10 Ways to Waste Less Food at Thanksgiving

woman in striped shirt pulls roasted pumpkin squash out from oven for holiday feast

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Plan your big meal carefully to minimize what gets thrown away.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that focuses on gratitude, on being thankful for the abundant food on our tables and the people we love sitting around it. And yet, every year 200 million pounds of turkey meat go to waste following the biggest dinner of the year. According to the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), this wasted meat represents "enough water to supply New York City for 100 days, and a carbon footprint equal to that of 800,000 cars driving from Los Angeles to Florida."

This is an unfortunate and unappetizing fact, and one that proves our society desperately needs a new approach to food. So why not make the reduction of Thanksgiving food waste your goal this year? There are many ways to do this, most of which simply require forethought and organization. Here I will offer some suggestions for how to do this.

1. Figure out how much food you'll need.

The NRDC has a calculator called the Guest-imator that helps you to plan portion sizes more accurately.

2. Delegate the work.

Ask each guest to bring something to the meal. That reduces the burden on the host, as well as anxiety that there might not be enough food. You'll feel less of a tendency to overcook, knowing that others are pitching in.

3. Go vegetarian.

Could you go without the turkey? Give it some thought. A beautiful stuffed pumpkin or squash can make an impressive centerpiece, and anyway, isn't Thanksgiving all about the side dishes? Reducing meat is the most effective way to shrink our personal climate footprints. (If you do buy a bird, go organic and free-range, otherwise you're contributing to the scary rise in antibiotic resistance.)

4. Serve small portions.

Set the table with salad plates instead of big dinner plates, which encourages guests to take less food. If you're a parent, don't let your kid take more than they can realistically eat; insist on starting with less and taking seconds if needed.

5. Don't peel the vegetables.

Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home said, "I let go of my vegetable peeler and have lost the reflex to peel those veggies that do not need peeling. As a result, food prep is much faster, my compost output (peelings) is considerably reduced, and we benefit from the vitamins that are locked into vegetable skins." Plus, it looks nice and rustic on a Thanksgiving table.

6. Serve pickles.

A clever tip from NRDC is to serve home-pickled vegetables (onions, carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower). These can be made from surplus veggies and will keep long after Thanksgiving dinner is over, if they're not all gobbled up. They also cut effectively through the richness of Thanksgiving dinner, thanks to their acidity (hello, Samin Nosrat).

7. Change up the menu.

So often we get stuck on classic dishes that we assume need to be made every year, and yet we don't really like them. The point of Thanksgiving is not so much the food as it is the act of gathering to eat, so make what you want. In my case, that's kicking pumpkin pie to the curb (can't stand it) and replacing with apple crisp, lemon bars, or a great coconut macaroon.

8. Make stock immediately.

After every Thanksgiving dinner, my mom gets the stock pot going. All turkey carcass bits and vegetable scraps go into it while the rest of us clean up, and the house fills with a steamy, savory aroma. Use that stock for soups in the coming days or freeze for future use. It's a million times better than store-bought stock.

9. Share the bounty.

If you had a potluck-style meal, tell guests to take their own dishes home, or ask them to bring reusable containers so that everyone can share the leftovers, not leaving you with an impossible-to-eat amount of food.

10. Find recipes that use leftover Thanksgiving ingredients.

Shepherd's pie, pot pie, and soups are obvious dishes to make in the days following Thanksgiving. NRDC adds that pasta and frittatas are good ways to incorporate cooked veggies into a meal, and mashed potatoes can be transformed into donuts, dinner rolls, waffles, or breakfast patties.