Reduce Food Waste This Thanksgiving

Rosemary sprig from the garden


It’s no secret that Americans waste a lot of food on Thanksgiving. It’s a day of voracious shopping and eating, where we yield to overconsumption and throw calorie counting to the wind. We do it for the sake of tradition and in the name of bringing family and friends together. 

But having a traditional Thanksgiving doesn't preclude us from being mindful of holiday food waste. Actually, those of us lucky enough to have a giant feast should use the day to reflect on this privilege. 

According to a report from the NRDC, 42 million Americans suffer from food insecurity, while less than one third of the food we throw out would be enough to feed the population completely.  This Thanksgiving, reducing food waste and plastic packaging can go hand-in-hand. Here's how:

Prep the Fridge and the Bins

Make way for leftovers! The most proactive step towards a less wasteful Thanksgiving is to clean out the fridge, ensuring that no leftovers get lost in the depth of Tupperware containers. This is also an opportunity to take inventory of what ingredients you already have, so you know what you don't need to buy at the store.  

After prepping the fridge, label your compost, garbage, and recycling bins so that guests know where to put their food scraps and trash. Your guests may be unfamiliar with composting or with your local recycling rules. So be sure to clearly label what goes where. 

Plan Out Your Recipes

Plan out your recipes ahead of time, so that you know exactly what you need to buy. It's a good idea to make recipes heavy on the vegetables, as the production of veggies is less water and energy intensive than the production of meat and dairy. Plus, vegetables are much easier to find plastic-free at the farmers' market, whereas you'll have a hard time finding a turkey that's not wrapped in plastic. 

Contact your local farmers to see if they have any turkeys packaged plastic-free. It’s not likely, so at the very least, opt for a humanely raised turkey. The statistics on Thanksgiving turkeys are frightening. The USDA estimates that 35% of turkeys produced for consumers are not consumed. Don’t buy more turkey than you need, and use any uneaten turkey to make a bone broth. I’ve skipped the turkey every year, and I haven’t missed it one bit. 

Plan how much food to make using this Guest-imator tool, which takes into consideration whether you want leftovers or not. You can be strategic with your leftovers, by planning how many you want to have and preparing to disburse them by reminding your guests to bring their own take-home containers. 

Bring your own bags

Shop at the farmers’ market for unpackaged or plastic-free fruits and vegetables. But be sure to bring your own canvas bags, grain bags, and -if you’re buying a lot- a shopping trolley. All the cool kids have a shopping trolley these days; they aren’t just for granny anymore. 

For items that won’t hold well in a cotton bag, bring your own reusable container. I have procured plastic-free cheeses, olives, and pickles from my local market, and carried them home in repurposed pasta sauce jars. Breads do well in cotton bags, but for pies, just bring your own dish. 

Reusable glass container for leftovers

Make Staples Ahead of Time

Take the stress out of Thanksgiving cooking by making some of the staples - like sauces, seasonings, pastry dough, and purees- ahead of time. This will also minimize the chances that you’ll have to pick up plastic-packaged ingredients at the grocery store last minute. 

You can easily make pumpkin puree in a pressure cooker and use it in the pie. Anything fermented can be made months beforehand, and are delicious additions to traditional recipes. The Zero Waste Chef has an awesome list of make-ahead staples for Thanksgiving, and I highly recommend learning her sourdough methods. 

The Table Decor

Nothing says Thanksgiving like a table adorned with tastefully scattered organic matter. Create a plastic-free cornucopia with pumpkins, gourds, dried corn, acorns, and a few unscented beeswax candles. 

Use reusable tableware, also known as tableware. If you don’t have enough dishes, ask your guests to bring their own, or pick some up at just about any consignment shop. Same goes for cups and wine glasses. If you’re concerned about dish duty, ask your guests to help out. Use cloth napkins, and do a heaping load of laundry the next day. 

Make a Plan for the Leftovers

Nobody is going to turn down all the delicious food you've made. Again, remind guests to bring their own take home containers. If you’re stuck with the leftovers, you get to take a few days off of cooking. Pie for breakfast! Or just stick everything in the freezer for a later date.


How do you plan to celebrate Thanksgiving, and what are you doing to reduce food waste? 

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