18 Waste-Busting Ideas for Thanksgiving Dinner

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I’m on a panel for a food waste Twitter chat November 15, 2 to 3pm Eastern. You can follow along with the hashtag #foodwastechat and you can find me on Twitter at @ZeroWasteChef. Also on the panel are Dana Gunders of the NRDC, the Save the Food Campaign and Sustainable Table. I hope some of you can make it! Please bring your food-waste prevention tips and questions.

To prepare for the chat, I’ve written some waste-preventing ideas for the biggest food day of the year in the US.

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1. Keep it simple

For this post I did a bit of research into a typical Thanksgiving dinner. I checked out menus on the website of a popular, mainstream magazine site and found them a bit overwhelming. If I were to cook a 16-course meal, at least no wine would go to waste because cooking all that food and dealing with all those leftovers would drive me to drink myself under the table. I would likely give up trying to salvage everything and would end up wasting a bunch of food.

The many recipes I looked at for these dinner menus sounded delicious but also complicated. Searching for a basic apple pie recipe, for example, I found recipes for apple pie with walnut crust, apple pie with oat-pecan crust, apple-cheddar crumble pie, apple crostata (what is that?) apple pie with rosemary and honey. And the pictures! Food porn at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view).

Food porn can intimidate rather than inspire. If you enjoy cooking more complicated dishes, by all means you should do so but I think some of us feel pressured to live up to the impossible expectations set by these images of gorgeous spreads of food cooked by professional chefs, photographed by professional photographers. My food never looks like these pictures and that’s just fine because it does taste good. And it’s made with love (despite my rantiness…).

PLANNING

2. Clear it out

For meals early in the week of Thanksgiving, don’t buy new ingredients for your weekday dinners (unless you have absolutely no food of course). If you can creatively use up what you have on hand, you’ll have the room you need in the refrigerator for the food you’ll buy, the food you’ll prep in advance and for all those delicious leftovers. If you plan to make stuffing and find stale bread, count your blessings. This is the one time of year I hope to have excess bread that has dried out.

3. Figure out who’s cooking

Will you do all the cooking yourself? This year we’ll have a small group and two or three people contributing food. Potlucks are a great way to reduce not only work, but also leftovers after dinner. Made one too many pumpkin pies? I’m sure your guests will be happy to take a couple of slices off your hands. Since they brought dishes to share, they will probably have a container to take some food home in and eliminate the need for plastic wrap. You could also remind people to bring a reusable container to take home food after dinner.

4. Eat more vegetables

Compared to raising cattle, raising poultry results in much lower green house gas emissions. However, people often tend to go crazy at Thanksgiving and buy huge birds they will never completely consume. And when you waste animal products, you waste many more resources than you do when you waste vegetables since, per calorie, livestock require more resources than do crops—the water, the feed, the land, the labor. So, consider showcasing more of the fabulous vegetables in season this time of year—squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, brussels sprout, turnips…

In the Mediterranean diet, meat, poultry and fish more of a condiment than the main attraction. You eat a bit for flavor. So if you do roast a turkey this Thanksgiving, and your eyes are bigger than your family’s collective stomach, you may want to opt for smaller bird. I know eating less turkey sounds heretical to some…

5. Plan your menu

My daughter MK won’t be home this year to cook Thanksgiving dinner for us (she loves to cook—I don’t force her…) so I’m keeping the meal simple and will cook less this year than she usually does.

6. Edit your menu

Do you have more dishes on your menu than you’ll realistically eat? If so, cut one (or two or three).

7. Compose your shopping list

I always shop with a list and I stick to it. This helps me avoid buying more than I need, which helps prevent food waste. At Thanksgiving, you’ll find more tantalizing food and impulse buys than usual. A list will help prevent you from giving into temptation.

8. Assemble your shopping gear

Before I head to the store or farmer’s market I take a few minutes to gather up the requisite number of jars, shopping bags and cloth produce and bulk bags to fill with all the items on my list. This way, I’ll bring home my groceries waste-free.

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A recent zero-waste shopping haul

PREP AND DAY-OF

9. Save the scraps

While you’re prepping, save any vegetable bits and scraps for vegetable broth. Simmer them in water for about an hour, strain and voila—free broth! If you don’t need broth for anything you’ll cook on Thanksgiving day, store these scraps in the freezer and make broth later.

10. Save time

You can make some things ahead of time, such as cranberry sauce and chutneys, pumpkin puree for pie and bread for stuffing. Pastry also keeps in the refrigerator but it can dry out so make it couple of days in advance at most. If you want to ferment anything for your dinner, such as sauerkraut or ginger beer, you’ll have to make this at least a week in advance. So this tip may not actually reduce waste but it may save your mental health on the big day. You’ll need less ibuprofen (see I made it work…).

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I cooked a whole pumpkin in my pressure cooker in a mere eight minutes for delicious purée

11. Make your oven do double duty

While you’re cooking, if you have space in your oven, try to fit multiple dishes in there at once. For example, if you have a turkey roasting, bake your pies at the same time. This helps reduce energy consumption. My energy bills are lower than average for my neighborhood but looking at the graph of my energy usage, I always see a huge spike at Thanksgiving from all the cooking.

LEFTOVERS

Every morning after Thanksgiving Day, I look forward to pumpkin pie for breakfast. Dinner on that Friday is always so easy. You’ll probably just reheat Thanksgiving dinner. Here are some more ideas for using up all those tasty leftovers.

12. Turkey

Turkey pot pie. Turkey soup. Turkey Tetrazzini. Turkey a la king. Turkey enchiladas. Turkey shepherd’s pie. Turkey sandwiches.

13. Turkey bones

After you’ve removed every last morsel of turkey from the carcass, make turkey stock with it. A few people on my Facebook page have told me after they make bone broth, they grind up the softened bones for their dogs, which apparently go wild for this homemade dog food.

14. Stuffing

If you went a bit overboard on the stuffing, you can use it to make something like a panada—a simple soup that calls for stale bread and broth.

15. Vegetables

Pot pie is a great dish for using up bits of this and that. Make it vegetarian or add leftover turkey.

16. Mashed potatoes

Leftover mashed potatoes make a fast “crust” for a pot pie. My daughter’s pastry is so much better than mine. If I need a topping for a pot pie or shepherd’s pie, I’ll use leftover mashed potatoes.

17. Pie

Last year my daughter made three pies and one cake for dessert. I froze the cake. We love dessert but even we can’t eat that many sweets. Your freezer is your friend when you have a ton of leftovers.

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My daughter kinda likes to bake…

18. Wine

I imagine wine goes to waste very little—just a hunch. If you have some red wine left over after dinner, you can use it to make very good quality red wine vinegar. In wide-mouth jar, combine three tablespoons of Bragg’s vinegar to 1 cup of red wine. You must use vinegar with the live mother, such as Bragg’s, to transform your wine to vinegar. Cover the jar securely with a cloth to keep out nasties. Stir daily. Wait. It’s ready when it tastes like vinegar around the 1-month point. If you see a blob forming on top that resembles a jelly fish, congratulations. That is also a mother. Think of a name. To make more vinegar the next time you have extra red wine, you can use this solid mother instead of the Bragg’s.

I am so hungry at this point. Happy Thanksgiving!

4 Comment

  1. Bernadette says: Reply

    I have to confess the apple, rosemary and honey pie sounds good…. counting on you to create a clever recipe for that one!

    1. Oh it does sound tasty Bernadette! ~ Anne Marie

  2. Jessica says: Reply

    Love this! We roasted a 22 pound heritage turkey from a friend who raises them, we hosted 16 people for thanksgiving, and then my family of five ate strictly off of the leftovers + fresh vegetables for 12 more meals (8 days), and I froze 2 out of the 4 gallons of turkeys stock I made (the first two gallons I used in various soups). I definitely feel I got my money’s worth and didn’t waste a morsel!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Wowee! Bravo! I bet it was 8 days of deliciousness too. Thanks for sharing. That’s really inspiring 🙂

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