Thanksgiving can be an extravagant holiday — when else do you create (and eat!) such an enormous feast? It can also be a wasteful one. I know that if my family isn’t careful, we end up taking bags of trash out to the curb even before the meal has been served. We’re not the only ones, either, since studies show that from Thanksgiving to Christmas, household trash increases by a staggering 25 percent.
My challenge to myself, and to you, if you want to play along: Can my family prepare and serve a Thanksgiving dinner while filling only a small, grocery-sized bag of landfill-bound trash? To get started on this goal, follow these tips:
- Shop at the farmer’s market: Buying as much of your Thanksgiving feast groceries at your local farmer’s market is good for many reasons. You’re supporting local agriculture and farmers, your food isn’t traveling for thousands of miles on energy-hogging trucks, and the goods won’t be wrapped in wasteful packaging. Be sure to bring plenty of reusable bags to haul everything home. I make sure to take a stash of mesh produce bags and reusable bulk storage bags for beans and pecans to avoid the need for plastic.
- Downsize your turkey: I read a sobering statistic that more than 200 million pounds of edible turkey meat is thrown out each Thanksgiving. This can be easily avoided by just buying a smaller turkey this year, or perhaps only a turkey breast to ensure that the whole thing will be edible. Follow the USDA’s guidelines on cooking turkey safely, and make sure to store the leftovers properly and eat them (or freeze them) within a few days, before they go bad. Or — and this might be outrageous — do you really need a turkey this year? Many people I know are way more excited about the sides than the main attraction, so perhaps try skipping the turkey this year and making it all about those yummy side dishes. Make sure to include plenty of dishes that contain plant proteins such as beans or quinoa.
- Turn scraps into stock: While you’re chopping and cooking, keep a bowl handy for food scraps like vegetable trimmings and herb stems. These, along with the turkey carcass (if you decide to have a turkey, that is), can make a delicious stock. It’s a great way to minimize food waste. Freeze the stock in 1- or 2-cup portions and use it as a base for soups all winter long.
- Use oven-to-table cookware: When you know you’ll be spending hours washing dishes after your feast, every dish you don’t get dirty feels like a victory! That’s why cookware that’s pretty enough to bring to the table is such an advantage. I like enamel cast iron cookware like that from Le Creuset and Lodge. It can go on the stove or the oven, and then be brought to the table. Mix your salad dressing right in the serving bowl before you add the greens, and bake the stuffing in a pretty ceramic dish that will look nice on the table.
- Say no to paper: Tempting as it may be to use disposable paper plates when you’ve got a crowd coming to dinner, reusable is always better (after all, you can’t recycle a paper plate once it’s covered with food). If you don’t have enough place settings, ask some of your guests if you can borrow theirs, or raid a thrift store for some extra plates. Setting a table with mismatched china can look charming — just be sure to alternate the sets evenly so that it looks intentional.
- Commit to cloth: In the same vein, cloth napkins are a far more sustainable option than paper napkins. They’re more durable and absorbent, so you’ll only need one rather than several. While you’re at it, you can also replace disposable paper towels with a reusable option. A good transition is Bambooee Reusable Towels — they look and feel like paper towels, and even come on a roll, but you can reuse them many times. Even inexpensive, reusable supermarket Handi-Wipes can be kept on hand to mop up spills and wipe down counters.
- Decorate with Nature: Instead of buying a floral arrangement to adorn your table (the floral industry has a dark, unsustainable underbelly), go au natural with your centerpiece. Keep kids occupied while you’re trying to finish your cooking by sending them outside to gather pretty fall leaves or sticks to decorate the table. Invite each guest to bring a pretty leaf or some greenery from their yard to contribute to a communal centerpiece. Or follow our tips for creative, lovely, and low-impact tablescapes.
- Get guests involved: When they inevitably ask what they can bring to your home, take your guests up on their offer. They could bring their own coffee mugs if you’re worried you don’t have enough to serve after-dinner coffee, and they can bring reusable containers for leftovers so you don’t have to use disposable paper plates and aluminum foil. During the meal, help them keep track of their drinking glasses with wine charms (that way they don’t keep helping themselves to a clean glass when theirs gets misplaced). And at the end of the evening, send food scraps home with those who compost or who have backyard chickens.