Eco-friendly (and Budget-friendly) Alternatives to Takeout

Like many tightwads and environmentalists, I am full of contradictions.  Joy confessed to loving take-out, and I’ve got to admit we’re guilty, too.  Obviously both eating at restaurants and ordering food to go costs much more than making homemade meals from fresh ingredients.  Going to restaurants might not be that bad for the environment, but takeout involves paper or plastic bags, napkins, and containers.

I blame our takeout habit on the baby.  While we used to eat out even more than we do now, these days we have to stay home in the evening hours so our daughter can sleep.  What I want to avoid is what I will call “unmindful takeout.”  Sometimes we don’t even want it, but we end up getting it because we failed to plan ahead.  So how can parents who want to save money and keep several takeout containers from the landfill deal with hectic nights when no one wants to cook?

Ways to Avoid Takeout (Or, advice I should take myself)

1. Prepare meals in advance and freeze them for future use. My husband kicked his cafeteria habit once we started making burritos and freezing them. (Read about that in my cooking black beans post.) I have also made big batches of scones and frozen them for breakfasts. Some people get really into cooking huge quantities and freezing them for dinners, but I just don’t like the idea of eating frozen food for dinner. Hence my restaurant problem.

2. Buy more convenience foods. I used to avoid almost all convenience foods until I realized that being such a whole foods purist is what was sending me out to dine. Buying a few convenience items keeps me out of the restaurants and saves me money. On the down side, buying more pre-packaged foods is not any eco-friendlier than getting takeout in disposable containers.

3. Do more food prep during the day or on the weekends. As an adjunct instructor, I am often home during the day. Dinnertime goes much more smoothly if I manage to do some prep work in the hours before dinner. If both parents work outside the home all day, it might be worth it to spend an hour or two on the weekends to doing a bit of food prepping. Joy makes her own mixes ahead of time so she can whip up pancakes or cornbread.

4. Plan meals in advance. I know some people have great success with meal planning. A housekeeping book from the ‘80s I read as a teenager suggested making Monday taco night, Tuesday spaghetti night, and so on, for ever and ever. I tried instituting a Friday night pizza night, but it lasted just a few weeks before I forgot about it or gave up. I do find we avoid going out if I plan ahead, so I should really work on this tip.

5. Make a list of fast homemade meals. Sometimes lack of imagination sends us to the neighborhood Thai joint. It’s easy to think “there’s nothing in the house,” when really there are always a few standbys we could make without too much effort. Paninis, baked potatoes, or macaroni and cheese from a box don’t require much cooking skill or clean-up. I figured out that spaghetti with jarred sauce costs just .$50 a serving. With the exception of potatoes, all of the items on my “easy dinners” list involve convenience foods encased in that pesky packaging, but at least I can recycle most of it.

When we do get takeout, there are a few things we can do to make it eco-friendlier.  Joy has found some places in her town that use recyclable containers.  While plastic clamshells and plastic tubs with lids (#5 and #6 plastic) are technically recyclable, most towns in the U.S. don’t recycle them.  Portland has one of the best recycling programs in the country but doesn’t pick these up curbside.  Those waxy white boxes have to be thrown in the trash.  Styrofoam containers are probably the worst of all, so I’m glad they’re illegal here, sparing me the guilt of tossing them.  Pizza is a good takeout option because it comes in a cardboard box, and the non-greasy parts can be recycled.  I’m going to make more of an effort to patronize the restaurants that carry biodegradable takeout containers.  Also, you can always ask places to forgo extra condiments and napkins.

If you have any great ideas for avoiding takeout, please let me know.  I’m all ears!


  1. Great post. My husband and I find ourselves in the same boat at times anc usually opt for pizza. The key is really is to plan and prepare in advance. I find that when we cook more meals there is always leftovers to freeze (but I’m with you on the big batches). Or, it makes for a great lunch the next day and saves on time too. We too forgo the condiments and plastics whenever possible. We try not to go over board on the convenience foods but that’s exactly what there for “convenience”. A lot times tho’ there full of salt and not healthy either…so we really just try to make our own meals and make whatever we can from scratch…such as butter, mayo, PB…etc. This summer we’ll be canning and jamming so I’m really excited to keep the harvest going all winter long. Growing a garden helps keep the fast food cravings at bay!

  2. I am looking forward to doing some canning this summer too. I have thougth about canning some convenience foods – like what if I made my own spaghetti-o’s with fresh local tomatoes and whole wheat noodles? Or chicken noodle soup which my daughter loves. Has anybody ever tried this? It seems like you should be able to do it just like you would for canning fruits and veggies right? Wouldn’t it be great to finish the summer with a full pantry and be able to pull out these healthy convenience foods all winter? I have done the freezer thing before and used to dream of a big freezer, but now I just don’t have the space for one and also think of the environmental impact of a big freezer, so I’d like to try just old-fashioned canning. We’ll see how far I get..this may be a little ambitious while I am home with my 2 destructos.

    I have said this before but I would love to see a take-out joint that lets you pay a deposit on re-usable containers.I have seen certain brands of milk that do this and it seems like a fairly simple concept – am wondering why nobody has done it.

  3. Eileen, have you read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver? She has a lot of ideas for canning, particularly tomatoes. I am not sure about canning tomatoes with the pasta in it because of the pH balance. Maybe someone with more canning expertise can weigh in on that.

    Takeout places SHOULD have deposits for their containers! That is genius!

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