Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Disposable Free Party

A disposable (and plastic) free party?  It CAN be done!  I was so intimidated by the concept, but so inspired by some like-minded mamas on an online forum I frequent.  If they could do it, why couldn't I?  I decided to put my fears aside and give it a try.  With careful planning and a few ideas to navigate clean-up, it was shockingly easy to pull off, and I'm excited to share how it is possible...

After scouring the web for eco-friendly disposable options for my daughter's birthday party, and finding out that even biodegradable utensils still contained plastic, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  I found some wooden utensils, and some plates made from fallen leaves, etc... but in the end, I could not convince myself to pay such steep prices for things that would just be used once and thrown away.  I also laughed at the thought of myself explaining to guests that the plates were made of fallen palm leaves, and the forks from sustainably harvested wood.  I realize that some people may not have the kind of supplies I had on hand to initially pull this off all at once, but if you like to entertain, it is certainly worth considering investing in things here and there that can be used over and over, rather than throwing your money away on what is essentially trash after a single use.


Faced with the daunting task of serving appetizers and dinner to 45 guests, including 15 children, I began to assess my stash of dishes, silverware, napkins and potential glassware.  Before I even began taking inventory, I decided that even if it meant going to some yard sales, thrift stores, or even a  dollar store to get some additional stoneware plates, I'd rather purchase things I could have and use forever.  Thanks to the fact that our large dishes didn't fit in the dishwasher here when we moved in (forcing us to purchase another set), I had a substantial amount of dishes.  After years of entertaining, I was fortunate enough to have ample appetizer plates and bamboo trays that could double as plates for the kids.  Since we've been using unpaper towels and cloth napkins for years now, I even had a nice set of cloth cocktail napkins with just enough for everyone.  The final piece was glassware.  In addition to wine glasses, I used mason jars for drinks set up outside on a table by the beverage coolers.  Since I occasionally can our food, I did have a hefty stash of them, but decided to invest in one set of smaller jars that I knew could not only be reused for entertaining, but obviously everyday as well.  The $7.99 I spent on those jars was the only money spent on servingware, which was far less than purchasing even non-ecofriendly options of everything for 45 guests.

I felt the jars could stand up to use by children, but one sleepless night left me worrying about toddlers who may not be ready to drink out of traditional glasses yet.  This problem was solved by a quick email to all the parents, explaining that I was trying to keep waste to a minimum, and while I was providing water, homemade iced tea, and lemonade, they would be served in large glass jugs and jars - not juice boxes or plastic bottles.  I asked for any parents of small children to please bring their own sippy cups, and they happily obliged.

The only thing I was going to be slightly short on and unwilling to invest more in was silverware. For 9 years the extra stainless steel set I registered for at our wedding have sat in a box, and I was so excited to finally use them!  But even with salad forks and dinner forks, that only gave me 40 forks and 20 knives.  This led me to the next step of the planning process, which ended up being a lifesaver and what really enabled me to pull it off so easily.


I set up a station in the kitchen, right next to the counter on a rolling cart.  There was a tub for dirty dishes, with a sign pointing to the trash below, asking guests to please scrape their plates in the trash before putting them in the tub.  There was an additional labeled tub next to it for silverware, so I could access it easily and wash it if necessary to replenish my borderline adequate supply.  I had another sign next to the tubs for people to put their glasses on the cart, and finally, I hooked a fabric grocery bag to the handle of the drawer on the cart, and pinned a sign to it for "dirty napkins." 

All of the guests happily brought their dishes in and scraped them, and the fact that I didn't have to navigate through a stack of plates with stuff stuck to the bottom as well as the top made loading them in the dishwasher a snap.  I made sure my dishwasher was empty when the party began, and had planned to run a load of tiny appetizer plates while the entrees were being served, but some kind friends ended up washing that round for me by hand.  Nearly all the remaining dinner dishes fit in one load, and most of my serving platters are dishwasher safe, so I rinsed everything that would fit and stacked it and just ran those later.  All the jars (glasses) fit among the two loads.  So that was it - two loads in the dishwasher including some of my serving platters.  Easy peasy!

I almost didn't even need to replenish the silverware, and out of my 48 cocktail napkins, 18 were actually used.  I think when people are made aware of what they are using, that need to grab a stack of paper napkins diminishes, as does the drive to grab a paper plate and plastic fork, ditch it, and just grab another for more food.  We also provided a set of TV tables out on the deck (borrowed from my parents) and as many surfaces as we could to allow people to abandon their things and return to them later if they wanted.

I kept wondering what percentage of guests would think I was totally OCD and insane vs. who would think I was organized, but people were surprisingly accommodating and happy to do their part.  I only hope to provide those of you out there who may have toyed with the idea in the past the very same inspiration I found in hearing others who made it possible.  I cooked enough food that we lived off the leftovers (seriously - I did not lift A FINGER to cook!) for almost another week after the party, and yet amidst the cooking and the serving, I have to say that using my own reusable items was far easier than I ever imagined it would be! 

Appetizer Dishes (set up days before party)


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