Your guide to a Thanksgiving dinner without food waste
Enjoy the day without killing the planet.
Even if you’ve spent the entire year cutting down on plastic, eating less red meat, and conserving water, you’re probably poised to have a wasteful Thanksgiving. It’s the nature of the holiday. We eat a lot, and that means we create a lot of garbage—and throw away a lot of food.
This year can be different. Here’s a step-by-step guide to minimizing your turkey day trash.
Step one: The planning phase
This should not come as a shock. As with most things, planning is key. But what should you prioritize when plotting a no-waste feast?
Know who’s coming, what they want, and how much they’ll eat
Unfortunately, having an open-house-style party isn’t the best option for cutting down on waste. Kick off your eco-conscious holiday by pinning down a guest list, stat. Then text or call everyone to ask what three or four foods they most want to eat. The dishes that get a shout out from more than three-quarters of your expected guests are the ones you should make. (Obviously, whoever is cooking gets veto power. But if no one else is interested in eating all five of your favorite foods, maybe you should just pick one or two of them.)
A firm guest count allows you to plan portions, which is where most Thanksgiving dinners really go off the rails. We want to create the perfect picture of a table veritably buckling with the bounty of this year’s harvest, but that often means making more food than we need.
Celebrity chef Jet Tila uses the following guidelines, per person per serving:
- Proteins 4-8 oz (1/2 cup to 1 cup)
- Starches 4-8 oz
- Vegetables 4-6 oz
This is per serving, he noted in an email, so “big eaters” should be counted twice or three times in each dish. It’s okay to make more food than your guests need to survive. The aim is to make sure you don’t make more than they want.
For a quick and easy way to plot out the proper number of servings for each of your dishes, check out the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Guest-imator” tool. This widget lets you enter the number of people you expect (divided into appetite categories for added precision) and the types and number of dishes you hope to make, then spits out recommended servings for each recipe.
This might sound crazy, but consider ditching the turkey
Most chefs recommend a pound of turkey per guest. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a bird smaller than 10 pounds or so in your local grocery store, so smaller family gatherings are bound to end up with way too much meat. If you’re expecting fewer than a dozen people, consider some alternatives to a whole bird. You could make a stuffed turkey breast, spatchcock and roast a chicken instead, go with another sort of meat entirely, or go totally meat free—the sides are the best part, anyway!
Assuming you don’t swap the turkey for a giant piece of red meat, you’re almost certainly going to make your meal more environmentally friendly if you don’t gobble a gobbler.
Step two: Pick your recipes with care
It’s easy to open a hundred tabs’ worth of recipes and use Thanksgiving as an excuse to make them all. But being choosier with your menu can go a long way.
No one-off ingredients
One of the biggest tricks for minimizing waste is to make sure you don’t buy any ingredients that won’t factor into another dish. This doesn’t mean you can’t make a recipe with specialized components, but it does mean you should stop and ask yourself whether it’s possible to buy that ingredient in a small enough serving as to avoid shoving some into the back of your fridge. In a pinch, at least Google how best to preserve that food item for as long as possible. It’s possible you can store it in the freezer until another holiday.
No, not those Whole Foods. Try to pick some recipes that use parts of the vegetable or bird that you’d usually toss. You can use turkey giblets to make delicious gravy, or make your mashed potatoes “dirty” (keep the skins on) for extra vitamins. Various carrot soups will taste just as scrumptious with the tops in. The ends of cheeses used in other dishes can be combined to make an indulgent hors d’oeuvre spread. Make desserts with the bruised apples and bananas already knocking around your fridge. Cook and eat your beet greens. If a recipe requires that you throw away something edible, either find another use for that would-be trash or pick a different dish.
When in doubt, avoid meat
No one is asking you to have a vegan Thanksgiving (unless that’s what you’re into). But while butter and heavy cream may feel inevitable, meat doesn’t have to be. Whether you put out a show-stopping protein main like turkey or chicken or stick to sides only, try to limit use of animal products to dishes where those flavors will have a real impact. In other words, don’t put sausage and cheese in everything just because it’s easy. You’ll cut down on the water and carbon emissions related to your meal if you make sure there’s more green than cream.
Step three: the grocery store is a battlefield
All your planning will be for naught if you don’t properly execute your shopping trip. Here are some guidelines:
Stop doing regular grocery shopping the week before
This will minimize the classic pile-up of leftovers once the meal is done. Your fridge should be as close to empty as possible when you make your Thanksgiving shopping trip. It will make life easier while you’re cooking and give you a shot at having well-organized leftovers. You don’t want your turkey day spoils to hide spoiling milk as November turns into December.
Shop in your fridge first
Now that your fridge and pantry is spic-and-span, open everything up and take a good hard look at the food that’s left. Definitely run through your recipe-related shopping lists to make sure you don’t already have ingredients you need. And if you’ve got a big heap of some food item or another left wilting in your crisper drawer, consider making a last-minute menu alteration in order to incorporate it. Remember: you’re probably going to end up ignoring whatever foods are in your fridge in favor of Thanksgiving leftovers, and they’re going to go bad. It’s worth it to find a way to mix them in. Check out these tips for reviving produce that’s past its prime.
Be less picky than usual (at least about the silly stuff)
A waste-free Thanksgiving isn’t just about cutting down on the stuff you throw away. A lot of the food America sends to landfills never even makes it into a fridge or cupboard. We like our produce to look pretty, which means shoppers tend to ignore bruised or soon-to-turn produce, and our fairly arbitrary system of sell-by and best-by dates means that stores often dump “bad” food out en masse.
Since you’re probably doing your Thanksgiving shopping pretty shortly before the holiday itself, go out of your way to pick items that have fast-approaching expiration dates. If a fruit or veggie is going to be sliced and diced or mashed and boiled, look for produce that looks a little funny. You don’t need the sweet potatoes you’re about to cover with marshmallows and brown sugar to be pretty. Aim to purchase all the Charlie Brown Christmas trees of the produce aisle.
For goodness sake, bring a shopping list
You are not as good at shopping on the fly as you think you are. If you make it this far only to wander around the crowded store without a perfectly-planned list, we can’t help you. If you want to go the extra mile, pick a store that allows you to use bulk containers. That way you can cut down on paper and plastic waste.
Step four: Cook consciously
Before you start your cooking extravaganza, set out containers for trash, recycling, and compostable waste. Ready, set, go.
Bones and veggie scraps are your friends
If you have a pressure cooker, now is its time to shine (and if you don’t have one, there’s still time to get one!). Do your vegetable prepping first, and set aside any scraps you don’t plan on using elsewhere. Cover those bad boys with water and make some delicious veggie broth to use in … well, anything you’re making that calls for broth. Gravy is the obvious choice.
Bag up any veggie waste that shows up later in the game along with small turkey bones, then throw them into a pressure or slow cooker to make even more broth. This will come in handy when it’s time to deal with leftovers, which even the most meticulous chef is bound to have.
Compost, compost, compost!
If you don’t usually compost, now is a good time to start. All non-meat food trash should end up in a container for composting. You can keep it all in the freezer if you don’t have your own composting operation. After the holiday, look up your nearest composting center and drop it all off. If you compost everything you can and take care to recycle as much of the other waste as possible, you’ll be miles ahead of most households in terms of eco-friendliness.
Use real dishes, but don’t hand-wash them
You might think you’re saving water, but you’re not. Just use the dang dishwasher. And it goes without saying that you’ll be more wasteful if you serve things on paper plates.
Step five: when it comes to the eating, pace yourself
On the one hand, food is only truly wasted if it ends up in the garbage. On the other hand, you’re probably eating more food than you need—or even actually want. I mean, how often do you not get a belly ache on Thanksgiving?
Americans tend to pack on a pound or two (at least) each holiday season, and it takes an entire year to get back down to your lowest weight. Cut down on food waste and weight gain in one fell swoop by starting off with smaller portions. You can always eat more later!
Step six: You’re gonna have leftovers
No matter how carefully you plan your feast, the fact that you’ll want to avoid the faux-pas of serving too little food means you’re going to have at least a few leftovers. Don’t let them sit in the fridge getting gross.
Make sure you’ve got a game plan
Check your larders for storage containers in a variety of shapes and sizes. If you don’t have such apparatuses, now is the time to buy some.
If you’ve planned your cooking carefully—and minimized non-holiday food in the fridge—you should have plenty of room to stack up organized, labeled leftovers. Avoiding a jumble of tin-foil and half-eaten pies will make you more likely to notice and eat these second- and third-day treats. Put foods that will go bad more quickly in front. If you have a vacuum sealer, use it.
Get creative, then get even more creative
If you tend to throw away most of your leftovers, boredom is probably to blame. Take a look at your bounty on Thursday night and write down a few recipes that remix the most plentiful items, and commit to making them on Friday or Saturday.
The internet is bursting with ideas about this, but here are a few from us. Chef Jet Tila says he loves to use cranberry sauce to replace jam or jelly on everything—try it in oatmeal or on toast! PopSci Editor in Chief Joe Brown recommends Boxing Day Pie. Turkey soup is a given (just use the carcass as a base for stock, then add in some of the leftover meat), and Tila suggests amping the flavor up with a ham bone if you’ve got one. He also likes to use stuffing in place of breadcrumbs when making meatloaf, which frankly sounds obscenely delicious. You can also toast stuffing in the oven to make croutons, and fry up some pancakes with your leftover mashed potatoes. Desserts can be the hardest to remix, but here’s an amazing recipe for turning your pumpkin pie into turkey curry.
Thanksgiving is, at its core, a gluttonous holiday. But if you follow these steps—or even just follow one or two of them—you can enjoy your pie and give thanks for the planet’s bounty in a way that doesn’t help destroy it.