Written by Grove Collaborative

Sustainable Thanksgiving: How to throw an eco-friendly feast

Last updated: November 13, 2020


Food waste in the U.S. is a serious problem that gets worse during the holidays. Here’s how to have a sustainable Thanksgiving to reduce your carbon footprint.

You know the drill: A massive shopping trip, a flurry of cooking, a raucous feast with the people you love best. Then, leftovers as far as the eye can see. Turkey for days — in sandwiches, in soups, even in omelettes and tacos — until you’re all turkeyed out. Around Tuesday or Wednesday (or a few weeks later, if that’s how you roll), the tired, old leftovers go into the trash, the last vestiges of Thanksgiving relegated to the landfill.


It’s not surprising that household garbage — including food waste — increases by as much as 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. What is surprising is that in America, food is the largest category of waste in municipal landfills, and it releases an enormous amount of greenhouse gases as it decomposes.


The good news is that in 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced an ambitious goal to cut domestic food waste in half by 2030. The feds want you — and every other American — to go from tossing 218.9 pounds of food in the garbage each year to throwing away just 109.4 pounds each.


And the holidays are a great place to start. COVID-19 has toyed with many a long-held tradition in 2020, so depending on your circle’s comfort level, you may be hosting a smaller crowd this year, or you may have more feasters than usual as nearby family members choose not to travel. Whatever the size of your Thanksgiving guest list, you can do your part to reduce the environmental impact of your get-together. Here, we’ve put together the most comprehensive guide on the Internet to help you plan and execute a beautifully sustainable Thanksgiving feast, from conception to clean-up — and beyond.




How to plan a sustainable Thanksgiving feast

A sustainable, eco-friendly holiday spread requires serious forethought. Here are some planning tips for a green Thanksgiving.


Coordinate with attendees to avoid too much food. If you have guests contributing dishes to the feast, keep tabs on what everyone’s bringing so you can plan accordingly and avoid making too much food — or duplicating a guest’s dish.


Make a green Thanksgiving a group effort. Engage your family and friends in a quest for a more sustainable holiday. If they’re contributing to the feast, ask them to bring food in reusable dishes rather than disposable ones. Challenge guests to join the Clean Plate Club to cut down on wasted food. Make sure everyone knows where the recycling and compost bins are.


Make things from scratch when possible. Around 83 percent of food’s greenhouse gas emissions come from its production. The less prepared and packaged food you buy, the lower your carbon footprint. Try your hand at baking dinner rolls, pies, and other items you might otherwise buy pre-made.


Take stock of ingredients you already have. Early November is a good time to clean out your cupboards — chances are, some of the ingredients on your list are hiding in the back.


Choose recipes that will use up leftover ingredients. If one recipe calls for a half container of broth, find another recipe that will use the rest — it could be something you’ll make a few days later.


Leave dishes that are proven duds off the menu. If no one ever touches the jello-carrot salad besides Uncle Don, save yourself time and waste, and skip it — or make a much smaller dish of it. Similarly, if past years have found you up to your ears in leftover mashed potatoes, make a smaller batch this year.


Plan ahead for food storage options. Resist the temptation to buy disposable plastic containers for leftovers. Instead, figure out what you’re going to need to store, and choose the appropriate eco-friendly solutions — which we’ll describe later on.


Clean out the freezer and fridge before you shop. Make room for groceries and leftovers in the freezer and fridge so that you can find what you need quickly when it’s go-time — and your leftovers won’t be as likely to get lost and forgotten.


Double-check your grocery list. Make sure everything you need is on your list to avoid extra trips to the store.

To turkey, or not to turkey?

Animal products require four to 40 times the calories in crops to produce than they provide in nutrition. To sustain a global, largely meat-dependent population, food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050 — one reason why so many people across the world are turning to a meatless diet.


Granted, going totally meatless isn’t for everyone, but even reducing your meat and dairy consumption can make a difference in the environment — and it’s been shown to improve your health, including substantially lowering your risk for heart disease.


  • Consider going meatless. The Internet is a massive repository for delicious vegetarian and vegan main-dish recipes.
  • If skipping the turkey isn’t an option, choose a heritage breed or cage-free turkey — ideally from a local farmer.
  • If you need a smaller bird for a tiny crowd, there’s nothing wrong with opting for a cage-free chicken.
  • Choose recipes that call for little or no dairy and eggs. If you do use dairy or eggs, choose organic and cruelty-free brands.

Grove Tip

How much is one serving?

When planning your menu, keep in mind that one serving of a protein, veggie, or starch is about 3/4 cup. Some guests will eat more, some less. This helpful NRDC calculator helps you estimate how much food you’ll need based on who’s coming and whether they’re a big, normal, or small eater.

Sustainable Thanksgiving shopping

Combating food waste starts with your exceptional planning skills. The second prong is the actual grocery shopping trip. These sustainable shopping tips will help you make the best choices for the environment as you gather the ingredients for your feast.


Buy local and organic when possible. The closer to your home your food is grown, the lower the environmental impact of what you eat. Shop farmer’s markets, or order a box of produce from a local farm offering that service — these options are likely to be organic, making it a double win. If you’re buying a turkey, source it from a local farm, or at least choose an organic, cage-free turkey if possible.


Skip the produce bags. If you can, bring reusable produce bags to the grocery store, or skip the bag altogether. Even though they’re convenient, eschew the pre-cut produce in single-use plastic packaging, which can’t be recycled.

Buy in bulk. Nuts, spices, and dry baking ingredients are just some of the ingredients you can buy in bulk, which reduces packaging waste and saves you money. Check with your local bulk outlet to see if they allow you to bring your own containers.


Stick to your list. It’s tempting to make extraneous purchases — last minute cheese and crackers, a couple jars of olives, an emergency frozen pie — but resist as best you can. You planned this to a T, so trust yourself. You’ll have enough food.


Buy bigger portions. If you’re a food warehouse club member, you can buy larger versions of some of your ingredients. For example, one 46-ounce can of food has just under three times the servings of a 16-ounce can, reducing the amount of packaging you’ll have to recycle.

Paper or plastic?

Many grocery stores have temporarily put the kibosh on bringing your own reusable grocery bags. If you can’t bring your own, you can cut down on waste by asking your sacker to fill the bags up as much as possible, and ask them not to wrap meat, wine, or non-food items in a separate plastic bag before sacking. And some places allow you to bring your purchases outside in the cart and then pack up with reusable bags at a designated area or by your car. As to the choice of paper or plastic, the jury’s still out about which is worse for the environment.


Plastic bags account for about 12 percent of the plastic in America and take centuries to decompose. If you choose plastic, make sure the bags don’t end up in the environment or landfill. Since most curbside recycling outfits don’t accept plastic bags, you’ll need to take them to a recycling facility that works with them.


Paper bags are made from trees or recycled paper. They require more energy to produce — and account for more greenhouse gases — than plastic bags. If you choose paper bags, try to get as much use out of them as possible. Wrap gifts with them, put them down in the garden to suppress weeds, or recycle or compost them.

Grove Sustainability Tip

Skip the single-serving bottled drinks

More than 60 million plastic bottles end up in America’s landfills and incinerators every single day, and those that don’t make it to the recycling bin or landfill choke streams and rivers and end up in the ocean. Instead of bottled water, serve filtered water from the tap — make it festive by putting it in a clear pitcher with some ice and sliced lemons. If you’re going to offer soda, choose aluminum cans — and be sure to recycle them.

How to prepare and cook a sustainable Thanksgiving feast

Eco-friendly meal prep

Prep is where a lot of food and environmental waste happens. Follow these tips to make prep as easy on the earth as possible.


Prepare to prep. Before you start prepping, set out a container for trash, one for recycling, and one for compost. Put them right next to your prep space for easy access. If you have guests helping you prepare, make sure the containers are clearly labeled for your helpers.


Recycle prolifically. Check all of your plastic packaging for the recycle symbol, and find out which types of recyclables your curbside service accepts. Don’t be a “wishcycler” who tosses everything with a symbol in the bin — what your recycler won’t take, they’ll toss in the garbage. Collect the plastics your service doesn’t accept, and take them to a facility that does. Meanwhile, rinse and recycle everything you can — aluminum, cardboard, plastics, and glass.


Easy with the knife, there, Tiger. Cut away as little of your vegetables as possible to reduce waste.


Forego peeling. Reconsider peeling the carrots and potatoes — the skins are healthy and delicious!


Save scraps. Instead of composting your vegetable scraps, freeze them to make homemade stock later on.

Sustainable cooking tips

Invest in a good roasting pan. If you usually cook your turkey in a disposable pan, maybe it’s time to invest in a good-quality roasting pan instead. You’ll be able to use it for holiday feasts forever more — waste-free.


Coordinate stove and oven time. Plan your cooking to minimize the use of the oven and stove top. Double-up in the oven when dishes need to be cooked at the same temperature. On the stovetop, keep the temperature as low as possible to use less energy and prevent over-cooking.


Set timers so nothing burns. Find a timer app for your phone that can handle multiple timers at once. Set timers for everything that could overcook or burn — especially the bread.


Use the vent. While you’re cooking dishes on the stove, turn the hood exhaust to vent moisture and cooking fumes outside for better air quality in the kitchen.

Grove Tip

Clean up as you go

When you’re eyeballs deep in cooking a bunch of dishes all at once, the last thing you want to do is lose your utensils, ingredients, and recipes beneath a growing mountain of clutter collecting around your workspace. Cleaning up as you go will save time and frustration, and it’ll make dealing with the aftermath a lighter load.


  • As you empty each container, rinse it and put it in the appropriate receptacle.
  • When you’re done with an ingredient, immediately put it away in the fridge or cupboard.
  • Use a microfiber cloth to wipe up spills and messes as they occur — or treat yourself to a roll of reusable paper towels for the occasion.
  • As each dish becomes dirty, rinse it and put it in the dishwasher — or wash it by hand if you’re going to need it again.
  • Keep one side of the sink empty so you have room to wash produce and rinse dishes.

Serve sustainably

When it’s time to gather ‘round and pile up those plates, don’t undo your sustainable gains.


Use washable dishes. Avoid using plastic disposable dishes, cups, and utensils. If you’re having more guests than you have dishes, see if you can borrow some place settings. If yours will be a large affair, you can rent dishes from a party supply store for not much more than it would cost to go disposable. If you must use disposable plates, silverware, or cups, opt for compostable or biodegradable


Use cloth napkins. Cloth napkins result in zero waste, and you can use them throughout the holidays and beyond. They’re inexpensive to buy, or if you’re crafty, you can make them yourself.


Set out smaller serving spoons. It’s tempting to fill up your plate at any feast, but eyes are often bigger than stomachs. To encourage guests to take less at the outset, put smaller serving spoons in each dish.

Managing the aftermath

Clean-up is where a lot of food waste happens. Here’s how to do it right.


Scrape the plates. Non-meat scraps go in the compost bag. If you don’t compost, see if your city offers curbside compost pickup, or find a city compost pile where you can drop off your scraps. Save your meat scraps for Fido, or send them along for a guest’s dog.


Conserve water. Washing your dishes in the dishwasher uses less water than washing them by hand, but it may take a few rounds. Use less water and save energy by filling the dishwasher full and running the machine on the shortest cycle. Forego the drying cycle — instead, open the door after the last rinse, and let the dishes air-dry, or dry them with a towel.


Organize leftovers. Organize your leftovers so your fridge doesn’t fill up willy-nilly with dishes you can’t identify and that make it difficult to see what you’ve got.


Use your leftovers. Before they go bad, freeze the leftovers you won’t have time to eat.


Dispose of leftovers responsibly. If all of your best-laid plans fall apart and you end up with dried-up stuffing and crusty mashed potatoes in the fridge, don’t toss them in the trash. Compost them, or feed them to the neighborhood chickens or pigs.

How to store food without plastic

Bee’s wrap

Bee’s Wrap is a very effective — and earth-friendly — alternative to plastic wrap. Made from organic cotton, tree resin, jojoba oil, and beeswax, these handy wraps snugly fit over any opening — seal food in a bowl, wrap up baked goods, or cover half a melon. They last around a year — once they’re no longer sticky, cut them into strips, and compost them.

Jars

Glass jars make excellent storage containers for leftovers. They’re clear, so you can see what’s in them. The lids screw on air-tight, and their size and shape make them easy to fit and keep organized in the fridge. Save your jars leading up to the feast so that you have plenty on hand. When you empty them, you can toss them in the recycling or store them away for your next holiday feast.

Reusable bags

Reusable food-grade silicone storage bags are BPA-, PVC-, and phthalate-free. The zipper closure creates an airtight seal, and you can reheat food right in the bag in the oven or microwave. Easily wash the bags by hand or in the dishwasher. You can stack bags of food flat in the fridge or stand them upright.

Foil

Aluminum is 100 percent recyclable, but many recyclers won’t accept it, since it’s often contaminated with food. But aluminum is only environmentally friendly if you recycle it, so you may have to make a trip to the aluminum recycling plant to do it. Otherwise, you can wash it and reuse it. Aluminum is dishwasher-friendly — just lay it flat on the top rack — or you can wash it by hand with soap and water. Aluminum foil made from recycled aluminum is more eco-friendly than brand-new foil.

Food waste by the numbers

ThanksgivingInfographic

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