Take Food Waste Off the Thanksgiving Menu

farmers market haul

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), over the 2016 Thanksgiving holiday in the US, “six million turkeys—a value of roughly $293 million—ended up in the trash.” Producing that much discarded turkey “requires an estimated more than 100 billion gallons of water (enough to supply New York City for 100 days). And when it comes to climate pollution, it wastes emissions equivalent to driving a car across the country 800,000 times.”

These numbers floored me when I read them.

Dana Gunders

So earlier this week, I interviewed Dana Gunders, senior scientist and food waste expert at the NRDC, to find out more. In 2012, Gunders wrote the widely distributed report “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” which put food waste on the map. Gunders has also written the book, Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food.

In our conversation, Gunders referred to several food waste findings published in the NRDC’s October 2017 “Food Matters” report. These stats cover food waste year-round, not simply during the holidays: 

  • “Households actually generate more food waste than any other sector. That’s 322 million of us all throwing out little bits of food here and there on a daily or weekly basis.”
  • Of all edible food wasted, consumers toss fruits and vegetables most, at 39 percent. Leftover and prepared foods rank second, making up 28 percent of all edible food wasted.
  • Eleven percent of edible food is wasted due to consumers simply not wanting to eat leftovers.
  • However, over 80 percent of people reported that they save food to eat as leftovers. “So there’s a bit of a disconnect,” said Gunders. “What I can infer from that is that people intend to eat leftover food but for whatever reason, don’t, either because they save too much or they get sick of it, or they have some other dinner plans or they’re worried that it’s bad.”

I asked Gunders for her top tips to reduce food waste year-round. Here they are:

Tip 1: Be realistic when shopping for the week ahead

“Many of us live out our aspirations in the grocery store to eat healthy, or to cook more, or to feed our kids well, and so we buy all this stuff with the best of intentions and the week happens and we may or may not follow through with those plans. And so I think trying to be as realistic as possible can help.”

Tip 2: Use the freezer

“Almost anything can be frozen. Bread, cheese, milk, raw eggs if you take them out of the shell and scramble them, the other half of the pasta sauce you didn’t use.” Gunders went on to say that when we do freeze food, we tend to store it for the long-term. Instead, she suggested we freeze food for even just a few days. “If we see our freezer more as somewhere to store food for a week or two, that can really help use everything up a little better. Eat leftovers for a day and then put them in the freezer and eat them next week.”

Tip 3: Understand date labels on food

“Know what date labels do and don’t mean. Those dates do not indicate that your food has gone bad or is unsafe to eat. Rather, they’re just the manufacturer’s estimate of when food is at its freshest or peak quality.”

Tip 4: Use up your leftovers and get creative with what’s in your fridge

Over the holidays, judging from the amount of waste we generate, we toss these tips along with mountains of food. “We estimate about 200 million pounds of turkey will be thrown out over the Thanksgiving holiday,” said Gunders. When I asked why we waste so much over the holidays, she said that for this special meal, people “don’t know how much to cook and they’re guessing.”

Our Thanksgiving tables feature many more dishes than usual and cooks generally assume that each guest will eat a full serving of every dish. “So instead of having turkey and a vegetable and rice as your dinner, in which you’d make a certain amount of vegetables and a certain amount of rice and a certain amount of turkey, you’re having many more sides. Or you’re having appetizers before and desserts after, and it’s such a big feast with so many parts to it, we tend not to eat a full serving of everything. And yet we’re cooking that many servings.”

The Guest-imator

This kind of guessing—and the food waste that results from it—led the NRDC to develop the Guesti-mator tool, a dinner party calculator that figures out how much food you’ll need to cook.

The Guest-imator takes into account: 

  • How many people will come to dinner
  • The size of their appetites
  • Whether you want leftovers and if so, for how many meals
  • What you plan on cooking

It then estimates for you how much food you’ll need to prepare for each dish. It accounts for the fact that you’ll cook more than you would for a typical meal, that kids eat less than adults, that salad is lighter than mashed potatoes, and it factors in leftovers if you want them—and who doesn’t? Why else would you cook all this food!

So, I played around with the Guest-imator. To try it out, go to Save the Food and scroll down just a bit until you see the below image.

Image courtesy of Save The Food

My Guest-imated Feast

I had fun using this tool—and it’s not just for Thanksgiving. Use it for other big meals and events.

I tried various menus. For the one I’ve outlined below, I chose

  • Five eaters
  • Two eaters have smaller appetites
  • Three eaters have average appetites
  • Two main dishes
  • Six sides
  • Two desserts
  • Leftovers for three more servings of the meal

While you work on your menu, tips appear at the top of the screen to help you feed your guests more efficiently. For example, “Don’t put all your food on the table to start. When guests see a lot of food, they tend to take more than they’ll eat.” When I chose cobbler (aka, lazy pie) in addition to the default pie, the following tip popped up: “Create individual cobblers by baking in muffin tins.”

I finalized my menu and the Guest-imator then told me how much I need to make, which I’ve listed below. At that point, you can edit the dishes—name them, which I’ve done below for some custom dishes that weren’t on the menu, or assign all of the cooking of all of your dishes to your children and partner.

  • Tourtiere: 4 portions total, 0.5 per person
  • Nut loaf: 4 portions total, 0.5 per person
  • Salad: 5.5 ounces total, 0.69 per person
  • Potatoes: 3 potatoes total, 0.38 per person
  • Bread: 4 pieces total, 0.5 per person     
  • Green beans: 10.5 ounces total, 1.31 per person
  • Stuffing: 2 cups, 0.25 per person
  • Pumpkin curry: 1.5 servings, 0.19 per person
  • Pumpkin pie: 1 pie, 0.13 per person
  • Apple cobbler: 1 cobbler, 0.13 per person

This definitely calculates less food than I would have put on my shopping list. Three potatoes? For Thanksgiving for five? That may sound like famine not feast, but look at all the other food I’ll serve. I did the potato math and it works out for five people, plus three more servings for leftovers.

This tool is SO smart! Please use it! It’s fun and will make Thanksgiving dinner seem less daunting—and you’ll waste less food and save money. I must warn you though that playing around with the Guest-imator may make you very hungry!

And if you have leftovers you don’t know what to do with, go to Save The Food’s “Cook It” tab for ideas. The recipe for leftover pumpkin pie and turkey curry sounds delicious.

Happy Thanksgiving!

10 Replies to “Take Food Waste Off the Thanksgiving Menu”

  1. The Guestimator is a brilliant tool, thanks for sharing! I always under-multiply recipes when I’m cooking for several people. Once a year I have to plan and cook a meal for about 40 people but I’ll calculate for 32. Pretty much all of the food gets eaten!

  2. You are so right about wasting food. This year I will try to make just a little less. However, we do so much with turkey leftovers: turkey tacos, and soup are my favorites.

  3. Fantastic post! It is so SO important to reduce if not eliminate food waste at home.
    P.S. As a French Canadian, it made me oh so happy to see that tourtiere is part of your menu! No one ever knows what I’m talking about when I bring it up where I now live… Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Merci beaucoup! Mon père était québécois et je suis canadienne mais j’habite aux États Unis. Mes filles aiment la tourtière. C’est délicieux. Happy Thanksgiving! (Je ne suis pas sur comment on dit ça en français…aussi, je m’excuse pour mes erreurs. Je ne suis pas bilingue et j’oublie beaucoup!)

  4. This is a great idea! I’m definitely going to be using when planning for our Christmas meal. Here in the UK we also have the excellent lovefoodhatewaste.com website which is good for leftovers recipes and portion sizes – although not as detailed as the Guestimator. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Is this assuming that everyone eats some of each food? In my family it would only work if everything was plated and everyone ate some of everything. Also, I love stuffing too much to only have 2 cups of it for everyone!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Yes, it calculates servings per person. It does take into account that kids eat less, but not that they dislike, say, pumpkin pie (like my younger daughter… I don’t understand it…) or really like something else, like your stuffing.

  6. But I do agree that it is an excellent tool and that it is important to minimize food waste.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      It is! You can just factor in some extra stuffing. The tool is a good place to start though. Happy thanksgiving 🙂

  7. Margaret Kuttner says: Reply

    WW1 poster from Library of Congress
    1- Buy it with thought
    2- Cook it with care
    3- Use less wheat and meat
    4- Buy local foods
    5- Serve just enough
    6- Use what is left

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