Every year we host my husband’s family for Thanksgiving. That means 14 hungry adults and kids clamoring for food. If you’re like me, even with so many people, some food inevitably goes to waste – some mashed sweet potatoes here, a few roasted carrots and parsnips over here, a little farmers market green beans on the side.
Every year, I pledge to waste a little less food, not just because I hate to throw away money and time, but because food waste can be terribly damaging to the environment.
So let’s think about this for a second. What can you do to keep your turkey dinner from clucking up the world?
The Visible and Invisible Costs of Food Waste
In the United States, we waste a staggering 40 percent of our food. Some of it doesn’t get picked at farms because there is no market for it. Some is wasted because of poor and confusing labeling laws (“best by” is not the same as “expiration”). Some is thrown out on cafeteria trays and restaurant tables. And about 45 percent gets thrown out at our homes each year (most of us toss about 24 pounds of food each month). In Massachusetts alone, we send about a million tons of food and yard waste to our landfills and incinerators each year.
This is a big problem because:
- 17% of the people in this country don’t get enough healthy food to eat;
- $1.3 billion per year is spent sending food to landfills in the United States;
- Food and yard waste in landfills creates methane, a climate-damaging gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
While what happens to food waste is tied up in a much larger system of how cities, towns, and the state handle all of our household waste, individual actions still matter! So I’m here to give you a few tried and true tips for minimizing your food waste this Thanksgiving. It’ll save you money, time, and angst – and you’ll be doing your part for the environment.
Reduce: Shop Well, Little Grasshopper
- Buy the Right Amount – How many people are coming? How much is each of them really going to eat? How many days are you actually going to eat leftovers? Figure it out before you go to the grocery store, so you don’t overbuy and waste money. After the dust settles and everything is eaten, write down what you would do for the same-sized group next year while it is still fresh in your mind (it’s never too early to start planning for the next holiday dinner!). Check your notes before you start shopping, so you don’t throw in an extra can of cranberry sauce that will sit on your shelf for a year.
- Buy Carefully – Are yams sweet potatoes? Are sweet potatoes yams? Figure out exactly what you need before you get to the store, and then check on your phone when you’re there if you are not sure. Again, you’ll save yourself a lot of money (and possibly another trip to the store).
Eaten by People: Share it, freeze it, and donate it
- Don’t Put Anything on Your Plate that You Might Not Eat – My 11-year-old nephew Eddie always wants two desserts, though he sometimes can only finish one. As the person who makes the pies, no way am I letting him take them both at once. Come back for a second slice after you finish the first. Overeating is part of Thanksgiving. Wasting pie is not.
- Plan to Share – My in-laws bring their own containers, and we divvy up the leftovers right after the meal. Don’t let everyone leave until they have their doggie bag. Your guests will appreciate not having to cook for themselves for a few days.
- Freeze Leftovers for Another Day – Most stuff freezes pretty well, and you can use it in a variety of ways down the road. Make mashed potatoes into potato bread, Brussel sprouts into quiche, and rolls into breadcrumbs in a few weeks. The turkey carcass can be frozen and made into soup, or you can give it to someone who will use it if you don’t like turkey soup. If you are really desperate, one of my heroes, Governor Dukakis, accepts turkey carcasses and eats turkey soup all year. Don’t waste it – send it to him!
- Donate – If you do have unopened (cranberry sauce) or untouched food (vegetables you won’t use) that is not part of your usual non-Thanksgiving diet, look into donating it to a local food rescue organization or food pantry. However, make sure you call ahead to find out their hours and eligibility requirements (they don’t want your aunt’s green bean casserole – no one does).
Eaten by Animals
- A Real Doggy Bag — Anything you can feed to your pets? Does anyone in your neighborhood raise chickens? Or pigs? Any farms that accept food waste? I bring any spoiled milk I have to my brother’s chickens. This is not a solution that is going to work for most households, but it is something to consider.
In the meantime, buy less, eat more, share more, feed your pets, and everyone at the Zero Waste Project hopes you have a very Happy Thanksgiving!