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!