4 Tips for Staying Zero Waste When Dining Out
Zero Waste Lifestyle
June 16, 2017 | Kathryn Kellogg
Last Updated on September 10, 2020
There’s nothing that makes me happier than going out to eat for a nice meal.
Growing up, going out to dinner was a treat! All of life’s major accomplishments like getting straight A’s, shooting an 86 on the golf course, or getting the lead in the school play were celebrated with skipping the cooking and the dishes.
In fact, when I graduated from college I chose not to walk, (Because honestly sitting with a couple of thousand people waiting to hear my name called is the last thing I want to do) all I wanted was to go out to a really nice dinner with family.
If you’re dining in a very nice restaurant you’re most likely to encounter real everything. I honestly can’t imagine going out to eat at a nice restaurant and being given a paper plate, can you?
However, Justin and I rarely go to really nice restaurants. We’re more of dive people. We enjoy the atmosphere and it’s in our budget. 😉
When visiting dives, it can be hit or miss on the disposables.
1. ask for no straw:
This takes practically no effort. 500 million straws are used in the US in ONE DAY. One day, people. That’s a lot of straws.
When going out to eat, request no straw in your drink. You might get one anyways. If you do, be kind. But, it’s always best to try and refuse.
This drink didn’t need a straw. Mom says straws give you pucker wrinkles. Saving the environment and wrinkle prevention – that’s a win, win. Please note, that I still have an umbrella coming out of my drink.
If you’re feeling especially bold, send your favorite local restaurants a polite email asking that they implement a “Straws By Request Only” policy. Think of how many straws you could save from entering into the waste stream!
2. chat with the hostess:
Before you’re seated, it’s always best to make requests known. Try and feel out the situation and take a good look around the restaurant.
Do waters come to the table automatically with a straw in them? Is the hostess holding silverware wrapped in paper napkins you don’t need? Is it possible to get a table that doesn’t have pre-set silverware with paper napkins?
It certainly doesn’t hurt to inform the hostess of what you’re trying to do. Maybe they can accommodate, maybe they can’t. But, if you’re not vocal and you’re not making your voice heard, no one will know what you want. You have to speak up.
If you get to the table and there is a paper napkin on it, don’t hand it to someone to reuse. Once it’s on the table it’s dead. It will be thrown away.
It would be much better just to take the napkin home and compost it.
3. use social media:
Social media has provided us with so many amazing tools. Before I go to any restaurant, I always look it up.
I always scour the menu even in my pre-zero waste days. I take forever to decide what I want to eat, but most importantly I want to make sure there’s something I can eat. Having an allergy when going out to eat can be a little nerve-wracking.
Is dairy going to touch my food? Will I be violently ill? This is why I always try and stick to Asian or vegan restaurants. There’s a very low chance of cross contamination.
Now, I scour social media for not only the menu but the plates, the cups, the silverware etc. I want the details on all the disposables. I often will form my choices around these things.
I swear, I will never understand why certain dishes come on disposables and certain ones come on reusables.
4. be prepared:
I very rarely leave the house without knowing where I’m going. I typically know I’m going out to eat.
We eat out as a treat. Very rarely are we stranded and starving. When we go out it’s a big deal to us. We don’t do it very often. I get coffee or tea with a friend on Saturday morning and Justin and I typically go out to eat once a week.
When we go out it’s almost always to brunch. Our fav! (Hence our brunch wedding reception.)
We always ask for no straw and we bring along a couple of containers to take home leftovers.
It’s so easy to scoop leftovers into your own containers. I LOVE this nesting set*. I bring them with me almost everywhere. They’re super compact and can handle a lot of food.
They can even handle takeout. If you want tips on takeout see this post.
I also always carry two cloth napkins with me, if we’re going to a restaurant without cloth napkins… which typically we are. However, there are almost always paper napkins already on the table. So, we just take them home and add them to the backyard compost.
I would honestly try and avoid a restaurant with disposable plates and cups. If they have a drink fountain, you could easily fill your own water bottle. Or you could just drink the water you brought with you in your own water bottle.
Plates would be a little more tricky. Some people accept them and some people don’t. I find it’s a lot easier to present a plate than a container with a lid.
People can feel intimidated trying to “fit” food into a container, but putting it on a plate seems more normal.
There’s a cafe near where I work. If I’ve forgotten my lunch.. or dropped it… I’ll sometimes go over there with my own plate. I’ve never had a problem getting my food that way.
What are some of your tricks for reducing waste while you’re dining out?
This post contains affiliate linking. It’s denoted with an asterisk. You can read more on my disclosure page.
Good tips- asking for no straw is definitely an easy thing I can start doing straight away! I usually bring my own lunch into work during the week, but if I haven’t had time to make anything I still bring the container to use when I order out from a cafe. Felt a bit strange at first but my local place has soon got used it 🙂
That’s awesome! Building a relationship with the people behind the counter is huge. Once they get to know you it just becomes second nature.
Is that buffalo cauliflower? If that is what that is you were eating, looks very yummy! Have some cauliflower in the garden, might have to try that today. : )
Yes! It’s buffalo cauli, on of my faves!! 😀
Hi Kathryn! Thank you for this advice. I am currently doing the zero-waste challenge for the month, and eating out is something that I was concerned about. I initially did not think about it as an issue because, as guests, you are not witnessing the waste that may be occurring behind the scenes. However, it was brought to my attention by a friend and I was not really sure how to go about it. Of course, the refusal of a straw is a good place to start and something that I have been doing for a while, but I was not really sure what else could be done. So, I really appreciate the advice! I also think that your statement about typically sticking to Asian or vegan restaurants is actually a useful piece of advice, particularly in terms of vegan restaurants. If you are going to vegan restaurants (especially ones that predominantly serve "whole" foods) you are generally less likely to run into unnecessary waste, as most of the waste would be food waste, which will be compostable and usually come with less packaging. Obviously it is impossible to be completely zero waste, but this advice is helpful to people trying to reduce their waste!
You’re so welcome! I’m really glad you found it helpful.
At my new place of work, there is an office food court. I brought my own container to a couple of places and I got rejected. They would only serve it in their own disposable containers. It was so disheartening to be rejected (especially when I realized I can’t have a burrito bowl for lunch)
How do you deal with these types of rejections?