Reducing Waste at Picnics and BBQs

Who doesn’t look forward to summer when the warmer weather coaxes us outside? Often that means toting along some good food, whether packed as a picnic meal or at a fun backyard BBQ.

When planning your next outdoor event, keep in mind that portable meals usually mean the potential for a lot of waste, since we may choose disposable paperware for easy cleanup and throw out uneaten food that’s been sitting in hot temperatures for several hours. An overflowing trash bin is a common site at family BBQs and picnics.

While many consumers have understood the importance of reducing overall waste for some time, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency have issued a national call to action to decrease food waste through the US Food Waste Challenge; thus, it’s also important to be mindful of all areas in which we can reduce food waste.

If you’re a dietitian who shares meal prep tips with clients, consider including the ideas below that can help everyone savor their favorite summer meals while keeping waste (both food and nonfood) to a minimum:

  • Suggest clients bring their own water bottles. Who likes having to fill and then lug around a large heavy cooler filled with ice and individual drinks? To lighten the load, suggest clients carry their own reusable insulated water bottles. Bring one large insulated jug of ice water or fruit/vegetable-infused water in case anyone needs a refill. At a backyard BBQ, recommend they provide recyclable plastic cups labeled with each guest’s name.
  • Use cloth napkins and tablecloths instead of paper or plastic.
  • Instead of disposable paper plates and utensils, recommend clients invest in eco-friendly reusable plastic or bamboo plates and lightweight bamboo or wooden cutlery. Plastic cutlery often is made of polystyrene, with the recycling code number six. This material isn’t biodegradable and therefore lasts a long time in landfills. It also isn’t meant to wash and reuse. Repeated washing and use can create small nicks that harbor food particles and encourage bacterial growth. Some towns can recycle polystyrene, but if they don’t, suggest clients purchase eco-friendly, reusable cutlery instead.
  • Don’t prepare too much food. Have clients estimate how much food is needed per person attending and encourage them to stick to it. More often than not, people overestimate how much food is needed.
  • Use metal skewers instead of disposable wood or plastic skewers for kabobs.
  • At picnics, store food in reusable containers with lids so clients can bring leftovers home. However, discard perishable items that weren’t stored in a cooler or were left at room temperature (70° F and above) for more than two hours. Good materials for storage containers include stainless steel, glass, wood, or ceramic. At backyard BBQs, recommend clients wrap and refrigerate leftovers quickly and offer guests food to take home if they’re left with more than they can finish in a few days.
  • To prevent spoilage, keep food and leftovers in insulated containers or surrounded with ice packs and placed in a shady spot if possible.
  • Client may not know that aluminum foil is recyclable if cleaned of food residue. So if they don’t have containers with lids, suggest they wrap leftover food with foil. In addition, remind them to avoid plastic wrap and bags whenever possible.
  • Encourage clients to bring an extra bag to toss any recyclable items like single-use water bottles, aluminum cans, recyclable plastics, and paper packaging—then transfer them to their recycle bin at home.

As individuals, clients may not be able to incorporate all of these suggestions. But if many of them make a commitment to just one change, their efforts can be powerful.

— Nancy L. Oliveira, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, is an outpatient dietitian specializing in diabetes, oncology, weight management, and gastrointestinal disorders. She has worked for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and currently manages the Nutrition Clinic at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Boston. She’s dedicated to educating and empowering her patients to improve and sometimes reverse their health conditions, and is equally passionate in the areas of public speaking and writing to clarify confusion on nutrition topics presented in the media. Nancy is also a staff writer for The Nutrition Source at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and features easy vegan recipes and nutrition articles on her blog and Instagram @RDRecipeResource.

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