takeout Asian noodles in bowl with seaweed and ginger on side

10 Tips for Zero Waste Takeout

Thank you for sharing!

Time to talk about takeout. Did you know that food waste and packaging make up almost 45% of what ends up in landfills in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

Shocking, right? But stop and think about all the food-related packaging and containers that are used to get your food home to you!

Yet, we are living in a time when takeout food and delivery is so popular, and some families would even consider a necessity in a fast-paced daily life.  

So what is an eco-conscious person to do? If you love takeout food as much as most Americans but also want to reduce your waste, you are probably feeling a little conflicted about this dilemma. 

Consider adopting a zero waste takeout and zero waste food delivery approach! Melissa and I teamed up to show you how to accomplish zero waste takeout and some other low-waste alternatives too!

Tips for Zero Waste Takeout

Be Prepared

When you do order takeout, you can start by reading reviews, such as Yelp, to see if anyone has commented on the sustainability practices of a particular restaurant.  This may be a long shot in some areas, but in other communities, with better zero waste practices you may be able to glean some helpful information.  

Another resource to consider is the PlasticScore Zero Waste Dining app. According to Mladen Gajic, a certified TRUE Zero Waste Advisor and the CEO of PlasticScore, “PlasticScore is a zero waste rating that creates transparency around waste practices, and helps restaurants to reduce waste and improve their score.” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mladen about this new app and how he built his company and am so excited to see this app grow and become widely used!

Call Ahead

If you don’t find information by reading reviews, then you can always call ahead to the restaurant to inquire about their sustainability practices and to make your requests for them to limit single-use plastic and other waste. This may be out of your comfort zone (I can totally relate!) but remember that it doesn’t hurt to ask! The worst thing that the restaurant can say is no, right? What’s there to lose? 

Be Polite

While it can’t hurt to ask, it does help to be polite!  You may be out a little hesitant to ask but remember that you catch more flies with honey, so they say.  If you are polite and friendly, you are likely to get a more favorable outcome.  

Bring Your Own Containers

One of the main requests you can make when calling for takeout is if you can bring your own containers for them to use instead of a plastic or styrofoam takeout box. If so, bring a clean stainless steel Bento box or glass container, and ask that they place your food in your own container.

Some restaurants may not be comfortable with this right now.  That’s ok! Do what you can and keep this idea in the back of your mind for when things return to “normal.”

Clean, Clean, Clean

Your container will, of course, be clean when you bring it to the restaurant but make sure that it’s extra clean and free of any spots, etc.  You want the kitchen to feel comfortable handling your container.  

Say No Thank You to Plasticware, Straws & Condiments

If all else fails and the restaurant is not able to accommodate your requests to use your own zero waste takeout containers, you can at least say no thank you to the plastic utensils, straws and single-serve condiments. Just politely make this request when you are ordering, and if they forget, you can kindly refuse it when you arrive to pick up your order. 

Try a Van Picnic!

You can bring along silverware and cloth napkins and have what we call a van picnic: get take out and eat it in the van! Then it’s nice and fresh, and we don’t need any plastic ware. Or, bring your meal home and enjoy it on your own table. Another great idea is to order foods that don’t require silverware, like a veggie panini.

Skip The Drinks

Skip the drinks if you are ordering takeout.  Since you’re most likely dining at home, you can use your reusable cups or glasses. If you’re having a van or car picnic, bring along your reusable water bottle. This one is a no-brainer and allows you to avoid using disposable cups, lids, and straws – all of which are single-use, plastic, and usually not recyclable. 

Reuse Your Plastic Takeout Containers

So maybe you had a hard day and caved in to the temptation of takeout without planning ahead.  Or maybe you tried your best to avoid and limit your takeout waste, but still ended up with takeout containers. That’s ok! Do not beat yourself up.  What you can do instead is reuse those takeout containers for something new! 

  • Store more leftovers in the containers
  • Pack your lunch
  • Send your guests home with leftovers (I’m thinking of Thanksgiving or other holidays in the future.)
  • Use it to organize crafts, office supplies, or anything small items that need a home
  • Get creative! There are tons of ways to reuse plastic containers, like for starting plant seeds’.

Give Yourself Grace

Always remember that no one is perfect and to give yourself grace! This zero waste journey can be tricky sometimes, especially right now.  Do what you can, of course, but try not to feel eco guilt when things don’t go the way you planned.  You should be proud of all your accomplishments and progress! Just keep going and try again!

10 tips for zero waste takeout over photo of Asian noodles in bowl

Make Your Own “Takeout Food”

What types of food do you like to take out?

I totally agree with the need to take a break from cooking sometimes. It’s fun to try new foods from a restaurant. I think other reasons for ordering out include saving time, not having food at home, and wanting something indulgent and tasty.

Here are some of the most popular takeout items, according to Door Dash as reported by 24/7 Wall St:

  1. Burrito bowls
  2. Chicken tacos
  3. Cheeseburger and fries
  4. Pizza
  5. Bean burritos

If you find you are getting takeout or delivery pretty often and would like to save some money, here are some cooking ideas. These top choices are pretty easy to adjust to a plant-based version and make yourself.

  • Burrito Bowls: Start with a whole-grain base and add grilled veggies, cooked tofu, tempeh, or a mushroom/lentil / walnut mix. Top with salsa, chopped lettuce, jalapenos, and cilantro!
  • Tacos or bean burritos: Start with whole-grain corn taco shells (nutrition tip: look for ones made without palm oil) or tortillas, or whole wheat tortillas. Fill with grilled veggies and/or the filling ideas above, or use whole cooked beans or vegetarian refried beans
15-Minute Pumpkin and Black Bean Tacos
Savory and crunchy – try this new take on tacos for a great vegan meal. It's a quick meal for one, and easily scaled to serve more people. You'll enjoy this easy recipe at any time of the year!
Quick Pumpkin and Black Bean Tacos
2 pumpkin and black bean tacos in blue taco shells topped with chopped peanuts and a lime wedge on plate
  • Veggie burgers: try homemade bean or lentil burgers or prepared frozen ones on a whole wheat bun. Serve with oven-baked sweet or white potato strips roasted with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic.
  • Pizza – You can make your own pizza dough for Cheesy Vegan Pizza with 00 flour, or pick up a shortcut with whole wheat pizza dough to get started.
Vegan Broccoli Pesto Pizza
A delicious twist on pizza – go green with broccoli and vegan pesto sauce. Quick and tasty family meal, once you have the dough ready.
Vegan Broccoli Pesto Pizza
vegan broccoli pesto pizza with pizza wheel
Vegan Mexican Pizza
Try this easy melty vegan version of a Mexican pizza for a healthy meal or snack!
Vegan Mexican Pizza
vegan Mexican pizza

Here are some more ideas for meals packed with flavor:

Cook Extra

When you’re cooking, see if you have the time to make extra. Then you can freeze it and have a quick meal the next time you are craving take-out. You will save time, and save the energy used to cook the food initially.

Preventing Waste in the Kitchen

Here are some more ideas to prevent waste while cooking. Look for any packaging that you can recycle. If you have any plastic bags, check to see your if your local stores have resumed plastic bag recycling and you can save them to recycle there.

If you’re using your oven, try to cook or bake several things at one time. When waiting for water to boil, cover the pot with a lid to keep the heat in.

Consider your fuel sources. Most homes in the U.S. are built to use fossil fuels for cooking. If you have solar panels, terrific! If you have a choice for your electric provider, you can select one that uses renewable sources, like wind power. Then, it may make sense to do more cooking with electric appliances. 

These are some appliances I like to use: electric grill, rice cooker, panini maker, and slow cooker. Other popular electric appliances are a multi-cooker and electric wok.

Something I have started this year is to keep a pile of clean old washcloths in the laundry room. I toss a few in a kitchen drawer and use them to clean up spills and clean the stove and counters instead of paper towels. Not only do we save paper, but the kitchen is cleaner too!

Avoiding Food Waste

slices of bananas on cookie sheet for making nice cream
slices of bananas on cookie sheet

Sometimes I have great intentions and buy more fruits or vegetables than I can use. If you’re in this boat, you can freeze most things and use them later. Berries, peaches, apples, bananas: all great to freeze for use in smoothies or breads: see my post about Top 10 Ways to Use Frozen Food in a Plant-Based Diet also.

You may also have small amounts of cooked grains and beans: these freeze well too. I suggest to label and date your frozen foods so you can easily find them again. What I started doing this spring to take a freezer inventory every few weeks. That helps me find things to use when cooking, and prevent buying more of something we don’t need.

Consider what size portions you serve also to avoid food waste from leftovers on the plate. Vegetable trimmings can be saved to make homemade vegetable broth.

And if you have food scraps left over, learn about composting.

Takeout Take-Aways

Rebekah and I have reviewed lots of ideas to cut down on waste from takeout foods, and ideas of what to make instead of getting take out. Remember, waste in a landfill tends not to stay there. It gets into the waterways and can harm wildlife. And only a small proportion of plastic is actually recycled in this country. We hope these ideas are helpful in your journey, and help us all in creating a better future. Please share any other ideas you have in the comments below:

Rebekah Lara
Rebekah Lara

Rebekah Lara is the founder of Simply Living Green with Rebekah and writes about going green and living clean. As a mother of three daughters with special needs, she knows what it’s like to live a hectic life and is passionate about helping busy women find simple ways to make healthy changes.

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4 thoughts on “10 Tips for Zero Waste Takeout”

  1. Hi Melissa! I never thought about taking my own containers to restaurants for takeout food! This post has really opened my eyes to how just one person can help our environment!! Thank you

  2. Awesome pointers not just on a Zero Waste takeaway but the bit about freezing food to ensure no wastage and extra cooked meals for a rainy day in the fridge.

    I have been trying to go ZW in as many ways as I can and have started buying things that dont come in their own packings- wheat flour, spices, seeds, dry fruits, lentils, rice, etc – I prefer to take my own container and get stuff packed in that. Its awesome to see stores here in India now being open to the customers bringing their containers/packets – earlier it was an issue with the security guards and one had to really struggle to make them understand or call the manager.

    Great article and I hope to be a regular on your website.

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