9 Tips for Planning a Zero Waste Picnic

how to make your next outdoor adventure waste-free!
planning zero waste picnic overhead
© Antonietta Ferretti

With summer in full swing and public places reopening, it is no surprise that we want to spend as much time outdoors as we can. Whether at the beach, hiking on a trail, or spending an afternoon at a local park, being outdoors is a wonderful way to connect with family and enjoy nature together. Picnics are a fun way to maximize our time outside, taking the time to sit and enjoy the surroundings. However, if not mindfully planned, picnics can also create unnecessary waste. The amount of disposable ‘convenience’ items marketed for outdoor dining has led to large amounts of waste being found on trails, beaches, and parks over the years.

What is Zero Waste?

The zero waste movement is a conscious approach to reducing waste in a number of ways. It includes, but is not limited to, reducing the disposable items we buy, using what we already have, and repurposing items believed to no longer serve their original purpose. A great time to get started is during Plastic Free July, a global call to action focusing on reducing single-use plastics. It also prompts conversations with our children about the importance of reducing our carbon footprint, minimizing our waste, especially when we are immersed in Mother Nature.

How to Have a Zero Waste Picnic

A zero waste picnic is a wonderful activity for the whole family to be more mindful of creating waste. With some planning, a zero waste picnic does not have to be difficult. If your zero waste journey is still fresh as a family, you most likely already have the things you need. To make the process fun and engaging, try planning the day with the kids and making it an activity to see how creative they can get!

Planning ahead

Like many activities, the planning stage is key in ensuring a smooth day and minimizing waste consumption by avoiding convenience purchases. Begin with choosing the location and thinking about what amenities there might be, such as a designated picnic area, picnic tables, public restrooms, etc. Many public places have information online, or ask friends and family who have visited the area before. Incorporating children into the planning process, from choosing the place of excursion to assisting in packing food, allows them to practice their own autonomy and that their voice matters, even when planning trips.

Reusable water bottles

Reusable water bottles are an easy way to minimize waste when embarking on a nature hike, but what about refills? Rather than purchasing a case of plastic bottles, try filling up a few extra large bottles with ice and water instead. Large glass bottles work well and can even serve as a way to rinse hands or dirty feet. How about a hot beverage? Skip the drive-thru line ups and fill a thermos with your favourite tea or coffee. Thermal containers that have built-in cups as the lid are ideal as they do not require disposable cups or bringing an additional travel mug.

Ice packs

Reusable silicone bags are a great alternative to conventional ice packs. They are waterproof, so there will be minimal mess as the ice begins to melt (tip: wrap a cloth around it to avoid things getting wet from condensation). The night before, simply fill up the silicone bags with water and place them in the freezer - I suggest keeping them upright and making sure they are completely sealed to avoid spilling.  The ice pack becomes one solid block, which will take a longer to melt compared to ice cubes. Silicone bags may not be in everyone’s pantry, but freezer bags will work just as well. These freezer bags can then be reused for the same purpose or for storing other items down the road. This ensures that the disposable bags are in fact being reused rather than disposed of after a single use.

Cutlery and napkins 

It is very common to find disposable plastic cutlery on beaches and trail grounds. Rather than opting for single-use plastics, use what you have in your kitchen drawer instead! If losing them is a concern, a count before and after ensures you’ve got them all before leaving the space - this is where the planning comes in handy. Don’t want to use your kitchen cutlery? Try opting for reusable bamboo over plastic. Bamboo is lighter in weight, sustainable and sturdy, making it a good zero waste choice.

To keep all of the cutlery in place, wrap it up with cloth napkins or dishcloths.  I like to wrap an extra dishcloth or two for unexpected messes. Rather than paper napkins, opt for reusable cloth napkins. They are perfect for everyday meals and school lunches too! Dark coloured or busy patterned napkins are best if you want to avoid worrying about stubborn stains.

zero waste cutlery napkins bags
© Antonietta Ferretti

Reusable plates 

Ditch the disposable plates for reusable ones you may have at home. Where there are small children, there are usually kid-friendly dishes not too far away! Silicone, bamboo, or stainless steel dishes are great. Don’t have any at home? Try searching on social media marketplaces, thrift shops, or borrow from friends and family. Placing them in a reusable cotton produce bag keeps them together, or wrap them up with a tea towel. They can be wiped down with a cloth or rinsed off before storing them away and you avoid having to throw anything out.

Food and storage

As tempting as it may be to order food and bring it with you, there is a lot of waste that comes with it. Making your own food to bring is the perfect way to include children in the process of picnic planning. Finger foods are ideal - they don’t require plates or cutlery, minimizing the amount of items you need to carry. There are several different ways to store your food without creating waste. Sandwiches, wraps, and cut vegetables and fruit can be stored in beeswax wraps, reusable snack pouches, or silicone bags. For heartier meals, like salads and pastas, stacking metal tiffin containers are fantastic as they keep foods separate. Reusable glass containers are also very useful, but depending on their size they may be heavier and take up more space. And of course, any plastic containers you already have work just fine!

Picnic blanket

There are some great waterproof picnic mats on the market that are made of recycled plastic and fold up into a small, compartmentalized shape. This makes it easier to stow away without taking up much room. An alternative to this would be to use an old blanket or tablecloth that you don’t mind getting dirty. Cotton is a natural fibre and easy to wash, preferably in a busy print or darker colour to avoid seeing stains over the years. Keeping a few stowed away for excursions such as this are handy to have. Store them with other outdoor equipment, keeping a mental note to use it as an outdoor blanket.

Carrier

Traveling with children requires all hands on deck! Despite the beautiful aesthetic of a wicker picnic basket, it’s not an ideal choice with little ones. An insulated cooler bag is a better option, or a simple backpack with separate compartments works well. Hard coolers are handy if you are parked nearby, but not ideal if there is a lot of walking involved. Depending on their age, children can pack their own small backpack with some activities they would like to take with them, as well as their own snacks and water bottles.  

Wet bag 

Where there are children, a mess is usually just around the corner!  A waterproof reusable bag is essential to house any dirty towels or wet clothing that might happen while outdoors. A wet bag is truly a treasured travel item as a parent. It has become our go-to for storing wet swimsuits, cloth diapers, a change of clothes, and anything else that might require it. If you don’t have one, consider searching for one on parent groups on social media or finding one second-hand. An alternative to a wet bag is to use a reusable shopping bag that is made of recycled material or any old plastic shopping bags work just as well.

With these tips in mind it isn’t difficult to create a zero waste picnic with items you have in your own home. If enjoying meals outside is an ongoing activity for years to come, it might help to invest in some quality sustainable items to use. Planning and implementing a zero waste picnic does not have to be complicated and is a great way to spend time outdoors with the ones you love!

We love to bring you real stories from our EcoCommunity of green parents, bloggers and influencers. Please meet mother and food waste advocate, Antonietta Ferretti, and join us on social media to chat about your zero-waste goals, including 6 Totally Manageable Ideas for Zero Waste Parenting

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