How to have a sustainable Thanksgiving dinner

Plan ahead to prevent food waste and make the most of your holiday feast.

One of the best ways to have a more sustainable Thanksgiving is by having a plan to prevent food waste. Here's how.

Jill Wellington |

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. While most Americans will take the opportunity to spend time with loved ones while enjoying delicious food, this holiday can also be a substantial source of food waste. If you want to have a sustainable Thanksgiving dinner, creating a plan to prevent food waste at the dinner table is a good place to start.

The season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day is one of the most wasteful times of the year, producing about 25% more waste, including food waste, than during the rest of the year. On Thanksgiving alone, 200 million pounds of turkey, 40 million pounds of mashed potatoes, 30 million pounds of stuffing, 150 million pounds of assorted sides, and 14 million pounds of dinner rolls end up in the trash. With food prices as high as they are, that’s a lot of wasted money too – all the more reason to make sure you are curbing food waste as best you can this holiday season. 

Here are some steps you can take to reduce food waste this Turkey Day while still enjoying the festivities.

Sustainable Thanksgiving Food Saving Tips

1. Plan ahead & shop smart

One of the best things you can do to reduce food waste and have a more sustainable Thanksgiving is to make sure that all the food you are buying is going to be used. Here’s how:

  1. If you are hosting, get a headcount to see how many people will be there so you can adjust your plans accordingly. 
  2. Try to get a sense of who would be willing to take home any leftovers. Students, young people and those who consider themselves unskilled in the kitchen may be thrilled to take leftovers off your hands.
  3. If you are having a potluck style Thanksgiving, try creating a sign-up sheet so that you and your guests can coordinate. Having too much of one type of food or too much food overall can contribute to food waste, so keeping track of who is bringing what can help prevent that. 

Use this handy chart to estimate how much food to prepare based on the size of your dinner party. According to, if you plan to have a turkey, a good rule of thumb is one pound of turkey per person. If you know your guests prefer white meat, it may also be a good idea to opt for one or two turkey breasts rather than the whole bird.

2. Prevent contamination

Since the turkey tends to be the star of the Thanksgiving show, it’s important to be aware of the potential for contamination that comes with handling raw meat. Don’t let your goal of having a more sustainable Thanksgiving get upended by avoidable contamination that forces you to toss a whole dish. To prevent contamination, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly, use separate utensils and clean surfaces thoroughly when handling raw meat. This is also good practice in general for avoiding other potentially dangerous types of contamination for guests with food allergies or other dietary restrictions.

3. Arrange for leftovers

Leftovers are inevitable this time of year. For many families, Thanksgiving leftovers are almost as important as the main meal itself. To make sure that leftovers get used up, you can encourage guests to bring their own reusable containers to bring food home. Setting the expectation that there will be leftovers and that you want people to take them can help you avoid any awkward exchanges at the end of the night. Don’t let politeness create food waste! Simply explain that you’re trying to have a more sustainable Thanksgiving, and voila, your guests will feel like they’re doing you a favor by helping you out with your mission — win-win! Having extra containers on hand that you can lend to people is also a great way to make sure none of the feast goes to waste and everyone gets their share. 

If you are a guest this Thanksgiving, ask the host about whether they would like guests to take home leftovers, then bring your own container and encourage other guests to do the same.

4. Make soup stock

While so much of your Thanksgiving feast is sure to end up in your stomach, there may be some aspects of it that you can’t eat. But this doesn’t mean they can’t still be useful! Instead of throwing items such as turkey bones or vegetable scraps in the trash, you can throw them in a soup pot and make a broth. Making a broth from your turkey carcass is an awesome way to reduce food waste and make the most out of all your food items, and it’s relatively simple as well. There are other great recipes for other types of food scraps. Potato peels can, for example, be turned into crispy potato skin chips, and you can roast leftover pumpkin or squash seeds as a tasty appetizer.

5. Store your leftovers properly

Sometimes there are so many leftovers that you can’t possibly eat them all before they go bad. This is where proper storage methods can make a big difference. One awesome way to preserve food is by sticking it in the freezer. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, you can clear out your freezer by eating some of the foods that have been in there for a while so that you have plenty of room to restock with Turkey Day leftovers. (Bonus: Eating all that food can help balance out your grocery bill for the week too!)

After Thanksgiving dinner, here are some tips to help you store your leftovers properly:

  • Don’t freeze warm food: Allow your food to cool completely before sticking it in the freezer. This will prevent other foods in the freezer from thawing. 
  • Wrap and seal food: Wrapping food will help prevent freezer burn, keeping the food in its best condition. Be careful not to over pack your containers because foods expand when they freeze. You want to leave room in the container for this expansion to make sure the container doesn’t crack or break. 
  • Keep meats near the back of the freezer: Keeping meats near the back of the freezer will help to keep them at a consistent temperature and will prevent them from thawing prematurely which can increase the risk of food borne illnesses. 
  • Label the food: It is a good idea to label all the food you freeze with the name of the food as well as the date you froze it. This will help you to keep things organized and eat things before they’re past their prime. 
    • Use frozen leftover turkey within 2 to 6 months for best quality
    • Vegetables can usually be frozen for up to 6 months while maintaining their taste and texture
    • Generally baked goods can be frozen for about 3 months
6. Make fun recipes with your Thanksgiving leftovers

Probably the easiest step on your sustainable Thanksgiving journey is turning your leftovers into delicious new recipes. You may not want to eat the exact same feast for multiple meals in a row, so get creative and mix it up!

Here are some dish specific Thanksgiving leftover recipes to try this year:

And here are some general Thanksgiving leftovers recipes

A quick Google search will yield additional results if you have other dishes or ingredients to use up.

7. Share and donate food

One of the best ways to keep the holiday centered on gratitude is by sharing. You can, for example, invite friends or family to continue celebrating with leftovers. Have a challenge to see who can prepare the best Thanksgiving leftovers dish and gather to try them together. You could also encourage your children to invite friends over and host a small friendsgiving for them.  

Another great way to share is to distribute your extra food to people in your community. 

You could, for example, donate to first responders. Many local fire and police stations would appreciate food donations. Keep in mind however that some stations only accept professionally cooked food, so check with your local fire or police department beforehand. 

You can also donate to your local food bank. Food waste in the U.S. surpasses the amount of food necessary to feed every American experiencing hunger. This holiday season, help make sure food feeds people, not landfills. Most food banks accept unopened, unexpired and unprepared food, so if you have any food that fits these parameters, donating to a food bank is a great way to make sure that your food reaches the people who need it the most. Ample Harvest is a great resource for finding food banks near you.

8. Compost

No plan for a sustainable Thanksgiving is complete without a compost plan! Despite using as many leftovers and food scraps as you can, there may still be things that you can’t eat. Composting is an awesome way to dispose of these scraps in a green way. You can check if your community has a composting service or you can look for organizations in your area that allow compost drop offs. Some farmers markets and community gardens allow this and this map may help you find compost sites in your community. If you would prefer to compost at home, here are some resources on kitchen composting and backyard composting. Note that not all food scraps are suitable for every compost setup, so be sure to consult your composting service or check out the resources above to learn if your leftovers are appropriate for compost.


Orion Goodemote

Food Waste Intern, PIRG

Danielle Melgar

Food & Agriculture, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Danielle works to ensure our food system produces enough nutritious food to feed everyone, without threatening our health, the planet, or the ability of future generations to grow food. Danielle lives in Chicago, where she enjoys staying active in the outdoors, trying out new recipes, and writing short stories.

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