How To Have a Sustainable Potluck

Tomorrow is the official start of Food Season – aka American Thanksgiving. It marks the beginning of shared meals and too much family time, not to mention the season of copious leftovers. There are a few smart purchases you can make now, while everything’s on crazy-big sale for the Day That Shall Not Be Mentioned, that’ll make your potluck and family-meal life a little bit smoother this year.

I make no promises about the smoothness or behavior of your family.

potluck dinner party

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I love potlucks because a) free food and you only had to make one thing, b) hanging out with people you really like (hopefully you make friends who are good cooks), and c) all kinds of different food to try! Friends and family love being able to contribute to a meal, and it eases the stress for everyone when all of the food steadily arrives with the people.

But every year – and maybe this is my Pacific Northwestern roots speaking – I can’t help but notice the extreme amounts of waste generated by the 4+ events that I go to each holiday, just to share a meal with my family! Tons of plastic and one-time-use dishes and utensils that just end up filling up plastic trash bag after plastic trash bag.

So let me step on my reusable granola composite gluten-free soap box for a second and encourage you to try to minimize the waste produced by your family get-togethers this year.

You can help reduce the waste for a few dollars by taking just a few extra measures during the holidays:

  • Use cloth napkins instead of paper towels or new packaged napkins. You’re just gonna toss them in the washer when they’re done! If it squidges you out, use a pair of tongs to put them all into the washing basin so you don’t have to touch them. But you’re saving a ton of chemically-treated paper and plastic from ending up in a landfill! If you do use paper towels, try to get a recycled brand, and then compost them instead of throwing them in the trash.
  • Encourage people to make a potluck dish to bring instead of buying one. Who needs another 4 aluminum casserole and pie pans in the trash can when you have beautiful glass dishes that not only cook food better, but you can reuse the crap out of them! (Don’t have any? Keep reading!)
  • Don’t have enough dishes or silverware? Use mixed vintage or second-hand. Take  walk through your local thrift store and you’ll see all kinds of plates, both fancy and modest, for under a dollar a piece in some cases. The last thrift store I went to had adorable, one-off dishes for around 50¢ per piece! As for silverware, my local Value Village sells it by the bag, usually about $2 for a 6 person service. With a little polish, you can make them look not just new, but expensive. Not only is this affordable and smart, but it’s also extra ethical, and adds some visual interest to your food service.
  • Dump your food scraps into the Yard Waste bin! Cooked food scraps aren’t ideal for composting if you’re planning to use the compost for a garden, but they’re perfectly fit for the yard waste bin! Put a compostable bag into a large tupperware and scrape off leftover bits as you clean. If you don’t have a compostable bag, just use the tupperware – no plastic in the yard waste bin or compost, please!

These tips help a lot if you are hosting your own potluck, but if you’re truly lucky, you’ll only be attending and thus skipping the hectic preparation and clean-up (unless you’re a good friend, in which case you’re a participant in both).

potluck dinner party 1

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If you happen to just be attending a potluck, and/or never plan on hosting one for whatever reason (please tell me, there are no non-juicy answers), I definitely recommend that you augment your potlucking equipment with a few crucial supplies.

And, of course, I’d never show you anything that wasn’t cute, so don’t be deterred by the promise of high functionality and eco-friendliness! These are all well-designed and you’ll be proud to haul them around for the next four months, guaranteed.

Eco-Friendly Potluck Supplies

Reusable, Sealable, Bake-able Casserole Dishes

I cannot stress enough the usefulness of these types of dishes. They come in all shapes and sizes, and are easily taken from the fridge, or even freezer, and placed directly into the oven to reheat or cook. Then, throw the silicone, heat-resistant lid on and transport to your next engagement. It couldn’t be easier.

I searched all over the ‘net and the best deals for the best packages all seemed to come from Target.

Essential Potluck Supplies

Some fancy blogs and lifestyle spokespeople will tell you that it’s totally normal and appropriate to provide to-go containers for leftovers…?! That sounds expensive to me, but to each their own.

If you do want to do something cute as a take-home, and want to keep the budget tight, there are some cute, small, glass storage bowls from Crate + Barrel for only $1.95. They hold about two cups and would also be good for dips/sauces!

If you’re a strictly pie family and you don’t want to trust that cake plate to do the job of a pie plate, I don’t blame you.

9 inch pie plate carrier

Luckily, the amazing Pyrex has a 9″ glass pie plate with a carrier and lid at Macy’s, and it has a handle and everything! The plastic is plastic, but it’s BPA-free plastic, and that’s commendable.

Disposable, Plant-Based Utensils

When your entire family is in one place and they want you to feed them, only having 8 forks and 7 knives (who knows where that last one went) isn’t going to cut it, literally. But who feels good about buying a crap load of disposable plastic utensils only to have their garbage bag all filled up with stuff that’ll never biodegrade? That is a holiday downer, if you ask me. Fortunately, there’s an ethical option! (And it encourages bonfires, so bring mittens and stuff for s’mores.)

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RePurpose Compostable Utensils

My personal favorite brand is RePurpose Compostables. They have an entire line of flatware that looks just like any other disposable utensils – but they’re actually stronger. It took way more force to break one of these than your average plastic knife or fork, and everything they sell is compostable! We also love their compostable cups and plates. Totally affordable at $6 per eight place settings, totally reusable, and totally helpful when potlucks and BBQs are on the menu.

Wooden Poplar Disposable Flatware

These are beautifully designed and made from sustainably harvested Poplar wood. You can toss these right into the fireplace at the end of the night! Each package of Disposable Poplar Wood Flatware has 8 place settings and runs you $12 at One King’s Lane.

Jojo Green Disposable Cutlery

This set of disposable cutlery, by JojoGreens at Joanna Hudson, comes in at a super affordable $4.96 per package of 8 place settings. You sacrifice a little tiny bit of design for a killer price, with the same amount of sustainability.

On the off-chance you signed up to bring dessert, and just need some adorable festive spoons for your Pumpkin Pecan Gingersnap Ice Cream

 

These are too cute not to post, especially because most holiday-themed things are gross and covered in religion icons or terrible poinsettias, etc. These are red and green, but they are simple enough that they aren’t tacky. Yon can get 12 Birch Wood Spoons for $5.95 at Williams Sonoma.

Compostable or Biodegradable Plates

Vintage plates are still a cheaper way to go, and have the ethical edge of recycling, but if that’s more dishes than you can manage, don’t feel bad! Where there is eco-friendly disposable silverware, there are eco-friendly disposable dishes. Of course, paper is always better than plastic, but if you can find some sustainably-sourced materials that leave trees in-tact, that’s even better!

Leafware Bamboo Plates

Remember Joanna Hudson from such posts as… this one, in the silverware section? Well they also have some really gorgeous, albeit more expensive, biodegradable disposable plates made from fallen palm leaves. 25 plates come in each package, available for $24.99.

Square Mottled Wood Plates

These beautiful bamboo plates are small, only 3.5 inches, so they’d qualify as special purchase for best reserved for a smaller group of friends and family. Each pack of 10 3.5″ Bamboo Disposable Plates is $9.90 at Bio & Chic.

For something slightly less glitzy and more economical, there are eco-friendly composite options for disposable dishes, too.

These plates, Compostable Duo Disposable Plates from Leaf & Fiber. They come in packs of 25 for $18.19 and are made from fallen (not cut) leaves of the Areca Palm. There are two sections to keep conflicting food items apart, and when you’re done, they can go right into the yard waste!

And, because I can’t feel good about suggesting this stuff to you unless I also give you the most economical, affordable disposable plate option – even if it’s not cute. At all.

World Centric Compostable Plates

You’ve probably eaten off these in your lifetime. World Centric Compostable Disposable Plates, a 20 pack is only $4.49 at Drugstore.com, and they’re made from wheat straw. They’re just as good as the others, meaning they’re waterproof, heat-proof, and microwave-ready – but they’re just normal. If you have a big crew coming over, these might be your best bet.

RePurpose Compostables Plant Based Dishes

Naturally, RePurpose Compostables also has a huge array of compostable, biodegradable, plant-based dishes to offer at prices that definitely rival their plastic counterparts. Their best buy is $6.50 for 20 compostable plates.

Drinking Supplies

I don’t mind single-serving, disposable beverages flowing at potlucks because beer bottles and soda cans get recycled. So, as far as wasteful products go, those are pretty far down on the list of concerns, for me. I do recommend keeping a big jug of filtered water around, and of course some bottles of wine or sparkling water. (Encourage your guests to bring a bottle, and tell them that there’s really affordable, good stuff at Trader Joe’s!) 

All that being said, if you want to go full-boar and really green it up, check out these bad boys:

Susty Party makes these 18oz Polka Dot Disposable Cups and you can snag 116 (!) for only $37. Seems like a lot, but you’ll keep using these until they’re gone, I promise. And, yes, they are fully compostable! That “plastic” is BPA-free and is made from sustainably-harvested corn. There are no toxins and no plastic, whatsoever! They also come in cute 9oz sizes.

Be careful on that Susty Party site. They have everything adorable and it’s allllllll sustainable.

Be Creative

These aren’t the only ways to prepare yourself for the potluck season without selling out your ethics! There are tons of things you could do – mason jars alone offer at least 80 ways to improve the waste of a potluck!

Encourage your family to jump on the sustainability train and you can feel extra good about spending too much time with them. Remember, this is an intense couple of months, but your patience will pay off and you will get to eat tons of awesome food! (Family recipes encouraged to be shared in the comments please and thank you.)

Happy potlucking!

Lindsay Ginn

Livin' in your basement, eatin' your canned foods.

  • Loved this post (especially the cute little bowls from Crate & Barrel!)