9 Ways to Re-Use Your Takeout Containers
According to a study performed in April 2019 by the Foodservice Packaging Institute on Consumer Perceptions on Food Service Packaging, 65% of adults in the U.S. and Canada use single-use food-service packaging at least once a week. The higher the income and education, the higher the use. Which makes sense — busy folks with demanding jobs, limited free time, and the means to pay for ready-made restaurant meals are more likely to order in than make a meal at home.
However, an unfortunate side effect of that and of having more disposable income for food to-go means … well, more to dispose of.
This has only become more of a concern since this report was first compiled, in a world before quarantine. Less than a year after these statistics were released, shelter-in-place was initiated and restaurants closed their dining rooms and changed their business models or faced extinction. Now, in 2021, taking out has become the new dining out, and trash cans and cabinets overfloweth with single-use disposable containers.
But are they single-use? And should they be disposed of?
We think not.
The attributes the study found to be most attractive to food slingers buying them — being leak- or spill-proof, being see-through — are exactly what make to-go containers more than the single-use they’re designed to be. For customer satisfaction and transport convenience, particularly in an age of third-party delivery service, many restaurants opt for plastic packaging over traditional paper boxes that get soggy and thin-walled aluminum foil dishes that collapse. And these? Well, these are worth saving for multiple uses with multiple purposes, especially since they nest easily for simple storage.
Here are nine of our best tips on how to give your supposedly single-use containers a second life serving double duty, both in and out of the kitchen.
Prepped Food Storage
This is an obvious one. After all, these containers were literally designed to store food. With a good washing, cleanliness is not an issue — after all, they weren’t washed before your initial meal was placed into them; they came straight out of a plastic sleeve shipped in a cardboard box.
The best way to clean plastic containers for reuse is with dish soap, warm water, and a sponge — not scouring pad. A sponge is better at picking up errant grease in the crevices, molding into the corners and absorbing it, whereas abrasive scrubbers will just spread it around. Some are even dishwasher-safe if you wash them in the top drawer and skip the heated dry cycle. They may warp a little, but not enough to become unusable.
You can store food similar to what it originally came with. Liquids should always go in the ubiquitous transparent pint and quart containers used for soup, and they can also hold more densely packed items, like stuffing, mashed potatoes, and rice. Food that needs a little more breathing room to avoid getting soggy, like vegetables, pasta, and salads — or entrées that need to be parceled out more easily, like meats — should go in the rectangular and round high-walled dishes with the snap-on lids. These containers are a meal prepper’s dream, and pre-pandemic, fitness folks would buy them in bulk … and reuse them as you are now.
Dry Goods Pantry Storage
Stackable, lightweight, see-through, and with leakproof seals that come close to airtight, those soup containers we mentioned before are a dream to keep your pantry organized. And at “free with food purchase,” the price is right — especially when you consider that people may pay upward of $10 per unit for plastic food-safe containers. And since they’re cheap and meant to be replaced in time, it’s no big deal to scrawl notes, dates, and other useful information directly on them in Sharpie, or to label them hastily with a permanent marker or masking tape and ink.
For all of these reasons, I love using mine for baking supplies, such as chocolate chips, sprinkles, brown or granulated sugar, confectioner’s sugar, or different types of flours. They’re also great for pasta, dry rice, oats, granola, and beans, especially since their set size makes it easy to eyeball how many cups of your ingredients you have left. Same goes for portion-control rules — you’re less apt to eat a pint of M&Ms or Reese’s Pieces when you know it’s a pint, versus the quart in the bag that goes down too easily!
When making delicate food to enjoy later, sometimes Ziploc bags just won’t do it. Cookies, crumb cakes, pie slices, wontons, pierogies, and anything with delicate edges can get shattered and crumb to pieces with a careless toss of the bag. The rigid sides of those entrée containers can protect your saved-for-later goods, while also helping to keep your freezer neat with their uniform shapes, sizes, and again, stackability.
Because they’re not airtight, they’re not an ideal long-term solution unless you also plan to plastic-wrap them first as freezer burn may occur. But as a short-term aid to keep you from going to town on that whole big batch of handmade goodies? Yep, they’ll do just fine.
Those little sauce containers capable of holding only a couple of ounces of your favorite dippers are also the perfect size for germinating seedlings. They hold roughly the same volume of soil as egg cartons, and as individual little cups, can make it even easier to transplant your plantlings when the time comes.
The larger, sturdier meal containers can also serve this purpose if you don’t mind sprouting your seeds together. Poke or cut holes at the bottom to allow for drainage and voila! You have yourself a miniature version of the beds your plants will eventually go into. And what makes these really, truly great for gardening is that you can use their matching lids as a tray to catch that excess water, keeping your surfaces tidy and your seedlings properly irrigated.
Legos, soldiers, trinkets, and doll accessories can easily get lost in a big toy box when they’re not strewn across the floor like so many stabby land mines. (No judgment. We’ve all been there — even us child-free ones.) Multiple food-storage containers help you both categorize and keep together these small pieces, and when they’re well-organized, make it so that your child has to choose a toy theme to play with rather than just scattering what they come into contact with.
Puzzle boxes can also become unwieldy and stack up over time; I suggest you ditch their original packaging and throw the pieces into these food-storage containers. Got playing cards piling up haphazardly and inevitably falling over to make a mess? Tuck the standard packs into the rectangular containers.
Got a furry friend coming over but don’t want him slurping off your china? We get it. Many people are icky about even washing animal dishware with their regular food sponges, and it’s understandable. And if you don’t have a pet yourself or have one that isn’t the best at sharing, having a couple of the round meal containers on hand can be clutch. It solves the problem of not having a designated guest pet bowl without offending either your territorial animal or the pet’s parent, forcing you to place your porcelain on the floor, or share plates with another species.
And if you yourself are the pet parent, why waste money on expensive to-go containers for those overnight trips with your pal? These plastic food containers in any shape can help you portion his or her meals out in advance, pack them up for the road, and make room for souvenirs as you toss them on your way back.
Plastic takeout-food containers are incredibly versatile because of their high walls. They’re even more versatile for the fact that these walls are never higher than a drawer. Use the rectangular ones as an insert to help keep things in the junk or stationery drawer organized. Rather than keeping pens loose, Post-Its roaming free, or staples, tape, and glue sticks out willy-nilly, keep a designated container in the drawer for whatever you decide it ought to keep divided.
The jars, tubes, and squeezy bottles your self-care products came in are great for liquids, but what if you’re running out of counter space and need to store them? Not all of these shapes are ideal for stacking. But if you put them in these to-go containers, they’ll stay protected from being crushed and hold any leakage that may occur, saving your cabinets and drawers from potential disaster. Flatter tubes that can be stored on their sides like certain brands of sunscreen do well in the entrée containers; jars can be thrown in the soup containers, making them of uniform size for stacking; and things like bath bombs, bath salts, and other fragile, messy, or fragrant items can be kept fresh and in one piece in those soup containers, as well.
Got a spray bottle with a leaky trigger? A canister of powdered cleaner that spills over? Pesticide like ant or roach bait that you really don’t want to accidentally come into contact with? Lean on these trusty food-storage containers.
Use the soup containers as a carrier or catch-all shell for spillover or leaks from your sprays or canisters, or for powdered cleaners, transfer it all into the container, label it clearly, then cut a small pie-shaped wedge shape into the round lid to allow dispensing.
Capsulated pesticides can be kept tightly and safely away from … well, anything, in entrée containers. This is a much more secure way to store them than in the boxes that can get crushed, wet, or just look plain messy once open.
So think before you toss! Just because your meal was to-go doesn’t mean what it came in has to leave with it. Give your single-use plastic a second chance. The earth will thank you for it.
This post is part of a month-long April CircleAround series, tied to Earth Day. A 2018 UN report warned that, as relates to climate change, we had until 2030 to make drastic changes to avoid irreversible negative consequences. We asked writers — and readers — to share news and advice on what we all can do to help, or stories on inspirational women in the climate space. To see all the posts in the series, visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to info@circlearound.