Anytime we head out the door, we bring our cloth bags, our reusable water bottle, and our travel coffee mugs. But just when we think we have this Plastic Free Challenge covered, friends invite us to join them for dinner at a local restaurant.

At restaurants, plastic is everywhere—from the plastic straw in our drink to the Styrofoam box for our leftovers. Of course, the server always puts that takeout box in a plastic bag.

What can we do? Like the scouts say, “Be prepared.”

Here are a few simple tips for enjoying restaurants Plastic Free:

Photo by Ashley Kirk on Unsplash

First, as soon as you sit down at your table, let your server know you don’t want a straw in your drink. If you need a straw or just like having one, you can find reusable metal and bamboo straws at reasonable prices online, and some local coffee shops that have gone straw free, like Green Lizard Cycling in Herndon, sell reusable straws at the counter. Stainless steel straws often come in packages with a brush to clean them (just check with the retailer to be sure that package isn’t plastic).

Next, if you’re going to a quick or casual restaurant with plastic utensils, be sure to bring your own reusable set. You can find bamboo utensils in a cloth carrier at Mom’s Organic Market or online. Or just bring an extra knife, fork, and spoon from home. (If that restaurant also only serves drinks in plastic cups, you’re in luck! You always have your water bottle or coffee mug with you, right?)

Finally, bring a reusable container from home for your leftovers. This also works for ordering takeout if you place your order at the restaurant, not over the phone or online. Most restaurants will honor your request to use your own container, and making the request provides a great opportunity to talk with the restaurant owner or manager about using more sustainable practices, like packing leftovers in compostable containers instead of in Styrofoam or plastic.

Being prepared takes a bit of practice, but it will get easier—just as remembering to bring your cloth bags to the grocery store got easier. Consider packing a (reusable) “dining out” bag with these Plastic Free restaurant must-haves and keeping it in a place you’ll remember it, perhaps near the front door or in your car.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

As you continue your Plastic Free journey, you’ll find that the restaurant you choose can make a big difference in your Plastic Free success. You’ll be hard-pressed to avoid plastic waste at your typical fast food restaurant, for example.

On the other hand, some local restaurants make Plastic Free dining out easy. Naked Lunch and Sweetgreen use only compostable utensils, cups, and containers, and they have composting bins at each of their locations. Lost Dog Café doesn’t give out straws unless you request one, and they’ll pack your leftovers in aluminum foil and a paper bag. Founding Farmers is committed to providing sustainable straws and created a coalition of restaurants, bars, cafés, and hotels in the DC metro area that shares this commitment. Clyde’s and all the Great American Restaurants also only serve straws on request.

If you want your favorite restaurant to support more sustainable practices, like only providing straws on request or serving compostable straws, let them know! The Last Plastic Straw campaign has handy informational cards you can leave behind with your bill. Or you can strike up a conversation about switching to compostable takeout containers and skipping the unnecessary single-use plastic bags with your server, the manager, or the owner.

Thank you for participating in the Plastic Free Challenge, and if you know of restaurants that support sustainable practices, please let us know so that we can spread the word.

Happy eating.

—Helene Shore