Disposable Utensil Sets
After putting these single-use utensils to the test at a backyard barbecue, we found two sets worth considering.
How We Tested
I’m standing at an outdoor gathering, holding a paper plate in one hand and a disposable fork in the other. I poke at the salad on my plate, and my fork comes back empty. I direct my fork back into the salad with more force, but still nothing sticks. Most of us have experienced this scenario. Disposable utensils can be an asset when hosting guests, when having a picnic, and when things at home are especially busy, but dull or flimsy disposable utensils aren’t particularly convenient.
Given those garden-party disappointments, my colleagues and I wondered if any utensil sets (consisting of forks, knives, and spoons) are worth purchasing. First, we identified the top-selling, nationally available utensil brands based on sales data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, and purchased each brand’s best-selling set. All the utensils in these sets were made from plastic, but when doing our research, we learned of a few single-use utensil sets made from plant-based materials and marketed as being eco-friendly. We were curious to see how they would compare with plastic versions, so we included three: one made from bamboo and two made from crystallized polylactic acid (CPLA), a commercially compostable material derived from corn, sugarcane, potatoes, tapioca, or soy protein. (See “Are Compostable Utensils Really Better for the Environment?” for more information about how to compost plant-based utensils.)
The seven utensil sets in our lineup were priced from about $0.05 to about $0.30 per utensil. Two sets came with an equal number of forks, spoons, and knives, while the other five sets contained more forks or more forks and spoons than knives because knives are the least used utensil. We used utensils from each set to eat Oven-Roasted Chicken Thighs, Bibb and Arugula Salad with Pear and Goat Cheese, Italian Pasta Salad, and ice cream. We served the foods on both ceramic and disposable plates, and we ate the foods while sitting down and while standing. Throughout, we considered how well the forks and spoons picked up food, how well the knives cut foods, how sturdy each utensil was, and how comfortable each utensil was to use.
Knives and Forks Must Be Sharp
When we used the knives and forks from each set to cut and then eat the roasted chicken thighs, we noticed that most of the knives had small, sharp serrations that allowed them to easily navigate around bones and cut through meat. The bamboo knife’s blade, however, was thick and had square serrations that were dull and ineffective, so cutting with it required more effort. We essentially sawed off shaggy bites of chicken instead of easily and cleanly slicing through the meat. Most of the forks performed well here. We rarely needed to poke a piece of chicken twice to get it on our forks. Again, the bamboo model was the exception: Its tines tapered to dull, squared edges rather than sharp points, so they pressed down on the meat instead of spearing it.
The differences in the most important tool in each set—the fork—became clearer when we ate delicate lettuce and slippery, olive oil–coated pasta salad. The squared edges of the bamboo fork’s tines again pushed on food rather than spearing it, but some of the other forks also struggled to pierce the lettuce. When we examined those tines closer, we noticed that they were wide or squared-off at the ends. The tines of our favorite forks had visibly sharper, narrower points. The best thing about using the sharp forks and knives in our lineup was that we didn’t have to think when using them; they just worked the way they should.
All Disposable Utensils Should Be Sturdy
In our first set of tests, we noticed that some of the utensils bent as we pushed down on them, while others were more rigid in our hands. Using the spoons to eat dense, firm ice cream really separated the flimsy sets from the sturdy sets. One especially flimsy plastic spoon bent backward when we attempted to wedge it into solid scoops of ice cream. As a work-around, we had to choke up on the handles for leverage, hoping that these efforts wouldn’t result in the scoops flying out of our dishes. Three of the other plastic spoons along with the bamboo spoon were sturdier, allowing us to easily carve bite-size portions from scoops of ice cream. The remaining two models in our lineup, which were both made from CPLA, were so sturdy that we almost forgot we were using disposable spoons. They gave us maximum control and allowed us to eat bite after bite of ice cream with ease.
Discovering that some of the utensils sets were flimsier than others made us wonder if they would be more likely to melt or warp. To find out, we heated soup to 200 degrees, submerged a spoon from each set in the soup, and let the soup and spoons sit for 30 minutes. Happily, none of these spoons melted or warped.
Good Design Leads to Good Performance
Lastly, we considered how pleasant the sets were to use. The knives in our lineup were all similarly comfortable to hold. As for the forks, we noticed slight differences in the lengths of their tines, which ranged from 3 to 4.5 centimeters, but we didn’t have a preference for shorter or longer models. However, we did have clear preferences when it came to the spoons’ bowls. We didn’t like spoons with bowls that were too shallow. The bowls of some were almost flat and held only ½ to 1 teaspoon of liquid. On the flip side, it was slightly awkward to eat from spoons with deep bowls, which held from 1½ to 2 teaspoons of liquid, because we had to work harder to fully empty their contents in one bite. We liked spoons with moderately deep bowls that held about 1½ teaspoons of liquid.
When comparing all the utensils in all the sets, we preferred those with smooth surfaces, both on their handles and on their heads. The textures of the bamboo forks and spoons were slightly dry and woody, which was off-putting when compared with the smooth textures of the plastic and CPLA utensils. Most of the utensils had comfortable handles, but there was one exception, a CPLA set whose skinny handles had hard, narrow ridges that were slightly uncomfortable when we held them in our hands. We preferred utensils with wide, smooth handles.
Our Two Winning Utensil Sets: Ecovita and Diamond
After all our cutting, poking, and scooping, we found a winning disposable utensil set: Ecovita 100% Compostable Forks Spoons Knives Cutlery Combo 380 Set ($0.14 per utensil). The fork had pointy tines that easily speared delicate lettuce and slippery pasta. Although the fork’s tines are shorter than some of the other sets’ tines, we had no problem piercing a good amount of food with it. This set’s spoon was ideally shaped; it was neither too flat nor too deep, and it held 1½ teaspoons of liquid. The knife’s blade was thin, and its serrations were sharp, which meant that the blade sliced smoothly and easily through chicken. This set’s flat, sturdy handles and smooth CPLA material made the utensils a pleasure to eat from.
We also named The Diamond Entertaining 96 Combo ($0.18 per utensil) our Best Set Under 100 Pieces. As much as we love our winner, some may balk at the number of utensils in the set (380) and its price tag (more than $50.00). The Diamond utensils were slightly less sturdy than the Ecovita utensils, and the forks were a bit less sharp, too, but they still easily accomplished every task we put them through. The next time you have a gathering or want to minimize cleanup, we recommend picking up either of these disposable utensil sets. We promise you’ll be able to focus on the fun you’re having and not the food you’re chasing around your plate.
- Test seven sets of disposable utensils, priced from about $0.05 to about $0.30 per utensil
- Use the knives and forks to cut and eat Oven-Roasted Chicken Thighs
- Use the forks to eat Bibb and Arugula Salad with Pear and Goat Cheese
- Use the forks to eat Italian Pasta Salad off disposable plates while standing
- Use the spoons to eat ice cream
- Submerge the spoons in 200-degree Gingery Carrot Soup for 30 minutes, and then evaluate for signs of warping or melting
- Note if any of the utensils bent or broke during testing
Performance: We evaluated how well the knives could cut chicken thighs and how well the forks could spear chicken, delicate lettuces, and slippery pasta.
Sturdiness: We evaluated every utensil’s sturdiness as we used them to eat a variety of foods. We also checked to see if the spoons warped or melted in hot soup.
Comfort: We evaluated how it felt to eat from each fork and spoon, taking into account their material, size, and shape. We also evaluated the comfort of each utensil's handle.