For many, Thanksgiving is a top-tier holiday. It’s a time to gather with family and friends, celebrate the things that are important to us, and, of course, eat. A lot. Unfortunately, that also means wasting a whole lot of food. Americans already waste about 40% of their food, but it’s even worse around the holidays.
Thanksgiving food waste statistics are pretty scary, but there’s a lot we can do as individual consumers. Plus, with the right purchasing approach, we can push corporations to do more, too.
Thanksgiving food waste statistics today
The holidays bring a lot of waste. In fact, Americans throw away 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday period than any other time of year. That’s about 25 million tons of garbage, a lot of which is food. (And that doesn’t even include all the pumpkins we dump after Halloween.)
On Thanksgiving specifically, experts say we’ll waste about 200 million pounds of turkey. That’s in addition to 40 million pounds of mashed potatoes and 30 million pounds of stuffing, according to the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. All of this adds up to about $293 million in food waste.
Not only is that damaging to the environment, but it’s also enough to feed millions of families. And instead, it’s going to waste. So what can we do about it?
The first place to start making an impact is on your shopping list. By making smart choices about what you buy and how much of it goes in your cart, you can immediately start reducing waste.
Check your pantry first
Remember last year when you bought three cans of cranberry sauce and only used one? Or the bag of frozen corn that gets used as an ice pack? There’s a pretty good chance you already have some of the items you need for Thanksgiving, so make sure to double check as you make your shopping list. One way to avoid wasting food is to not buy extra in the first place.
Support brands that reduce waste
To start, consider buying from brands that have robust resale, recycling and donation programs. This might take a quick bit of research, but it’s invaluable. Look into the programs of various brands to help make your decision easier. This is one of the most significant ways we can influence food manufacturers to better manage their food waste. Your voice as a consumer is important, and you can use it to influence corporate waste programs.
Buy the right amount of food
Of course, buying the right amount is easier said than done. Shopping for large gatherings can be tricky. When it comes to turkey, the USDA recommends buying one pound per person. But with desserts, side dishes and appetizers, it’s easy to overshoot.
First, think about how many people are attending. If you’re having a smaller gathering, you don’t need to buy every single vegetable or side dish — just stick to what you know people like. And as much as it hurts to admit, you might not need three different flavors of pie.
For a big crowd, get an accurate headcount ahead of time rather than estimating. For potlucks, put in the organizational work up front to make sure people aren’t duplicating dishes.
Strategies to minimize waste
Once you’ve bought all the food, there are a few approaches to making sure it doesn’t go to waste. From using every part of your turkey to getting creative with leftovers, there’s a lot you can do.
Use all the parts
Lots of food never even makes it to the plate. Think of all the scraps and pieces that aren’t typically cooked or served. Most of them are perfectly tasty and healthy.
Save the turkey carcass and bones, then boil them to make broth. You can either make soup or stew within a few days, or freeze it to use later in the winter. Vegetable scraps, like broccoli stalks or carrot ends, can also go in broth to add more flavor, or be used to make a separate vegetable broth. Vegetable peelings and turkey skin, tendons, bones all add flavor, too, so throw them in the pot and let them simmer while you watch football (or take a nap).
You can also caramelize extra onions to save for a future recipe, or bake potato peels into chips to snack on throughout the week.
Take small portions
Encourage your family and friends to start with small portions, then go back for seconds (or thirds… or fourths… we’re not here to judge). It’s a lot easier to pack up leftovers or to-go containers from serving plates, rather than individual plates where foods get mixed together and gravy gets all over everything. That means more of the uneaten food gets stored rather than dumped.
Store leftovers properly
Luckily, most Thanksgiving foods are freezable. Make sure to properly label and date everything so that it’s easy to identify and use later. Another tip: store food in the smallest, most airtight container possible to reduce freezer burn.
Here’s a quick guide to freezing your Thanksgiving leftovers:
|Potatoes||1 month (mashed)|
|Cranberry sauce||2 months (fresh or canned)|
|Gravy||4 months (flour-based)|
|Gourds (pumpkin, squash, sweet potato)||3 months|
|Pie||4 months (fruit pies only)|
|Corn||6 months (removed from cob)|
Just a note: remove turkey meat from the bone and freeze them separately! This increases longevity and also makes it easier to reheat later.
Creatively repurposing leftovers
Let’s face it: we all get tired of leftover turkey sandwiches eventually. Instead, think outside the box! There are lots of creative ways to use leftover Thanksgiving food. Here are some quick ideas:
- Make croutons from bread rolls
- Use turkey meat in chili
- Fry up breakfast fritters from leftover potatoes
- Stir fry leftover vegetables, including corn, beans, carrots or broccoli
- Spice up turkey meat and use it for tacos, quesadillas or enchiladas
- Bake stuffing in a frittata for breakfast
- Bake cranberry sauce into waffles, pancakes or muffins
- Add pumpkin to almost anything – milkshakes, dog treats, muffins, pancakes and more
- Toss corn kernels into a homemade salsa
- Add cranberry sauce to baked brie
These are just some examples - depending on what your favorite Thanksgiving dishes are, there’s plenty more you can do with them, so get creative.
Minimize the impact of your waste
No matter how diligent you are, you’re going to have some leftovers. Table scraps, for example, are hard to repurpose, and estimating the right amount of food to purchase can be a real challenge. So instead, make the most of the food you aren’t going to eat.
Donate unused food
If you’ve got unopened goods, like instant mashed potatoes or canned vegetables, consider donating them. Thanksgiving is a great time to support food drives, especially ahead of the winter holidays. Check your pantry for healthy, unused canned and dry goods that still have some shelf life. Think cranberry sauce, jars of gravy or canned pumpkin filling. Be realistic - if they’re going to sit on a shelf until next year, donate them instead. That way they’ll get into the hands of folks who need them and won’t reach their expiration date in your pantry.
Compost the rest
For food scraps that went uneaten, look into composting instead of throwing it away. Use the USDA’s composting resources and find a compost center near you, or start composting at hope with the EPA’s introduction to home composting. Organic waste in landfills creates methane, which is a harmful greenhouse gas. Proper composting can reduce methane production.
Just be aware that many composting facilities can’t process meat and bones, fats, or oils, so avoid adding things like gravy to your compost bin. But vegetables, breads and grains are all fair game. You can even compost the paper towels that you used for cleanup or coffee grounds from your after-dinner caffeine kick.
In addition to minimizing greenhouse gases, compost itself is also extremely helpful to the environment. Compost can be used to remediate soil that’s been harmed by contaminants and other chemicals, or left barren due to poor farming practices. Compost increases water retention in soil, minimizing harmful flooding and providing better conditions to grow plants, which further reduce greenhouse gases.
Perfect is the enemy of good, so don’t worry about trying to do everything on this list exactly right. Bite off as much as you can this Thanksgiving, because every little bit helps.
For more information on Thanksgiving food waste statistics, download our infographic.