How to reduce food waste and save money this holiday season

Plan ahead to prevent food waste and make the most of this holiday season

Pix4free | Public Domain
Christmas cookies in a bowl.
Orion Goodemote

Food Waste Intern, PIRG

Danielle Melgar

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

The winter holidays are upon us, bringing with them a whirlwind of joy and excitement. People around the world are preparing to celebrate with all kinds of seasonal goodies and treats. The holiday season is generally the time when people allow themselves to enjoy and indulge and maybe loosen their belts a little bit. Most people expect to eat a lot, and hosts recognize this and respond with mounds of delicious food to satisfy their guests. Unfortunately, much of this food often goes uneaten, so household waste increases by 25% during the holidays. Food waste is harmful to the environment and wasting food is essentially throwing away money. With food prices as high as they are, that’s a lot of wasted money – 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 Christmas while still enjoying the festivities. 

Plan ahead & shop smart 

One of the best things you can do to reduce food waste 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 head count to see how many people will be there so you can adjust your plans accordingly. 
  2. Try asking your guests what food they would prefer eating. You can make a sheet with different options you are considering and see which dishes get the most votes. This will help you to assess what is most likely to be eaten and will prevent you from preparing a dish that might be traditional but isn’t popular. You can apply this trick to Christmas cookies and other sweet treats as well. 
  3. Try to get a sense of who would be willing to take home leftovers. Students, young people and those who consider themselves unskilled in the kitchen may be thrilled to take leftovers off your hands.
  4. If you are having a potluck-style Christmas meal, 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. 
  5. Make sure you dig through your pantry and fridge to avoid repurchasing ingredients you already have.
  6. Use this handy resource to estimate how much food to prepare based on the size of your dinner party. According to, a good rule of thumb is one pound of food total per person. Also keep in mind that guests tend to eat and drink more at night than during the day, so if you’re planning a Christmas brunch, keep it lighter than you would if you were making dinner.

Serve strategically 

Let guests serve themselves

If possible, allow guests to serve themselves. With this serving method, you will likely end up with less plate waste (food that is left uneaten on the plate) because people most likely won’t take what they don’t want. 

Serve on smaller plates 

I am sure we are all familiar with having eyes bigger than our appetite, and, especially around the holiday season when there are so many goodies to choose from, overfilling our plates can be hard to resist. Unfortunately, much of it can end up as plate waste. To help your guests curb their desires and help them avoid overestimating their appetite, you can serve your meals on smaller plates. They will still get that overflowing plate that so many people feel is part of a feast, but their serving sizes will align better with what they’re capable of eating. And for those who really do have a bigger appetite, getting up for seconds is still an option. 

Arrange for leftovers 

Leftovers are inevitable this time of year. To make sure that leftovers get used, 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 awkward exchanges at the end of the night. Don’t let politeness create food waste! 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 Christmas, 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. 

Store leftovers properly 

Once you bring your delicious leftovers home, it is time to store them properly so that they can last. 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 Christmas, you can clear out your freezer by eating some foods that have been in there for a while so that you have plenty of room to restock it with seasonal leftovers. (Bonus: Eating all that food can help balance out your grocery bill for the week too!)

After Christmas 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 overpack your containers because foods expand when they freeze, which can crack or break the container. 

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 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. 

  • Meats vary in the amount of time they can last in the freezer. Frozen, leftover, cooked meats are generally good for 1 to 4 months. Frozen raw meats can usually last for 4-12 months. Check out this chart for specifications. 
  • 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.   

Use your leftovers creatively 

Once you have successfully stored all your tasty leftovers, the question of what to do with them becomes very important. You may not want to eat the exact same feast for multiple meals in a row, so get creative!

Here are some Christmas leftover recipes to try this year:

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

Break out leftover Halloween candy 

Remember those piles of Halloween candy you had a few months ago? If you saved it rather than tossing it like we advised in our Healthy Halloween tips to consider this spooky season guide, now is the time to break it out. Reusing this old candy around the holidays is a great way to make sure it doesn’t get too old and go to waste, while also saving you from purchasing any new candy. Here are some suggestions for how you can use it.

  1. If you are hosting parties this holiday season, you can put the candy out for people to snack on. 
  2. For a fun Christmastime activity, you can make gingerbread houses using the leftover candy. 
  3. To add some variety to your kids’ stocking, you can add some of their favorite candies as stocking stuffers.

Bottom line: Anytime you need candy, just dip into those Halloween leftovers before you go out and buy more candy. No one will care that it’s not “seasonal.” (And if you still have leftovers, make sure you save it for Valentine’s Day, Easter, and any other candy-oriented holidays. Your wallet and the planet will thank you.) 

Waste less when making gingerbread houses 

Gingerbread houses are a fun, festive way to get into the holiday spirit. Unfortunately, after they have been on display for a while, they can get a bit stale. Here’s how to make sure you get the most out of your frosted creations:

Avoid buying store-made sets

Often, the sets you can buy in the store come with already hardened gingerbread that will only get harder as time goes on. This will make it almost inedible and you will probably need to throw it out. Gingerbread sets also often come with a lot of extra supplies, such as candies that you don’t like or won’t end up using if you’re already planning to use your Halloween leftovers. These sets can just result in more waste. Instead you can make your own homemade gingerbread house. Or, for a quicker, no-bake alternative, you can try using graham crackers!

Reuse your gingerbread house even after it goes stale

You can make gingerbread house crumbs into pie crust or add them to your cereal. For more tips check out this guide.  

Share and donate 

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 Christmas leftovers dish and gather to try them together. You could also encourage your children to invite friends over and host a small post-Christmas feast 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. 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 people who need it the most. Ample Harvest is a great resource for finding food banks near you. 


Despite using as many leftovers and food scraps as you can, there may still be things that you can’t eat. You can dispose of these scraps in a green way by composting. 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 drop-off 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

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