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How to “Go Green” When Eating Out

Written by contributor Katie Kimball of Kitchen Stewardship.

I work so hard not to waste at our house.

Sometimes it seems ridiculous, the pains we eco-conscious folks take to save the Earth, one tiny piece of paper (that we walk up the stairs to the recycle bin) at a time. I do go to great lengths to conserve food, energy, and reduce our disposables at every meal.

When I go out to eat or set foot in a school cafeteria, however, sometimes I feel like my little conserved drop in the ocean of waste can’t really make a difference.

The amount of food alone that gets pitched from most elementary school children’s trays is immense.

I know that we can make changes and reduce our collective waste, and it will happen one person, one drop, one good decision at a time. I can’t stop 400 kids’ waste in a cafeteria, but I can teach my children to take only what they’ll eat, when the time comes.

When you’re traveling, sometimes you just have to eat out. Here are some simple tips for both sit-down and fast food restaurants to help you decrease the restaurant waste, at least for that day:

1. Bring your own containers for leftovers

My father-in-law initially looked at me like I was crazy when I ran to the car to retrieve my take-out boxes when we took them out for Mother’s Day. He then admitted, “You know, I’m just getting used to expecting weird stuff like this.” Ha!

If you can handle servers looking oddly at you when you say, “No box, please, I brought my own,” imagine how much Styrofoam you can keep out of the landfills!

I won’t tell you it’s easy to remember to get containers in your car and then bring them into the restaurant and then get clean ones back into your car for next time…but boy, do I feel like an eco-super heroine when I do! Here are my reusable take-out container tips for restaurant eating.

2. Only order what you’ll eat

Photo by Christian Cable
For those times when you’re really away on vacation and don’t have the cold storage for leftovers, be mindful when you read the menu. Consider asking kids to split an appetizer or share your adult meal with toddlers. If you’re not really hungry (you know how much comes on those plates!) perhaps you could split a meal or order two side dishes and still be satisfied, not stuffed, and not waste food. Use the same philosophy at a buffet, where waste is rampant.

I think this is an important lesson to teach the kids, particularly in light of the massive waste that kids generate when they’re on their own at school.

3. Choose your restaurant wisely

There are often lots of options in larger cities for restaurants that have a consciousness, such as using local foods, striving for organic vegetables or pastured meats, and more. Each locale is different, so you’ll have to search out the gems in your own city. If you know of any great restaurants in your area or a website to help people find more eco-conscious eateries, please share in the comments so we can all benefit. Thanks!

A national fast food chain that makes a good example of stewardship and tries to use well-sourced meats from small farmers is Chipotle. Their Mexican food is doggone good, too, so it’s certainly not a sacrifice to choose them over some of the other options out there.

4. Bring your own water bottle

The ‘crunchy’ folks among us probably have a reusable water bottle already, whether BPA-free plastic or stainless steel. It’s remembering to take them to the restaurant that is tricky.

When we get fast food or order in, I try to always use my own drink, which saves both the cup from the landfill and money out of my pocket (if I were a soda or tea drinker at least). I wouldn’t be so bold as to carry my own drink into a sit-down restaurant, but I do always order water because I’m frugal! Many coffee shops nowadays are very used to patrons bringing their own reusable mugs, which is a huge savings over the insulated hot drink cups, especially if you get a treat coffee more than once a week.

5. Ask for real cups for the kids

Even in a sit-down restaurant, little ones typically get disposable plastic cups. I have two strategies to fight this:

  1. When the kiddos are under age 3 (or four, or five), I just bring their own drink. It’s totally acceptable to have a sippy or water bottle for toddlers, who don’t even always order their own meal (especially when they have money-smart parents).
  2. Once I’m sure the kids can handle it, I ask for an adult glass or cup filled only half full with water. The kids think it’s an awesome treat to have a “grown-up” drink. Only do this if you allow the kids to use open cups and/or glass glasses at home, though, because they need to be trained to drink with care.
  3. If you do end up with a disposable cup, you could ask the server if the restaurant washes and reuses them. Some do. If they don’t, take it home and put it in with the beach or bath toys, use it as a pencil cup for the craft center, or save them up for your next eco-friendly birthday party.

6. Think: What is about to be thrown away?

Before you leave a restaurant, look at your table. Ask yourself what the server or busboy will probably just swipe into the garbage, even though it’s perfectly usable.

Then take it with you.

My son actually made me think of this one. When we took him out to lunch for his 6th birthday last month, we looked at the pile of extra napkins brought because of kids being at the table, and said, “Mom, are they going to throw those away? That’s a waste…we should take them with us.” He’s my kid who turns off lights for me and says, “That’s not green, Mom.” He really made me think about it, and it’s a wonderful strategy.

The other item we always take are the crayons – if they all come perfectly new, I assume no kid gets the used-for-5-minutes crayons from our table and guess that they must simply be tossed. So sad! We have more crayons than we’ll need at our house, but we’ll use them someday or donate them to a classroom that can. It would probably be even better simply to travel with our own stash and politely refuse the restaurant’s crayons.

We may not be able to save the landfill, but every baby step makes a difference, and I’m committed to reducing my personal waste as much as possible while teaching my children habits that will last a green lifetime.

How do you help to avoid waste when eating out? I know I’ve only shared the tip of the iceberg, so I can’t wait to hear your tips!

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Mandi @ Life...Your Way

    Love these tips, Katie!

    We collect the crayons from restaurants too — and with 4 kids, even 2 crayons per kid adds up — and I keep them in my purse. We use them at the doctor’s office (to color on the paper covering the exam table while we wait), when we’re in the car running errands, to share with other people at the park, etc. That little stash comes in handy more than anything else in my purse!

    • Steph (The Cheapskate Cook)

      It had never occurred to me to take the crayons, but I have cringed as we left, thinking that they were just going to be thrown away. Now I’ll have a clean conscience about slipping them into my purse!
      Using them at the doctor’s office is a cute idea – do they not mind if the kids doodle on the exam table paper?

      • Mandi @ Life...Your Way

        Our doctor’s office doesn’t; the paper just gets thrown out anyway, and it keeps my four little ones quiet and occupied, which they probably appreciate, LOL. You could always ask first if you’re not sure how they’ll react!

      • Bethany W

        When I was a kid, our pediatrician actually provided crayons FOR doodling on the exam table paper. When we got to take our drawings home, we thought it was awesome. Won’t say how old I was before my brother and I realized the paper was there for sanitary reasons, not for artistic use. 😉

      • Sarah C

        Steph, I’m a nurse and I encourage kids to use the table paper for artistic purposes…it sure makes the wait easier!

        As a mom, I’ve found that used Altoid-sized tins work perfectly for crayons, and have even made little waiting kits for my son using other small tins with a folded paper, small box of raisins, and some crayons in it. They’re small enough to stash in my purse, and make great use of those “leftover” crayons.

    • Stephanie

      Gosh, I always assumed the restaurants re-used these barely used crayons for the next kid. Talk about naive. Now I’ll know better.

  2. Anne

    What a good point there are so many ways that eating out can be wasteful, I never thought of bringing my own take-out containers, but I always cringe when they give me the Styrofoam box – I am so going to try this. Also about the coffee, my place lets me fill up my own mug for a buck, or use theirs for $2.50! See if the places you buy coffee offer a greener discount too.

  3. Stacey Cotrotsios

    I have always told my kids to put everything back in their lunchbags and bring them home. This year, I purchased some Pack It Freeze & Go bags for my kids’ lunches ( The leftovers are so cold when my kids arrive home I just put them right back in the fridge or give them to my kids for their after school snack (when they are hungry again). They fold up so small and are so easy to clean, you could probably take one or more with you when you go to a restaurant. Moreover, the square Snapware containers (love them and made in the USA) fit perfectly inside!

      • Rachel

        This is the first time I’ve heard of Packit – what a great product! I’m going to be investing in a few of these for sure. The possibilities are endless – not just for restaurant leftovers and school lunches!

  4. Christi

    Those plastic cups work well for starting tomatoes (or whatever) indoors too. And just a note from experience: After you take the crayons home REMEMBER TO TAKE THEM OUT OF YOUR CAR!!! (they melt in the summer!)

  5. Cathy

    Great tips! Something else we do is bring the leftovers home even if we won’t eat them. Our chickens will eat just about anything.

  6. Diana

    We stash the leftover napkins in our car for emergencies. Trust me–they get used up 🙂 (And you don’t have to remember to take them in when you get home!)

  7. Nora

    My family uses the crayons to play hangman at the doctors office.

    We unwrap crayon leftovers, break them into small pieces and gently warm, not melt, them in a full foil lined pan. Then use cookie cutters to make fun multicolored crayon shapes. Another time we melted them by color and filled jello race car molds crayons. They made great party favors. Unwrapping the crayons took a lot more time than we imagined!

    • Mandie

      Growing up my mom (a teacher) would take crayons that had broken, put the pieces into an old muffin pan and warm them in the oven and once cooled pop them out. I obviously still remember how cool the multi-colored crayons were, so they were a hit.

  8. Angie

    does your family really eat out?? You’re my green/foodie heroine, and I always feel so guilty on the infrequent times that my family is stuck out somewhere, and we have to grab something quick that I know isn’t healthy! Also, you’re not related to the author Kristin Kimball, by chance, are you?

    • Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Oh, my goodness, I’m ever the compromise girl! Sometimes we have to (vacation) and sometimes it’s just nice to let my in-laws take us somewhere. 80/20, girl! 😉 I probably eat out way more than I should…

      I’ve never heard of that author, though.

      🙂 Katie

      • Angie

        If you haven’t heard of the author–she wrote “The Dirty Life”–its about how she went from being a writer in NYC to living on a farm. She and her now-husband run a CSA that provides ‘total food’–meat, fruits and veggies, grains and dairy–their customers don’t have to go to the grocery store at all! And they use draft horses, no tractors or other gas-using equipment! It’s a great story about local food!

  9. Shelley C

    When we raised a few pigs for our freezer, we contacted the elementary school to see if they would dump the food remnants in garbage bags for us. We provided them with a big lidded tub to keep it on the back dock and when hubby got out of work he picked it up every day. Made great free food for our pigs! It’s not quite what you are writing about, but it is putting that wasted food to good use!

    • Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Is that awesome or what?! If only more communities could figure out how to move waste to put it to good use…and leftover edible food, too, even though I think that’s against gov’t regulations. Makes me sick.

      Thanks for sharing! 🙂 Katie

  10. Stephanie - Green Stay at Home Mom

    We eat out very rarely, but these are good tips for when we do. It’s just so much more affordable to eat at home. I especially like the idea of taking the crayons, which I’ve always just left… although my youngest is in the drawing on everything phase, which means I keep pretty careful control of where crayons and markers get left.

  11. Amy

    Good thought on the napkins!!! With crayons we have a plastic gum box now filled with crayons that we keep in the diaper bag(or purse). Gum boxes change all the time, so I haven’t seen the exact style that we have – but an altoids would probably work too.

  12. Kathryn

    Love these tips. You’re right–there’s often a lot of waste associated with restaurant dining, especially if it’s fast food or fast casual. Another tip I’ve heard is to ask for a half-portion (often called a “lunch” portion). Some restaurants actually list this option on the menu, but many that don’t will still serve you a smaller portion at a reduced price if you ask for it.

  13. Adrienne

    As a former server, I really appreciate the napkin advice! From my side of things, I always tried not to give too many napkins to my table. Most of the time servers are obligated to toss whatever disposables are left on the table because once they’ve left the kitchen, health code (or at least restaurant rules) dictate that they can’t come back in. So please — take ’em home!

    On that same note, servers at my restaurants weren’t allowed to suggest combining leftovers to save on containers, etc. at the risk of the restaurant looking “cheap” or somehow putting customers off. So don’t be afraid to bring your own containers or make waste-saving requests yourself. I bet sometimes your green-minded servers will send you a silent “thank you” for making the effort that they are actually restricted from making themselves.

    • Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Excellent to hear the perspective from “the other side of the table!” 🙂 Katie

    • Susan

      Please only combine leftovers at the customer’s request. We had a waitress do this without asking a few years ago, and her explanation was something on the order of, “well, you’re going home together, so I figured I’d put the leftovers in one package for you.” This was a big problem for us, as my husband had ordered ribs and I’m mildly allergic to pork, so putting my steak in the same package with his food was risky. Fortunately I could just rinse it off, but someone more sensitive could’ve had to throw out the food, or if the server had started to combine them but changed to separate packaging without telling the customer, poisoned them.

  14. Jessi @ Quirky Cookery

    What great suggestions. I never would’ve thought to bring my own container for leftovers.

    I have made choices at local diners before, based on the waste, though. There’s one diner that wraps everything like a fast food restaurant (I guess technically they’re fast food, too? but they’re not a commercial chain). They have chicken baskets like Dairy Queen does, though, and I like ordering those because they only stick a small piece of waxed paper in the bottom of a plastic basket, and toss in both the chicken and fries. I asked if they reused the baskets and they do, so this way, I’m skipping out on the large burger wrapper, the fry container, and the bag that they *always* put food in, even if you’re dining in. Bleh.

  15. Andrew

    Very critical data analysis and wonderful tip.

  16. sap

    thank you for the great tips! actually i’m used to “bring my own water bottle” to everywhere – so i can save money + don’t but sweet drinks.

  17. Living the Balanced Life

    What awesome ideas Katie! I am not too far along in my green journey, but it great to come across ideas that I just never would’ve even thought about. I will so keep in mind the bringing my own containers for leftovers for sure!

  18. Kate

    Great tips for the kids but not only!!! one person at a time! good for you!


    These are great tips Katie! You have a good point here: “We may not be able to save the landfill, but every baby step makes a difference, and I’m committed to reducing my personal waste as much as possible while teaching my children habits that will last a green lifetime.”I totally agree with you Katie! We should start it with our self and be a good model to our children!


    Great tips and great post! Let us all be a role model to our future generation! By implementing and teaching them ways to a greener future! I salute you Kate!

  21. Ina

    We just ate out last night — I was thinking about the plastic cup and the crayons my son got too! I’ve taken the crayons before, and the cup once or twice, but I think I’ll make sure to do that each time.

    And thanks for the tip about Chipotle, I’ve seen quite a few sprouting up around our area, good to know that their meat is well-sourced!

  22. Adriel

    Great tips! I especially like the last one. I go crazy when my husband takes too many napkins or salt/sugar packets because I know that even when they aren’t used they get thrown away if we leave them behind. Drives me insane! And we’re not at the coloring stage yet, but soon to be. But I’ve seen from other peoples kids… you’re right – they do ALWAYS bring out brand new ones. What a waste!! Love the idea of collecting them and then donating them to a local preschool, sunday school, or whatever. Great ideas.

  23. 'Becca

    Great tips! I just got back from a 4-day convention where we used many of these ideas while eating in the food court, hotel breakfast room, and nearby market house.

    One thing you didn’t mention: NO STRAWS. Every drinking straw is a tube of plastic that’s used once and discarded, and most of them are individually wrapped in chlorine-bleached paper, and who knows what chemicals may leach into your drink? Yuck. The adults in my family use straws only for the occasional milkshake. In restaurants where we know they routinely put straws in the drinks before serving, we say, “No straw, please,” when ordering, and that works about 2/3 of the time. Our six-year-old son loves drinking from a straw, though, and is keen on bringing them home and doing crafts with them, so we do allow him to have a straw in a restaurant.

    I have a couple more tips specific to fast food and “fast casual” restaurants: Pack a tote bag with utensils, drinking cups (those kids’ cups can be reused for this purpose), and cloth napkins as well as your leftovers containers. Then, don’t take any disposables other than what is directly served to you. Use the cups to get water from serve-yourself soda fountains. If your family tends to share food, bring extra plates–I like to use lightweight pie pans from supermarket pies other people bring to potlucks!

    Sometimes you can avoid individual packets of condiments by serving yourself from a larger container. For example, some fast-food places have a big pump of ketchup and little paper cups, plus plastic packets of ketchup–use the pump directly onto your food or plate, skipping the extra cup. Some places offer both individual coffee creamers and a pitcher of milk–use the pitcher.

  24. PsychMamma

    Excellent tips! We try to practice all of them. I do the worst at remembering to bring my own take-out containers for leftovers.

    We used to take the crayons with us until I realized how huge our home stash had grown. Now, I always carry a small, slim set of crayons in my purse. They come in handy lots of places (like the doctor’s office) besides restaurants, and I feel much better about doing my part.

  25. Robert

    Very informative & gently persuasive!

  26. kerwin

    Very Cool! Yeah everybody should chip in to save the planet! GREEN is In!

  27. Kourtney L.

    I always make sure to bring a water bottle with me at work, and I recently just bought a lunch bag so I no longer need a paper or plastic sack everyday. It’s amazing how you can save when you pay attention to the details.

    I like the idea of bringing your own container to a restaurant (I am sure I would get silly looks from the people I go with).

    When you think about your own impact of the environment and how much “stuff” you use everyday it becomes a big number. It would be interesting to count how many times I bring my water bottle to work everyday and add up how many plastic water bottles that would of been.

  28. Alison

    Great ideas! We carry a “restaurant bag” in our car with leftover containers, cloth napkins (colour coded by family member), utensils, extra straws (until we order a set of stainless steel ones for when we are out), books, and a pencil case with crayons and markers as well as some blank paper and some extra colouring sheets. It has taken some practice but the kids are getting used to ” refusing” the crayons and booklets they are offered. Like a commenter above, a few of our containers are small to contain ketchup etc when we do venture to a fast food chain. What leftovers like fry containers and paper liners can be recycled also come home with us-swooped into the bag and away we go!

  29. Fiona

    I am surprised to hear about the use or disposable cups and crayons for kids in sit-down restaurants! Here in Australia children are given real glasses and I think it actually would prevent spills as the glasses are heavier than disposable cups? And it’s normal in restaurants with crayons to find large size crayons re-used for months. The only things that might be disposable are paper nakins and paper table toppers. Any leftovers would be packed in a plastic takeout container and never in styrofoam. Interesting that it is so different in our two countries, isn’t it?

    • Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Yes, that IS interesting (and kind of sad on our account). The disposable cups have lids, always, so that’s why kids get them for spill control. Many restaurants are getting away from Styrofoam, too, thank goodness, but many aren’t. Work to be done! 😉 Katie

  30. Brooke Lemberg

    My husband and I go through Altoids (his peppermint, mine ginger) like they’re a medical necessity. I wash the tins, then glue felt to the lids to cover it. I usually use them for small gift tins, a travel sewing kit, etc., but I could see stashing some crayons inside so they stay together in my purse!

  31. Allison

    GREAT post! I, too, feel like a super heroine when we bring our own containers for leftovers at restaurants. Last time, a friend of ours said, “You and your Tupperware!” It wasn’t exactly, but the idea is the same… Forgive me if I’m repeating what’s already been stated in the comments, but those barely used restaurant crayons can be recycled by mailing them to the Crayon Recycling Program.
    My children and I mailed 19 pounds of crayons collected from California Pizza Kitchen a few years ago. We knew the manager, and he was kind enough to put a box in their kitchen, where the used crayons got dumped until the box was full. A great practical, hands-on project for children…
    ANOTHER GREEN EATING-OUT IDEA: Skip the straws! Again, if I’m repeating what somebody’s already said, I’m sorry…But I refuse a straw at a sit-down restaurant every time I get the choice, and my husband now does, too. AND…you know those little paper cups for ketchup and whatnot? Skip those, too, if you can. We just squirt the ketchup on a burger wrapper or something like that, so we get out enough for the whole family but without using 5 or 6 paper cups.

  32. crowdSPRING

    This is an very important blog……..Thanks for giving this simple tips for both sit-down and fast food restaurants to help you decrease the restaurant waste…….
    one must read this and follow……..Order according to your need…..

  33. WFG Women

    Well this will really works..We should bring our own bottle and try to always use my own drink, which saves both the cup from the landfill and money out of pocket…Thanks

  34. Ben

    One drop at a time. I like that philosophy. Even if the things we do don’t make a difference in the long run, it’s still good to say that you tried. It made me smile to read your second tip 🙂 It took me a long time to learn to not order with my eyes, but just order what I think I’ll eat. I’ve been bringing my own water bottle around everywhere. Not only is it better for the environment, water from stainless steel bottles is safer than water from plastic bottles.

  35. Messy Wife To be Transformed

    I am catching up on Simple Living after vacation and just read this post. Thank you very much for your tips and advice.
    #2 and 3 is difficult for me. I practice the rest as much as possible (as in if I remember…)
    For when I can’t remember the container/my own cup, I tried to do it in a more responsible way:
    * If I know they have paper container, I asked for those.
    * If I am just wrapping up the pizza, I might just use the paper liner they use when they serve the bread.
    * If the containers seems to be in good condition after use, I wash them and bring them to a Bible study group that I know of. They serve meal every time and the members enjoy taking home the leftovers…
    * I also tried to bring back clean paper sleeves and paper cup holders (those things that hold multiple drinks…) to the store for reuse. Since these items do not touch the food, they usually would take it back.

    I’ve also read about how to melt the crayons into mixed color ones as a few commenters suggested. I have been wanting to try it and send those as birthday “goodie bags” (also just read your post on green birthday parties) Or valentine’s day gift… although, I am a little concerned that they would be mistaken as candies…

  36. Naoemi

    Very interesting and informative article. Your tips are very useful.. Everybody should be aware about going green.

  37. Kripaluji Maharaj

    Thanks for the unique idea regarding the going green! I am sure that a lot of people would follow and think over this worldwide!

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