Save Big By Preventing Food Waste at Picnics and Parties (Eat Well, Spend Less)

Our little Eat Well, Spend Less group is focusing on eating well and spending less at summer picnics and parties this month!  I’ll admit that with moving, we aren’t really doing a lot of hosting of picnics and parties right now, but I’ve been mulling the topic over anyway because I hope that, once we are moved, we will be opening up our home much like we used to do a year or two ago, before our house seemed “jam packed” with just our family!

I have a little thing with food waste (here’s my book about how to reduce it!), so I’ve been thinking specifically about ways to save money at summer cookouts by wasting less food.  Here are my thoughts on how you can do that, with a couple of general money-saving tips as well:

Don’t open everything at once.


It’s tempting to open every bag of marshmallows, every 2 liter of pop, and every package of hamburger buns for convenience’s sake, but it does increase the odds of food waste.  There will almost surely be opened-but-unused packages of buns and marshmallows that have dried out and pop that’s gone flat, and for most of us, that will end up in the trash.  I think I could probably sacrifice a bit of convenience (how hard is it to take a twist-tie off or cut a piece of plastic?) to save some money.

Less variety could equal less waste.


I like to have a wide variety of foods available at picnics, but I have to admit that it breeds food waste.  When you have five bags of chips, you’re bound to be left with at least a few half-used bags of chips that your family may or may not like, and that may likely get thrown away.  The same with salad dressings, burger toppings, drinks, etc.

I wouldn’t say to be a Scrooge and only allow your guests to put mustard and ketchup on their burgers, but think twice before buying a bunch of condiments for variety’s sake that you’ll never eat after the guests have gone home.

Don’t toss salads with dressings.


No one likes a soggy salad, but not too many like a dry salad, either.   You can toss the salad with the dressing ahead of time and it will be fine for the cookout but by the time it’s over, it will be a soggy, watery mess that goes in the trash.

Or, you can put the dressing on the side, but then it’s unlikely that most people will go to the effort to put the two together on their place, so you’ll often end up with waste because no one eats it.

I’m thinking that the best alternative may just be to toss enough salad for everyone with the dressing just before eating, and then keeping the extra salad and dressing separate, but handy so that you can quickly refill it when the first batch is gone.

Put meat at the end.

At every barbecue I can remember hosting or going to, the meat is always at the beginning of the buffet line.  I’m thinking there’s no reason we can’t switch that and put the meat last, so that people fill up on the side dishes instead of filling up on meat.  (That’s the best way I’ve found to save on meat in my everyday cooking!)

Serve in easy-to-store containers

I like using pretty glass dishes even when we’re eating outside, but I have to admit that I’m much more likely to promptly refrigerate food if it’s in a container that already has a lid.  It’s a cinch to put most food away before it spoils if all you have to do is put a lid on it!

Consider using “add-ins” instead of “all in ones”

A great place for a picnic - Palmer Lake, Colorado!

A great place for a picnic – Green Mountain Falls, Colorado!

I like sweet tea; my husband has a coughing fit whenever he mistakenly takes a drink of tea that has any sort of sugar in it.  It’s a pain to make tea for both of us, because I have to make two pitchers and it’s inevitable that one of them won’t get used all the way.

But, there’s a simple way to prevent this: make all unsweetened tea and make a simple sugar syrup that your guests who like it sweet can add to their tea.  Just boil a cup of sugar in a cup of water for a few minutes, then allow it to cool.  You can then put it in a squirt jar and your guests can sweeten their tea as desired.  Since it’s a liquid, it will quickly mix with the tea (unlike plain sugar, which you have to stir forever to dissolve and even then it never dissolves all the way if the tea is cold).

There’s got to be other things that would work similarly, though I can’t think of any.

Consider options for keeping food cold

Perhaps one of the trickiest things about barbecues is making sure food stays cold when it sits out for hours.  I’m all about preventing food waste, but not at the risk of experiencing food poisoning!


Consider using a kiddie pool or something similar filled with ice to keep stuff cold, yet still easy to serve – click over to see some ideas from my friend Jen.


I’m looking forward to carefree summer days, and hopefully plenty of picnics and barbecues, too.  I think I can cut costs without anyone even noticing if I put the above tips into practice!

Eat Well, Spend Less – Summer Picnics and Parties

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  1. Ack! Oops – that’s not Palmer Lake, it’s Green Mountain Falls.

  2. This was so great!! I loved all the tips.

    I need to get better at many of these. Serving salad dressing on the side is SO simple and effective… I’m inspired!

  3. Oooh, I love the idea of putting the meat at the end of the buffet and the simple syrup for the tea–I will definitely be stealing both of those ideas this summer. (You could even make a couple flavored syrups (with mint or lemon or an herbal tea bag) to let guests flavor their tea I guess.) Thanks!