Ten ways to green your picnic
What is your favorite picnic?
It's easier to have an eco-friendly picnic than you might think
If you're looking for ways to make your summer outings more eco-friendly this year, you've come to the right place.
Are you, like me, always ready for a picnic? Whether we're eating on a blanket in the neighborhood park, or driving to a quiet spot in the redwoods, we love our picnics. The sunshine. The breezes. The food.
More and more, we realize that every decision we make today will either make it more likely our children and grandchildren will get to enjoy fresh air, sparkling waters, gorgeous views and delicious picnics, or less likely.
So at our house, we do what we can to lighten our footprint on the Earth. Picnics are no exception.
Single-use plastic containers, throwaway dishes, plastic knives and forks, and the ubiquitous beverage bottles and plastic bags--it's easier than you think to avoid all of these while you're partaking of Mother Nature's beauty and bounty.
On this page, ten earth-friendly tips to make your picnic as green as it is fun. Each tip includes the most eco-friendly, often no-buy, solution that has worked for me and my family for years. If you don't have what you need already, pick from the eco-friendly products I've researched, most of which I already own and use myself.
Greening your picnic is about more than finding alternatives to paper plates. It's about the food you bring too. I'll show you how to avoid a stop at the deli for plastic-encased foods, simply by keeping a few items you love ready in your pantry and refrigerator.
With just a little planning ahead, you can be ready in ten or twenty minutes any night of the week for a spontaneous summer picnic. Ready? Green your picnic!
1. Compact, versatile basket or tote
Unless you're picnicking on the patio, you need something to carry the goods.
Greenest solution: An ordinary daytime backpack is a pretty good substitute for a picnic basket.
Check your closets and storage areas for a sturdy backpack or tote bag with pockets. It's the perfect foundation for assembling your own grab-and-run, spontaneous, uber-green picnic kit.
Pictured here: Our old Sierra Club knapsack, perfect for those spur-of-the-moment picnics.
If you have to buy new, your greener picnic basket may be an easy-to-carry tote
An eco-friendly basket or tote is manufactured with sustainable materials and methods. For me, it's also important that the workers who make it are paid fairly and work in safe conditions. Even better, if it's manufactured here in the US, or in whatever country you call home.
Just because the manufacturer claims their product is "eco-friendly," "green," and fairly traded, it's not necessarily so. Sometimes you have to read between the lines. I trust the folks most who tell me what their products are made of, where they're made, and whose products are certified Fair Trade.
That's a tall order. Few products on the market today meet every one of my criteria. All of those listed here meet some of them.
An insulated backpack keeps food and beverages hot or cold
Carry your lunch on your back in this ergonomically designed, insulated backpack.
Features service for 4, a blanket, cutting board and knife, and plenty of room for thermoses and sandwiches.
What's more, it's made from PVC-free, recycled materials in the USA. What's not to love!
For short walks from car to picnic table, a handy tote
PVC-free, fully insulated, with a leak-proof lining, this handy tote would be easy to carry on the bus--a big plus for us, living in the city, but near spectacular Golden Gate Park.
Another big plus: This picnic tote is assembled right here in the US--an indication that the workers are more likely to be treated well and compensated fairly.
I'm especially interested in this bag because it is handsome and stylish and will travel well. On long, overnight trips, we like to take our own homemade yogurt, fresh-made salads and organic milk--so hard to find on the road.
Just right for a sweet little picnic for two
Lovely for a concert under the stars, this 3-bottle tote's insert can be moved so you can take just one or two bottles and fill the rest with cheese, fruit, a small baguette.
Includes a cheese board, cutter and corkscrew. Like the tote above, it is easy to pack and carry and is assembled in the US.
2. Picnic blanket
Requisite: Must be lightweight, washable and comfortable when the grass is damp.
Greenest solution: Keep a couple of old worn comforters, quilts or blankets just for picnics. They're thin enough after years of laundering to roll easily. Wrap a bungee cord or belt around to keep the roll neat and tight, and you have a ready handle.
Alternative: For years, I tucked a couple of flannel baby blankets and the long-outgrown crib quilt into the picnic kit. Perfect, as long as the grass or beach was dry.
Pendleton wool throws are the best - Easy to carry and store, warm, damp resistant
When I had a car, I kept a Pendleton throw in my trunk. They're sooooo versatile and just the right size for two or three people to sit comfortably. They're dry on damp grass or at the beach even when the sand beneath is moist, and when you're ready to go, sand shakes from them quickly. In wintertime, they keep you dry and warm even if they get damp.
They're easy to carry and easy to store. Fold 'em, roll 'em and tie em with cord or bungees, or toss 'em on top of everything else. Here are two of the most popular weaves. My favorite, and the one I had for thirty years, is the Old Hickory Buffalo throw. Even the grayest day is cheery under this pattern.
This is my favorite and the pattern I had for more than thirty years until it got lost in our last move. I mourn it to this day--so many memories!
3. Tablecloth and napkins
Let's face it. Public picnic tables are almost always filthy. A reusable, easy on the planet, easy to carry, easy to clean tablecloth protects your food and makes cleanup a whiz. Wipe it off with a damp cloth, shake it off, fold it and store it.
Greenest solution: Slightly stained or mended table linens that are no longer suitable for everyday use make excellent picnic cloths. If you're handy, clever appliques or embroidery can spruce them up and make them fun again.
Next best: Purchase a yard or so of inexpensive oilcloth from your local fabric shop and keep it with your kit. Oil cloth comes in a wide selection of colorful, contemporary and old-fashioned patterns, is durable and easy to clean. Just wipe with a damp cloth, let dry before folding or rolling away, to prevent mildew, and it will last for decades.
I had one in my camping gear for 28 years. When I gave away my camp equipment, that tablecloth looked almost as new as the day we bought it, and it had served us through numerous thunderstorms, tinder-dry, high-wind desert storms and just about everything between, in nine states.
Colorful, long-lasting oilcloths can be used again and again and again
The oilcloth I used on my camping tables all those years was cloth fabric, treated with a heavy duty varnish and backed with flannel.
Today's oil cloths are sometimes entirely vinyl, sometimes fabric laminated with vinyl. Choose one that is backed with flannel, like this one. It doesn't fly off the table as easily in the wind.
Food always looks good on green and white, don't you think?
Complete your picnic table ensemble with organic cotton napkins
If you're a fan of cotton, you know it gets softer with every washing. These colorful organic napkins are absorbent, easy to wash, and fold up neatly when you pull them warm from the dryer. Perfect reusable linens for your picnic pack or basket!
Bright colors are always a cheerful addition to a picnic table, and especially on a blowsy fall day.
4. Reusable, lightweight tableware
I know it's a bit of a chore to have to pack your plates, cups, utensils and food containers home again, wash them and put them away, but if you're committed to living more gently on the Earth, avoiding one-use disposables is one of the best ways to do it.
Greenest solutions: My mom had a set of Melmac dishes and an old set of silver plate she used to take on picnics. I never saw a paper plate or plastic ware until I was a teenager, and that was at a friend's house. You can still get Melmac, and whole sets of silver plate for that matter, at Goodwill Stores, if you're so inclined.
Today, we enjoy lots of options, including stainless steel and bamboo reusables. Below are some of my favorite stainless and bamboo options.
This cute gecko set is perfect for the kids on your picnic - And can serve adults in a pinch
Priceless moments: When the kids notice that the lizard sunning itself on a nearby rock is similar to the gecko on their dishes.
This food-grade stainless steel set is lightweight enough to carry, and you don't have to worry about BPA, pthalates or other leachates in your children's food.
Plus, unlike plastic, which holds onto oils and fats, stainless rinses easily under a nearby pump or fountain.
Every picnic basket or tote needs a few multi-use plates and bowls - No worries about leachates when you use stainless steel
You'll never have to worry about BPA, pthalates and other leachates when you use your stainless steel containers and serving dishes. They're lightweight, food-grade steel, super easy to clean, and go anywhere.
If your family prefers to separate their picnic foods, these divided dinner plates fill the bill nicely.
Stainless steel drinking glasses and straws
Stainless won't break, nor does it leach into your drinks or off-gas, so everything you drink from these glasses and through these straws will taste exactly as it should.
10 ounce short tumblers hold a little more and have a wide bottom to help keep them sturdy on uneven surfaces. These little gems also come with a reusable protective bag.
No more plastic straws going into our sewers and out to sea to cut up the tummies of sea birds, dolphins and turtles! These straws come with a brush designed especially for easy cleaning.
Reusable picnic tableware
I love my bamboo utensil sets. We take them everywhere. They're handy at the office for those days you can't get out for lunch, when you stop in at the deli for a salad between work and class, and always on spontaneous picnics. If you prefer stainless, there are plenty of options there as well, and most are just as lightweight as the bamboo.
We have adult and kid size sets of these. I keep the kid set in my handbag for those times we are out and about with the two-year-old and stop in at a restaurant. They are so much easier for little hands to hold and use than adult-sized restaurant forks and spoons.
This handy 4-person set of knives, forks and spoons travels neatly in its roll-up carry case. The decorative enamel handles lend a bit of fun to the picnic.
Tuck your delectables into eco-friendly containers - Reusable sandwich bags and pouches
If you're tired of using plastic and paper, there are lots of sustainable options available. These are just one example. What's so great about these re-usable, re-closable bags is how versatile they are. Pack your sandwiches, carrot sticks, cucumber wedges and cookies in these bags, but beware, they won't stay locked up in your picnic kit for long! They're useful anywhere you go--in your office lunch, your kids's lunch boxes, and whenever you need snacks on the run.
This is my favorite all-purpose picnic container - Because it's lightweight, portable, and safe
We are working to eliminate plastic from our household for lots of reasons. One of those is safety. We want to tote our food in non-leaching containers.
We tried glass, but the weight, coupled with the risk of breakage proved a huge stumbling block. Then I discovered LunchBots. I've looked at lots of stainless options, and the LunchBots meet my needs best. They're lightweight, hold a lot more than you'd think by their size, are leach-free, lead-free food-grade stainless steel.
A big plus is that LunchBots claims the Chinese workers who manufacture their products are unionized (That's more than we can say for many Americans today!) and enjoy excellent working conditions. I'd like to see some Fair Trade certification around that to be sure, but I'm glad to know the company is aware of the concern.
- Super quick potato salad for two
Forget the deli. You can make wholesome, homemade potato salad for two and be on your way to your picnic in less than 20 minutes.
This little jewel is the perfect container for my two-serving potato salad in size, shape and well, a kind of rustic elegance, wouldn't you say?
4 Good reasons to choose reusables for your picnic
Sometimes people ask me why I bother with reusables. This picture pretty much says it all. These four reasons make the small extra effort worth the trouble.
- Throwaways get loose and fly away.
- Trash cans overflow and soon our discarded napkins, plates and lightweight plastic containers and utensils are flying across the playground.
- They clog our storm drains, hang from trees and power lines, and otherwise spoil our parks, streets, riverbanks and oceans.
- Worst of all, they go where everything on land must go eventually, into our oceans, where they strangle wildlife.
5. Small cutting board and knife, essential, especially if you tend toward spontaneous outings
Greenest option: Use an old one. About fifteen years ago, my hard-rock maple cutting board split in two. The smaller piece is the perfect size for our kit. Maybe you have one of those small cheeseboards people like to give during the holidays with packets of cheese and cold cuts. They work fine in the picnic basket too.
If you have to buy, though, the all-in-one kit below is as eco-friendly as I can find, and will stand in good stead outing after outing.
We love to take a fresh baguette, a couple of wedges of artisan cheese, and whatever fruit is in season. This little five-piece set has all you need to serve them in style. What makes it even more delicious for a greenie like me is that it is made with sustainable rubberwood.
With the knife, slicer, fork and wedge, you have everything you need except the wine, bread, fruit and cheese for your impromptu picnic. Grab your blanket, stop at the deli, and you're set.
6. A thermos or two or three, keeps cold beverages and food cold, hot ones steaming
Greenest option: You probably already own an insulating thermos or two. In summer, fill them with ice and lemonade or tea, and they'll keep them cold for hours. Use them on your winter picnics to keep your soups, stews and chilies piping hot.
Tip: If your kids can't do a picnic without hot dogs, and you don't want the mess of cooking at the park, fill the thermos with boiling water, screw the lid back on and let sit for five minutes while you boil or grill your dogs. Then carefully dump the water and stuff those dogs inside the now hot canister. They'll keep for half an hour or so, but don't let them go too long or you may risk bacteria-caused food-borne illness.
This stainless-steel, insulated wide mouth thermos is so versatile, it will serve you year round. When you're not picnicking, use it to make your own yogurt.
7. Cleanup supplies
It's easier than you may think to ditch the wipes and paper towels.
Greenest solution: Like my mother before me, I carry a wet washcloth or two in a sealable, waterproof container, along with a clean dish towel that usually serves double duty as an insulator for hot or cold foods. You can use a Ziploc baggie or wax paper tied with string, but I prefer these small, leakproof LunchBot Rounds.
LunchBot rounds hold everything without spilling. Tuck a dishcloth in one and a bit of eco-sudsy water to rinse the dishes before packing them away in the other, LunchBot rounds with their water-tight lids are must haves in every picnic kit.
Perfect in lunches for kids and grownups as well as in the picnic ready-kit, these compact little rounds hold more than you'd think, and have the smooth, small footprint you need when you're toting.
8. Trash bag
You may not need it!
Greenest solution: Since we're working hard to reduce plastic in our household, we carry a paper shopping bag for the trash. We collect enough over the space of a few weeks, during those inevitable stops at the grocery store when we're caught without our reusable canvas bags. (Blush!)
Truth is, though, when you carry reusable containers, dishes and utensils, you just don't have that much trash to clear. A small brown lunch bag may be all you need, if that.
9. Picnic food--Greener, healthier, just as quick
And delicious! How to avoid carrying lots of plastic-filled, one-use deli and produce containers? Shop at home first!
Greenest solution: Keep your pantry and refrigerator stocked with basics for an easy, impromptu picnic that serves your taste buds, your pocket book, and your time. It's all about the food, after all.
Living on the coast as we do here in San Francisco, the weather can change quickly. When the sun is out, we want to pack up and head for the park or the beach on a moment's notice. We keep staples handy that are easy to mix and match in a variety of tasty ways.
You will find a list of all the foods I keep in my refrigerator and pantry, as well as other tips for putting together a delectable picnic in minutes here: How to throw together a gourmet picnic in minutes.
10. If you just have to have disposable picnic ware - Make it recycled, recyclable or better still, compostable
Let's face it. Sooner or later this summer, we'll be attending an event where we want the convenience of disposables. If there's a chance that might happen to you, plan ahead and use the least impactful products you can find. Compostable picnic ware, such as these plates, is a good place to start, if you have access to industrial composting facilities. If you don't, your compostable picnic ware will end up in the landfill like any other disposables, so use them only as a last resort.
This large, divided plate is made of bagasse--sugar cane fibers after the sugar has been extracted.
Do you have tips to share for ways you green your picnic? I'd love to hear them. I'm sure others would as well.
© 2011 Kathryn Grace