benefit of keeping liquids colder for longer than if you use disposable plastic cups—and you skip the waste.

7. Put Cloth Bags to Good Use

Cloth drawstring bags are amazing. I use them for so much more than just buying produce at the grocery store. They're perfect for packing sandwiches, wraps, nuts, dried or whole fruit, and other snack foods. You can use them to wrap glass jars or bottles to prevent breaking if they get jostled in transit, or to pack loose items like cutlery and bottle openers. They can function as an emergency napkin, tea towel, or (dry) trash bag if needed. Be sure to add a few to your picnic basket.

If you have any plastic-free picnic tips, feel free to share them in the comments below.