How we tested
Barbecue sauce drips over the edge of your plate and straight onto your neighbor’s shoes. Pizza grease soaks through onto your favorite party pants. A loaded picnic plate suddenly collapses. Most of us have fallen victim to a floppy, soggy disposable plate at one time or another. While disposable plates are a convenient choice for parties, barbecues, or nights when you simply don’t feel like doing the dishes, quality counts.
Our longtime favorite disposable plates by Vanity Fair were recently redesigned, so we decided to revisit the category. We stocked up on eight nationally available, top-selling products priced from $0.11 to $0.54 per plate. Most of the plates we found come in multiple sizes; we opted for plates around 10 inches wide—roughly the size of a normal dinner plate.
We put these plates to the test by saddling them with more food than anyone would probably (hopefully) eat in one sitting—a full 2 pounds of picnic favorites including bone-in chicken breast, piping-hot baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad. With a plastic fork in one hand and a loaded plate in the other, we walked a loop around the busy test kitchen to simulate mingling at a barbecue or party, occasionally poking a fork into the food as if we were eating. Half the plates buckled, sagged, or cracked from the get-go, either from the weight of the food or the stress of the fork. But things really took a nosedive when we repeated the test after letting food sit on the plates for 5 minutes: Some plates practically bent in half as we held them, sending baked beans and coleslaw sliding toward the floor. Only a handful of plates held strong, maintaining their rigid, flat surface.
The plates that performed best in this test appeared to have thicker bottoms than the floppier, lower-ranked plates, so we cut the plates in half and used calipers to measure the thickness of each product’s eating surface. Top-ranked plates were more than twice as thick as poor-performing products—0.7 millimeter compared to 0.3 millimeter—which explained why these plates held steady while others flopped. A thicker bottom also helped prevent grease and liquid from soaking through onto our clothes. We observed as much when we let each plate sit loaded with pepperoni pizza for 10 minutes: The undersides of the thinnest plates were saturated with grease, while top performers still looked as good as new.
But a thicker plate wasn’t always better. Two of the thickest and sturdiest plates tore and melted when we cut chicken or reheated pizza in the microwave on them. Both were made from polystyrene, a plastic that can be either hard or flexible. The flexible polystyrene plate was one of the only products that ripped when we cut chicken using plastic, butter, and steak knives. Worse, both polystyrene products warped or melted when we reheated pizza in the microwave. We favored plates made from thick traditional paper or bagasse (paper made from sugarcane pulp), which were strong, durable, and microwave-safe.
Plates with small eating surfaces or shallow edges were also out, since they were crowded or sent runny foods like baked beans sloshing over the edges. Though all the products were advertised as 10 inches or larger, most had only between 7 and 8 inches of space for food (the rest of the diameter was taken up by the rim). We preferred products with close to 8 inches of eating surface and tall, steep sides, which gave us ample space to pile our plates high and protected us from spills.
After all the spilling, sogging, sagging, and sloshing, we finally came away with a new favorite disposable plate. Hefty Super Strong Paper Plates ($2.99 for 16 plates) were among the thickest and roomiest plates in the bunch. These bagasse plates contained 2 pounds of food effortlessly, didn’t slouch after soaking or warp after microwaving, and kept grease at bay.
We tested eight nationally available, top-selling disposable plates made from a variety of materials and priced from $0.11 to $0.54 per plate. All measurements were taken using a tape measure, protractor, or calipers; repeated on three different spots on each of three copies of each plate; and averaged. Prices shown were paid in local stores. Products appear in order of preference.
Sturdiness: We heaped a full 2 pounds of food (bone-in chicken breast, hot baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad) on each plate and carried the plates around the test kitchen, periodically prodding the plates and food with a fork. Then we waited 5 minutes and repeated the test. Plates lost major points if they buckled immediately and were awarded top points if they held firm over time.
Containment: A good plate keeps all food, juices, and grease contained. We cut bites of bone-in chicken breast on each plate using plastic, butter, and steak knives. While minor abrasions from this test were acceptable because the plates are disposable, products lost points for cracks or cuts that caused food to seep through. We also put a slice of hot pepperoni pizza on each plate and checked the plates after 10 minutes for any grease that soaked through; plates with visible grease on the bottoms received lower scores.