How to Pull Off a Zero-Waste Thanksgiving Feast 

Published October 12, 2022
Homemade turkey leftover sandwich with cranberry sauce

Thanksgiving is a holiday that's about having plenty of food for everyone, but a shocking portion of that food ends up in landfills. With a few helpful tips, you can cut down on the food you throw away and have a zero waste Thanksgiving this year. It won't feel like a sacrifice, and it's a great way to show how much you appreciate the work, energy, money, and water that go into the production of your holiday meal.

Don't Overbuy on Turkey

Each Thanksgiving, millions of pounds of food are wasted due to overbuying. According to the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), that includes 200 million pounds of turkey that end up in the trash the week after the holiday. The waste of the turkey itself is shocking, but it's also important to consider the energy and water consumption that goes into raising and feeding the animals and getting the meat to grocery stores. The NRDC says that waste equates to every citizen of the United States turning on a faucet and running it for six hours straight.

You can keep all that energy from going down the drain by only buying as much turkey as you really need. The USDA recommends planning to buy one to one and half pounds per person, depending on whether you would like leftovers.

Only Make Side Dishes People Like

Side dishes are a big part of any turkey day celebration, and every family has traditional favorites that they expect to see on the holiday table. Still, there are some foods that families make because they always have, even though no one really loves the recipes. If your family makes lots of sides, ask around to find out what people actually enjoy eating. If they don't like Grandma's Waldorf salad, there's no harm in skipping it this year.

Similarly, take a look at the potential overlap in your menu. Duplicate items are likely to get wasted. Do you really need two different kinds of rolls or two types of sweet potato dishes? Is there something that feels redundant? Chance are, if you eliminate an item that's covered in another dish, no one will even notice.

Check the Servings on Your Thanksgiving Recipes

Calculating food for a party or big family meal is always a challenge. If you're like many people and make the same foods using the same recipes each year, it's worth looking at the servings on your old recipe cards. You may have eight people at your holiday meal and be making enough to feed twice that many. While some leftovers are good, you don't want to throw away half of everything you make. The answer is to make less.

It's also good to think about the role each side dish fills and whether people may only eat half a serving because they are eating something else too. For example, if you're making mashed potatoes and sweet potato casserole, both of those fill the starchy side dish part of a meal. People may only want half a serving of each, which means you don't need to make as much food.

Stop Peeling the Vegetables and Potatoes

Many mashed potato recipes call for peeling the potatoes before boiling them. When you do that, the peelings are going to waste. Instead, choose a smashed potato recipe where you can leave the peelings on. Yukon gold, red potatoes, and other varieties have tender skins that add a nice texture to smashed potatoes and save you all that peeling time, too.

Many vegetables don't require peeling either. If you scrub carrots and parsnips, they will be just fine with the peels left on.

Avoid Packaged and Processed Ingredients

Packaging is the enemy of a zero waste Thanksgiving, so skip the pre-packaged items as much as you can. Make your own pie crust instead of buying it. Use your great aunt's roll recipe instead of buying rolls in a package. Anything you can make yourself instead of buying will help you skip putting any packages in the trash.

If possible, also avoid processed things. The meal will take a little longer to make, but chances are, it will taste better. Instead of buying sweetened condensed milk, cream of mushroom soup, yams, or anything else in a can or box, think about whether you can make it from scratch instead.

Save Your Cooking Scraps and Extras

While you're cooking Thanksgiving dinner, there will be parts of ingredients you may not use. Don't throw these away. Onion and celery tops that don't go in your stuffing will be perfect when making broth or stock. Put anything that might be good in stock into a resealable container in your fridge to use in the next few days or freeze them to use in the next six months.

The last bits of ingredients are also useful in other ways. The extra heavy cream you didn't need in a dessert will be great in coffee. The leftover cheese from a casserole might be perfect on sandwiches or as a salad topping. That leftover pumpkin pie filling is great in all kinds of recipes. Save these items instead of tossing them.

Use the Real Dishes and Linens

Plates with wineglasses arranged on dinner table in dining room

If you're hosting a crowd, it's tempting to use paper plates and napkins, but you can save a lot of waste by using fabric and china. Plus, you'll get to use those heirloom items you inherited.

Don't worry if you don't have enough dishes. You can borrow more from a friend or family member and mix and match with your own dishes. Another option is to pick some up at a thrift store. Since you won't be buying the dishes new, you'll avoid the waste that comes with their packaging and with shipping them across the country and around the world. If you won't use them again, just donate them to charity or sell them on a classified site.

Have Guests Bring Containers for Leftovers

Using leftovers is a great way to have a zero waste celebration, but how you package them can also be wasteful. Avoid plastic bags, cling wrap, aluminum foil, and other disposable options. Instead, use plastic containers you already own.

Ask friends and family who are attending your feast to bring containers, too. That way, there will be plenty to go around, and everyone can take some of the delicious food home to enjoy the next day.

Remember Your Freezer

If you don't think you'll use food before it spoils, remember that you can freeze it for later. Turkey freezes well and is safe to eat indefinitely if frozen right away, according to the USDA. Turkey tastes best within one year, though, so be sure you label the containers with the date.

Other traditional Thanksgiving foods that freeze well include apple pie, rolls, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and sweet potatoes or squash. Mashed potatoes do well in a freezer if they were made with whole milk and butter. The fat helps them keep their consistency.

Get Creative With Your Leftovers

While a good old turkey sandwich is always great, there are only so many repeat meals you can stand. After everyone has eaten their fill of the standard turkey day food, try some new recipes that use these ingredients.

There are lots of things to make with leftover turkey, including turkey salad, souffle, and more. You can also remove the meat from the turkey and boil everything that's left to create turkey stock. Throw in the leftover ingredients you saved, especially the onion and celery, to give the stock more flavor. When it's done, you can add in the turkey meat, some veggies and rice, and anything else that sounds good.

Let Your Pets Enjoy Some of the Feast

Your pets can also enjoy some of the delicious leftovers if you're cautious about what you share with them. Dogs can eat turkey if it's fully cooked and does not include the bones, skin, or anything made with onion or garlic. If there's turkey meat you don't plan to use, this can be a great way to share some of your holiday bounty and have a sustainable celebration.

You can also make Thanksgiving leftover cat treats with dark meat turkey, sweet potatoes, and even pumpkin.

Show Your Gratitude With a Zero Waste Thanksgiving

Ultimately, the best way to be sustainable on Thanksgiving is to avoid wasting food. Buy only what you need, use everything you can, and freeze what you won't use. You can also donate food to charitable organizations, especially if it's packaged items you won't need. By avoiding waste, you're showing gratitude for what you have and the work, money, and energy that went into making it.

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How to Pull Off a Zero-Waste Thanksgiving Feast