Picnic for the planet: Tips for eco-friendly outdoor dining

Summer 2021 is all about outdoor dining. From beeswax to sustainable barbecue grills, here’s all you need to make the most of a dry day and enjoy a sustainable and eco-friendly picnic

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, right? But of course, that refers to clothes rather than picnic gear. There will however, be plenty of dry days over the next few months, maybe even some passably warm ones, and if we want to enjoy the outdoors, it makes sense to have an eco-friendly picnic kit packed up and ready to go.

It goes without saying that eliminating single-use plastic is better for the planet, so disposable plastic cups, plates, cutlery and straws are absolutely out. Reusables are in. And chances are, you have everything you need for a picnic right in your own home.

“I try to use what I have in the house,” says public relations consultant Tara O’Connor, who recently launched online shop thedesignedtable.com. “We always have old blankets and cushions, and over the years I have put them away for picnics rather than dispose of them. I pick picnic glasses up in M&S or Zara Home and have them for years. Put them away after each summer and you will have them for ever.”

Anyone who follows O’Connor on social media can visualise how Instagram-friendly her picnicscape is likely to be, and if you’re happy to pile up the car with soft furnishings, it will certainly transform an outdoor setting for a rather special, socially distanced meeting with friends.

Pikiniki orange cotton picnic blanket, €78, Oliver Bonas
Pikiniki orange cotton picnic blanket, €78, Oliver Bonas
M&S Madeira fire pit, €403
M&S Madeira fire pit, €403
M&S velvet embroidered bee cushion, €20
M&S velvet embroidered bee cushion, €20
Vin Bouquet set of four straight metal straws & brush, €8.50
Vin Bouquet set of four straight metal straws & brush, €8.50

Simone Cullen, who recently launched Project Picnic, a click-and-collect picnic kit for four, says if it’s a celebration, you should go wild. She recently saw someone with a pink gazebo and a table for six laid for a full lunch in the Phoenix Park.

“Why not be extra? Bring bunting, bring costumes – just bring it all home when you’re done,” she says. “Flying Elephant Productions are doing a fabulous fold-up picnic table for two, and O’Meara Camping and Decathlon have loads of more committed options if you are driving to a favourite spot.”

While some people prefer fold-up chairs, if your style is more languorous lounging on the ground, be sure to use a suitable rug.

“I prefer a rug with a waterproof bottom, as it’s always damp in Ireland,” says O’Connor. “And cushions for back support. Paul Costello in Dunnes has great outdoor cushions that are the perfect size for picnics. I put a blanket down first, then the tablecloth on top and some cushions and blankets for more support and lounging. If you don’t have a tablecloth, a hammam towel or a beach sarong is perfect.”

If you don’t have a rug with a waterproof bottom, Cullen suggests you use a yoga mat under a blanket.

Travel writer Nadia El Ferdaoussi, who has spent the past year exploring the four corners of Ireland rather than her customary globe-trotting, prefers chairs for the beach, as they keep you raised off the sand. Otherwise she likes to keep it simple with a blanket.

When it comes to the knives-and-forks bit of the picnic kit, Cullen dives into whatever she has at home.

“The very basics for me are a plate, a cloth napkin, a cup or a glass per person,” she says. “I throw a bunch of cutlery in, held together with a bobbin, and have a separate tote to pile all the dirty stuff into to bring home. I’ve had a small, sharp Opinel knife for years, a wine opener, a bag for waste, a blanket or tablecloth, and ice. My go-tos are things I can reuse over and over. I hoard jars and biscuit tins, and wash takeaway containers to use again. Single use just makes so little sense.”

Weber Smokey Joe portable barbecue €94.49
Weber Smokey Joe portable barbecue €94.49
Thermos 0.71l food flask, €46.50
Thermos 0.71l food flask, €46.50
Mepal wine glass set of two (300ml), €9.50
Mepal wine glass set of two (300ml), €9.50
M&S nautical foldaway picnic cooler bag, €13
M&S nautical foldaway picnic cooler bag, €13
Ecoset in Greystones stocks flasket bottles, travel mugs and a wine bottle and tumbler set
Ecoset in Greystones stocks flasket bottles, travel mugs and a wine bottle and tumbler set

For picnic plates, melamine is a practical option, as it’s shatter-proof, light to carry and can be washed and reused. You’ll find plenty of inexpensively priced options in Stock, Dunnes and M&S. However, if you’re looking to be even more eco-conscious, you could opt for bamboo tableware, which has the rigidity of plastic but is also compostable. Bear in mind, it is not as straightforward as it sounds, as some bamboo tableware can contain food-grade melamine binder, particularly if it is brightly coloured. Stainless steel is another good option; thali trays are particularly suited to picnics, or you could go for classic enamel plates, which you can pick up in camping shops.

“I really love the large melamine platters by Carolyn Donnelly, and the Army Supply Shop on Capel Street for tin plates and lunchboxes,” says Cullen. “I go to charity shops for old plates and crystal glasses. Nothing makes a picnic more special than crystal. I’m not a major made-to-measure picnic basket person, I assemble mine by the picnic I’m having – a snack on the beach after a hike, or something planned in the park at a picnic bench with a gang and a linen tablecloth. I have this one battered and obnoxiously colourful bag I picked up in Sri Lanka that fits all my life’s possessions, so it’s perfect. I fill it with all I need and when I get home, I wash everything and put it back in the bag ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

El Ferdaoussi says Regatta’s camping gear works well for both picnics and camping holidays.

“They’ve got bamboo dining sets, picnic rugs and tables, flasks and anything else you might need. And Irish sustainable brand Narcis’sips is brilliant for reusable bottles and tumblers. I use insulated bottles and cups to keep wine chilled.”

Eddington’s Lambourn four-person picnic hamper, €159
Eddington’s Lambourn four-person picnic hamper, €159
M&S lemons picnic blanket, €13
M&S lemons picnic blanket, €13
Sundrift bamboo cutlery set €19.99
Sundrift bamboo cutlery set €19.99
Narcis’sips bottles range from €15 plus postage, with a 10 per cent discount using code “Thankyou!”
Narcis’sips bottles range from €15 plus postage, with a 10 per cent discount using code “Thankyou!”
Flying Elephant Productions fold-up picnic table for two, €49.99
Flying Elephant Productions fold-up picnic table for two, €49.99

Other Irish brands include Ecoset in Greystones, which stocks flasket bottles, travel mugs and a wine bottle and tumbler set, which it will engrave with your name for a small additional fee.

While most of us raid the contents of our fridge for an impromptu al-fresco meal, for some, the prospect of barbecuing is a call from the wild. Weber’s nifty Go-Anywhere portable charcoal barbecue will do the job if you have the time to let the coals cool, but disposable foil barbecues, which are single use and non-recyclable, present more of an environmental issue and should be avoided – even banned, some believe.

“As a total city dweller, I think there’s no space for disposable barbecues,” says Cullen. “They leave scorch marks and could start a fire. I’d love to see municipal options like in Australia. That being said, I’m going to try the bamboo barbecue from Lennox Street Grocer next week. Time magazine says it’s one of the 100 best inventions of 2020.”

The single use CasusGrill, available for €9.50, is made of cardboard, bamboo and lava-stone and is fully biodegradable. It burns for 60 minutes, and after that it can be buried in the ground.

The no-plastic rule extends to food packaging as well. El Ferdaoussi suggests using beeswax wraps instead of cling film and silicone bags for food storage, and says there’s no need to go too fancy; food that does well out of the fridge, such as cured meat, olives, hummus, crackers and crusty bread, is perfect for a picnic. And always throw in a few bags of crisps.

Cullen’s Project Picnic is a feast of pistachio pork Scotch eggs, a roast free-range chicken, salads and a lemon ginger meringue pie, and all the packaging is biodegradable or fully recyclable.

With the kit and the food sorted, what’s left to prepare?

“Pop your wine or cocktails into the freezer to chill for 30 minutes before you leave the house,” says O’Connor. “Wrap some wet newspaper around it to keep it chilled on the way to your picnic and make sure you arrive before your guests to set up your picnicscape and put thought into your layout.”

Apart from that, the golden rule when it comes to picnicking is to leave things better than you found them. It’s the least we can do.