Maybe it’s food—like turkey (or vegan equivalent), pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, rolls… Just thinking about these holiday favorites is enough to get your mouth watering.
Or maybe your loved ones are the first to come to your mind. Gathering with family and friends is a precious opportunity, especially in our busy lives these days.
Whether you picture a large table surrounded by family or a small, cozy gathering, here’s one thing you probably don’t picture:
But unfortunately, that’s where far too much of our Thanksgiving feasts end up.
First, this isn’t a problem that only appears around the holidays. Year-round, an estimated ⅓ of consumable food is wasted. But studies show a pattern of increased waste around the holidays.
WasteDive estimates that Americans throw away over 350 million pounds of food every Thanksgiving. This includes almost 35% of that laboriously roasted turkey.
In a season when gratitude comes to center stage, it seems ironic that food waste is often at a high.
Here are just a few factors that contribute to holiday food waste:
Throwing away food is more than just a sad result for the farmers who grew all those lovely yams. It has a negative impact on our wallets, our environment, and can even affect our stress levels.
When food is wasted, nobody wins.
We waste time and money that could go elsewhere.
Wasted food can cost a family$1800 a year—and that doesn’t include the time spent shopping, storing, preparing, and cleaning up. Especially during the holidays, our time, money, and energy are better spent on other things.
We contribute to landfill pollution and harmful methane emissions.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency found that food is the largest single source of community waste. And while we may imagine our scraps nourishing the planet, this simply doesn’t happen in landfills. In fact, food in landfills decomposes differently and creates methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.
And we may find ourselves feeling more stressed than ever.
Overstuffed fridges, endless grocery lists, and frequent cleaning sessions can add to the mental weight we feel around the holidays. This makes it harder for us to find downtime and unwind.
So what can we do to end the cycle and cut down on waste—while still savoring our Thanksgiving favorites?
Everyone’s situation is different, but each of these tips can be adapted to fit your situation. Try a few and you’ll be amazed at what a difference it makes!
You’ve heard us talk about the importance of planning before. It’s key to a zero-waste lifestyle. And Thanksgiving meals are no exception!
Before Turkey Day arrives, take some time to strategize. Figure out who’s coming, what dishes you’ll prepare, and what you need. Be sure to check for ingredients you already have at home.
A great tool for figuring out quantity is Guestimate, which lets you customize a meal plan and shows you how much food you need for your guests.
As you select your recipes for the Thanksgiving meal, look for ingredient overlap. Does one recipe call for half a carton of cream? Look for another recipe that will allow you to use up the other half.
If you have leftover ingredients, try to do preparation while you have them out. This could mean chopping and storing that half onion so it’s ready to go. When ingredients are pre-prepared, you’re more likely to use them later.
If you’re hosting a meal, consider inviting guests to bring a side dish to share. This helps spread out the work and limits the ingredients any one person needs to buy and store.
Another benefit of potluck meals is reducing stress for the host. You get to sample everyone’s favorites and enjoy dishes you didn’t have to make yourself!
Of course, it’s just as easy to waste plant-based foods if you’re not mindful. But emphasizing plant-based options helps decrease your environmental impact. And if you buy local produce, you shrink your carbon footprint even further!
In general, plant-based foods create fewer emissions and need fewer resources to produce. And the sky’s the limit when it comes to crafting delicious plant-free dishes. Why not try stuffed acorn squash or lentil loaf alongside the traditional turkey?
When we’re surrounded by mouth-watering food, it’s easy to take more than we can really eat. And once plated food is half-eaten, storing it for later is much less appealing.
Combat the “eyes bigger than the stomach” phenomenon by offering smaller plates and serving utensils. This lets guests have the satisfaction of a full plate and reduces the risk of discarding the excess. If they’re still hungry, they can always go back for seconds.
After the meal is over, consider packing up some of the leftovers for guests to take home. That way, you all reap the tasty benefits of your Thanksgiving meal prep. And you won’t be stuck eating the same meal every day for a week.
Store leftovers in clear or labeled containers so you know what you have, and avoid overcrowding your fridge. If you have to go on an archaeological dig to find the mashed potatoes, you may be less likely to use them.
And don’t be afraid to get creative with your leftovers. Turkey sandwiches are scrumptious—but even they get old after awhile. Try combining ingredients into new dishes. One of my family’s favorites is using turkey bones and leftover meat to cook up a hearty pot of turkey noodle soup.
If you know you won’t use everything before it spoils, package it in airtight containers and freeze for later use.
Remember how we discussed the harmful byproducts of landfill food waste? Well, with composting, the opposite happens. Your discarded food scraps can become nutrient-rich fertilizer that gives life to a new generation of crops.
If you have room, you can easily compost your food waste at home. Check out the Hungry Bin which allows you to make nutrient-rich fertilizer; you can then add this “gold” to your soil for a thriving garden in the spring.
If you’re tight on space, many cities have compost collection services to make the process even simpler for you. You can check this handy search tool to find a site near you.
While eliminating food waste is an important goal, there’s an equally important factor to consider: many food storage options are made from single-use materials.
Plastic wrap, plastic bags, aluminium foil—these may be convenient in the moment, but they cost the environment in the long run.
These simple ideas will help you have a more relaxing, waste-free Thanksgiving. And your efforts will help preserve our planet for many holidays to come.
Striving for a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. Thanksgiving is an amazing chance to pause, reflect, and tap into gratitude on a deeper level.
Gratitude promotes everything from reduced stress and better relationships to more restful sleep. When we make space for gratitude, we can recognize all the good in our lives and recommit to positive habits.
One thing we are grateful for—at Thanksgiving and all year long—is you! We’d love to hear about your favorite Thanksgiving traditions, recipes, or zero-waste swaps in the comments.
P.S. Check out our ultimate food storage bundle here. This will have you ready to serve up and store your Thanksgiving dinner in zero-waste style!.
Writer, baker, and lover of nature.
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