7 Ways to Host a More Sustainable Thanksgiving Dinner

Save money while also saving the Earth by following these sustainable holiday tips.

Thanksgiving is all about abundance. The once-a-year celebration is designed to commemorate a big feast, so it's time to splurge, right? We're all about building an epic Thanksgiving menu, but have started reconsidering our typical shopping and meal prep strategy after coming across a couple of shocking statistics: 200 million pounds of turkey are tossed Thanksgiving week alone in the U.S., according to the National Resources Defense Council. And that's not the only problem.

"American eaters waste about 5 million tons of food (in the five or six weeks) between Thanksgiving and the New Year. By comparison, in one year, Americans waste about 34 million tons," says Danielle Nierenberg, the president and founder of Food Tank, a Baltimore, Maryland non-profit focused on building a more sustainable food system. "That means a lot of turkey, pies, and Christmas cookies are ending up in the trash—instead of in our stomachs." So we teamed up with Nierenberg to assemble your guide to hosting a more sustainable Thanksgiving dinner. Mother Nature—and your budget—will thank you.

thanksgiving tablescape
Kim Cornelison

1. “Shop” Your Refrigerator

All those supermarket sales and coupons can be misleading. "What a steal!" They can also cause you uncertainty. "Wait, do I have poultry seasoning? Better buy another, just in case."

"Our eyes tend to be bigger than our stomachs and we overbuy during the holidays because of sales or BOGO offers that make us feel like we're getting a bargain. We can show our love for our families and have beautiful, delicious, abundant meals without overserving our guests," Nierenberg says. "Open your refrigerator first. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests taking inventory of your refrigerator and pantry to see what you have already before heading out to the store. We all have cans hiding in the back corner we forgot about. There's no reason to buy more of what you already have."

2. Trust Your Senses

Yes, you can still eat food past its expiration date. And that can open up a whole host of additional refrigerator and pantry items to feed your family—rather than feeding your trash can. "'Sell by' and 'best by' dates aren't chiseled in stone; these dates are guidelines," Nierenberg says. "Some products may still be good long after their expiration date. Trust your senses, not dates to know if food is still good to eat." Our guide to expiration dates will help you figure out what they really mean.

Your sense of smell is your best asset to tell if a food has gone bad (if there's no visible spoilage, such as mold). Food should look or taste poorly before it's harmful, according to Consumer Reports.

3. Rather Than Guessing, Employ the Guestimator

"Planning menus in advance can limit waste," Nierenberg says. "A headcount will help you increase or decrease recipe measurements to the correct proportions, making it easier to buy the correct amount of ingredients."

For the easiest-ever estimate of spot-on shopping list quantities, use Save The Food's free "Guestimator" tool. Input your number of small, average, and big eaters, leftover meals desired, and select "Classic Dinner Party." Then swap in and out the dishes you plan to offer for a guestimate of how much to stock up on. We chose six average eaters, two leftover meals, played around with traditional dishes, and received the following list line-up:

  • 6 pounds of turkey
  • 13 ounces veggies
  • 3 ½ potatoes
  • 2 ½ cups stuffing
  • Ingredients for 1 casserole
  • 1 pie
  • 32 ounces ice cream

Once you've written your list and checked it twice by cross-referencing with your current kitchen stock, consider heading to these four supermarkets for the most affordable Thanksgiving staple ingredients.

4. Utilize Items You’d Normally Toss

Instead of throwing away carrot tops, make pesto. Incorporate stale bread into stuffing. Turn those giblets into a gravy. All of these are brilliant ways to "repurpose items that normally end up in the trash to pump up the flavor while reducing waste in landfills. After dinner, make soup or bone broth out of the turkey bones and that mound of veggie tops and roots, then freeze it for later," Nierenberg says.

5. Stock Up on Reusable To-Go Containers

Pack up glass to-go containers ($25 for 10, Target) for yourself or your family so you can share the leftover wealth. If you're sending guests home with food, opt for compostable to-go containers so guests don't have to worry about getting nice dishes back to you. That way, everyone can savor a second round of pecan pie, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole.

6. Learn to Love Leftovers

Once you've scored your share of leftovers, put 'em to great use. "Using leftovers in another recipe following a holiday dinner makes meals easy. Cook once, eat twice," Nierenberg says. Warm and crisp up stuffing in a skillet and put an egg on it for brunch, simply reheat your favorites for Black Friday dinner, or refresh components in these Thanksgiving leftover recipes that are even better than the holiday meal.

7. Donate the Rest

If you know you have more extras than you can handle, "find your local food bank and donate excess or unused food to those in need," Nierenberg says. After all, sharing, giving, and giving back is what the holiday is all about.

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