7 Tips for a Zero Waste Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving is a holiday notorious for overindulgence, there are many ways to enjoy a festive meal and keep waste to a minimum. In fact, with smaller gatherings being planned this year, it’s the perfect time to test out various zero waste strategies. In terms of groceries, it will be much harder to avoid waste with reusable bag restrictions and bulk aisle shutdowns. But with a little planning and creativity, you can cook (and enjoy) a delicious meal without stuffing your trash:

Menu Planning

1. Go Local / Seasonal: Aim to build your meal around local produce and ingredients. Buying locally made items helps minimize the distance food travels to your plate, an average of 1,500 miles in the United States. It also helps ensure that you are eating foods that are in season where you live. Visit your local farmers market or grocery store to see what catches your eye—you can plan your menu accordingly. Same goes with beverages—try to stick to local wines, beers and cider. Eating what’s local and in season not only reduces waste, it ensures that you are eating produce at peak ripeness which enhances flavor. Plus, it’s a great way to support your local economy—small businesses can use all the extra help they can get this year. 

2. Multitask Ingredients. Elaborate holiday recipes often call for ingredients outside our normal rotation—buttermilk, pumpkin puree, etc. As you’re meal planning, think of ways to incorporate these ingredients into other dishes. Used leftover buttermilk to make salad dressings and pancakes, pumpkin puree for muffins and loaves. Also, don’t forget to use up what you already have in your pantry and fridge. Maybe it’s time to use that bag of corn meal you never found a use for. Using what you already have and finding ways to utilize the special occasion ingredients will not only help save money, it will reduce food waste. 

3. Skip Time-Savers. If you can, skip the pre-cubed, spiralized and shredded produce that comes in non-recyclable plastic bags and clamshells. Buy a whole butternut squash, pomegranate and bunches of spinach and kale. Prepping produce from scratch does take more effort and time than buying the bagged varieties, but it also tastes better (no preservatives) and you can avoid most packaging waste. That said, if bagged produce is your only option or it’s more affordable, do what works best for you. You may want to consider transferring the produce that comes in bags and clamshells into a cloth storage bag or glass container at home. Produce prefers breathable cotton to plastic to stay fresh and crisp. Avoid discovering a sad and slimy bag of vegetables by storing them properly.  


4. Ditch Disposables. The most sustainable way to set your table is to use real plates, cutlery, cloth napkins and glasses. If you don’t have enough table settings, borrow from a friend or family member or ask guests to bring their own—though due to Covid this year, you probably won’t be hosting a large group. Using real cutlery and plates instead of disposable plastic is not only better for the environment, it adds elegance to a special meal. Serve dishes out of glass Pyrex or ceramic bowls that come with lids and be sure to mark or tag glasses so you don’t end up with a huge pile of dishes to wash at the end of the meal. And if you have a dishwasher, aim for a full load—it’s more water efficient than washing each dish by hand. If you’re not hosting thanksgiving, or heading to a social distance friendsgiving, come prepared with your own reusables—a container or plate, reusable cutlery, tumbler or mason jar, cloth napkin and something to bring leftovers home. 

5. Turn to Nature. For festive, beautiful decor, keep it simple and turn to nature. Pumpkins, winter squashes, sustainable beeswax or soy wax candles and some local flowers or foliage will make your table look seasonal and stunning. And, you can eat or compost everything when you’re done. Avoid gimmicky Thanksgiving decor on sale—turkey figurines may be cute, but do you really need them? Also, feel free to skip decor altogether. The food is the real star of the show. When in doubt, make room for an extra pie (or two). 

Cooking & Leftovers 

6. Save scraps. As you prep your holiday meal, save leftover vegetable ends, peels and scraps in a reusable silicone bag or large glass container. Once the bag or container is full, make a delicious homemade vegetable broth. Vegetables like carrots, potato, onion, celery, leek, garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms, herbs and corn cobs will add depth and flavor to your broth. Avoid brussel sprouts, cabbage and asparagus which can overpower and turn your broth bitter. Add your scraps along with a roughly chopped carrot, onion, celery and a bay leaf to a pot and cover everything with an inch or two of water. Simmer until the liquid turns rich and flavorful. Then refrigerate or freeze your broth in jars or an ice cube tray for a later date. Broth works well in soups and stews, but also sauces, risotto, polenta and more.  

7. Freeze leftovers. One of the best ways to avoid food waste during Thanksgiving is to keep things simple. Don’t cook a 20-person feast if you’re expecting a more intimate gathering this year. Streamline your menu, half recipes and maybe even cut a few from your rotation...just not the stuffing or dessert, okay? For any leftovers you do end up with, refrigerate a few days worth and freeze the rest. Leftovers are one of the best parts of Thanksgiving, but eating day after day of turkey sandwiches can get tiring. If you’re planning to dine with few friends or family in your quarantine bubble, be sure to send them home with leftovers. Either ask them to BYO container or send them home with a container rescued from your recycling bin (after a good scrub, of course). 

I hope these tips help inspire you to enjoy a less wasteful Thanksgiving. Do the best you can and if all else fails, take a nature walk after dinner to show Mother Earth your appreciation. Maybe even pick up a piece of litter (or two) along the way.