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How to Reduce Thanksgiving Food Waste?

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Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks and eating delicious food. Turkey, pies, mashed potatoes, casseroles, cranberry sauce, the list goes on and on. So, what happens to all this food?

According to a ULS report, food waste grows by 25% during the holiday season. However, this report is 20 years old, so there’s a high chance Thanksgiving food waste has ballooned since then. Another report from the Natural Resources Defense Council says that waste from turkey alone is equal to 25.6 billion grams of protein, which is the recommended daily protein intake for over 500 million adults.

This year, you can change this. With a little planning ahead, you can have a feast that won’t result in Thanksgiving food waste. Here are all my tips and tricks on how not to waste food this Thanksgiving.

Ways to Reduce Food Waste At Thanksgiving

1. Plan Your Thanksgiving Meal First

We waste 40% of the food we buy, and considering how much food is bought for Thanksgiving, this is especially concerning.

Planning ahead is your best friend for avoiding Thanksgiving food waste. When you plan what to buy, you won’t buy things you don’t need.

Before you go Thanksgiving food shopping, check your fridge, freezer, and cupboards. Make sure to reach all the way back, and you’ll be surprised how much food you already have.

stop Thanksgiving food waste with meal planning

Making a plan and writing down the food you need is also a great way to avoid impulse buying. 

Also, consider how many guests you’ll have and buy food accordingly. If you only have family members visiting on holiday, prepare their favorite side dishes. This way, even if there are leftovers, your family members will eat them later on. 

Pro tip new
Pro tip: Use NRDC’s calculator Guest-imator as a Thanksgiving meal planner, and plan the portion sizes. This app is amazing as it helps you with A-Z meal and grocery planning.  

Plan dishes in advance to use all elements of produce you have. For example, if you’re making a pumpkin roast, use the seeds for a salad and the meat in a pie. Finally, choose veggies grown with natural pesticides to avoid toxic food.

2. Plan Your Leftover Meals Too

People throw away leftovers mainly because they don’t want to eat the same food days after the holiday. But this is a great chance to be creative and turn the leftovers into another meal.

Use leftover bread and rolls to make croutons, mashed potatoes for a shepherd’s pie, veggies for soups, pasta dishes, and more. Or, use potatoes, peas, and beans and make a doggie feast for your pet. 

Turkey meat is one of the most versatile leftover foods. You can use it for tacos, sandwiches, or omelets. The internet is your best friend here. A quick search will give you tons of ideas for repurposing food.

Leftover Thanksgiving Food

You can mix different complementary dishes, such as turkey, beans, and potatoes, and make pies with store-bought dough. You don’t even have to bake them right away. Wrap well and store in the freezer for when you don’t feel like cooking.

Another tip for leftovers is to put them in containers marked with the date and content. Give them to your guests to take home, or store in the fridge. This way, you’ll remember to eat them on time.

Finally, you can go for sustainable Thanksgiving gifts to show your guests how much you appreciate them. But nothing will be more appreciated than a home-cooked meal they can reheat and enjoy at home, so make sure to pack some leftovers for your guests as well.

3. Stick to Your Grocery List

I talked about how important it’s to plan ahead. Check the food you already have and the recipes you plan to make. Then make a detailed shopping list, and stick to it to avoid Thanksgiving food waste. 

You can also buy in bulk. This is an efficient way to shop, but only if you really need something in bulk. Also, avoid impulse buys. I know that pre-baked pumpkin pie in the bakery section looks mouthwatering, but you don’t really need it if you plan to make your own apple and pecan pies. Also, don’t go shopping while hungry, or you’re almost certain to impulse buy and shop outside your list.

Finally, use phone apps to create shopping lists. For example, Mealime is great for meal planning, and you’ll even get personalized recipe suggestions based on your dietary restrictions. 

Or, if you want an app that’s super simple to use, check out Our Groceries. Multiple people can edit the list at the same time, which is great for families.

Reduce Thanksgiving Food Waste

4. Skip the Turkey

Turkey is one of the biggest Thanksgiving associations. But, Thanksgiving food waste statistics show that 35% of turkey meat doesn’t get eaten and is thrown away after Thanksgiving. This is 200 million pounds of turkey meat.

A Thanksgiving meal without a turkey may seem like a travesty at first, but this is only a stereotype. You don’t really need a turkey to celebrate Thanksgiving. 

There are countless meat alternatives that taste like meat, and you won’t even notice a difference. Or, you can opt for vegan stuffed peppers, roasted cauliflower, oatmeal burgers, or a stuffed pumpkin (it’d also be an impressive centerpiece). Plus, this is your moment to shine if you’re a vegan. You can show your family that non-turkey options are delicious. 

Finally, what better way to give thanks than by saving a turkey. You can adopt a turkey from Farm Sanctuary. Or, if you just can’t imagine a Thanksgiving meal without a turkey, buy one that’s organic and grown free-range for the lowest impact on the environment and the healthiest option.

5. Opt for Vegan Options

The resources used for animal products are much greater than the resources used for vegetables. Animal products need between 4 to 40 times the calories to produce than the nutrition they give us when eaten. If you feel ready to have a completely sustainable Thanksgiving, there’s no better option than going vegan.

But you don’t even have to go completely vegan. Even if you only commit to a few plant-based meals, you’ll be making a change. Reducing how much meat we use is one of the most effective ways to lower our climate footprint. 

Vegan Thanksgiving meal

I talked about going without a turkey, but you can also make other vegan recipes. For example, make a no-bake pumpkin pie, or choose one of the meat alternatives.

6. Serve Smaller Portions

Serving smaller portions saves food. I admit I’m guilty of loading up my plate with far more than I can actually eat for one meal. After all, it’s hard to resist when everything looks so delicious. 

One way to combat this is to use smaller serving spoons and set the table with salad plates instead of big diner ones. This automatically means there’s less room for guests to pile food. Plus, you won’t look “cheap.” 

You can also pre-arrange individual plates in the kitchen and give everyone smaller helpings of each dish to start. This could be a great option if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving with your family or very close friends. 

Pay attention to kids. Don’t let them take more than they can realistically eat. Encourage them to start small and take a second helping if needed. 

Finally, you can make smaller dishes. Cut the recipes in half. This is especially great if you like to have several side dishes. Make a half recipe for several or all of the side dishes. This way, you’ll have fewer leftovers and less waste. 

Pro tip new
Pro Tip: Turn your kitchen into its most eco-friendly version, and check 41 ways to conserve water and have a sustainable Thanksgiving this year.

7. Be Creative with the Scraps

Scraps include vegetable peelings, trimmings, carrot pulp, apple peels, herb stems, and more. All of these can be frozen and used in the future. For example, you can use vegetable peels and meat bones to make soups and delicious broths on cold winter days. You can also use them separately: use turkey carcasses for turkey stock and veggie skins for veggie stock.

Food scrap Thanksgiving

Food scrap can stay frozen for months, and you can use it at your convenience. Use potato peelings with a little oil and seasoning, and bake until crisp for delicious chips. 

You can also avoid having too many scraps. Mash the potatoes with the skin on, and leave the skin on root vegetables such as carrots and beets. This way, you’ll have less food waste going into the bin and landfills.

Pro tip new

Pro Tip: Make sure to responsibly dispose of cooking oil or risk clogged pipes.

8. Donate Food

Thanksgiving food donations are one of the best ways to spread the holiday spirit. It’s also one of the best ways to avoid food waste.

Check local food banks near you, and give any extra food you have to those in need. Keep in mind some organization use donated foods to cook the meals themselves. 

Also, food banks love shelf-stable items, such as canned food (for example, cranberry sauce, cans of pumpkin pie filling, green beans, and more). 

Pro tip new

Pro Tip: It’s always best to contact the organization you want to donate to before showing up with bags of food. This way, you’ll know if they are accepting food and what kind of food they need.

If you want to donate a meal for Thanksgiving, go to the Feeding America website or Excess Food Opportunities Map for an organization near you.

9. Start Composting

If you have a vegetable garden, use food scraps and leftovers for compost. Even if you don’t have one, there’s no better time to start composting than the holidays. You can even compost in your apartment. Just get a compost bin, and use a compost starter with your food scraps to jumpstart the composting process.

Make sure to include organic materials in your compost, such as biodegradable trash bags, because plastic bags, produce stickers, and utensils don’t decompose. 

Start Composting Thanksgiving

Even if you don’t want to compost yourself, there’s probably a neighbor, or a farm in your area, who’ll be happy to use your scraps for their compost pile. You can use Find Composter to search for a composter near you. 

How Can You Avoid Thanksgiving Food Waste

The holiday season is the most wonderful time of year. This is the time to relax, spend time with family, and give thanks for the blessings in our lives. 

Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most wasteful times of the year. The number of wasted food on Thanksgiving reaches millions, for both the food money spent on food that gets thrown away.

The time to take action is now. There are many ways you can stop food waste this Thanksgiving. Start small, plan ahead, and make smaller portions. Or, make a big change and opt for a meat alternative instead of turkey. Or, make a big impact and have a vegan Thanksgiving.

Choose any or all ways to avoid the Thanksgiving food waste I outlined above, and give thanks to our planet as well.


Marina is passionate about sustainability and works to help ensure our planet stays as our home for a long time. She takes part in environmental conservation by recycling and not buying single-use plastic. When not writing, she can be found with her nose stuck in a book or trying out new baking recipes.

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