7 Ways to Plan Thanksgiving Dinner Without Waste

Thanksgiving is a time to indulge, but there is no need for excess. You can have a delicious, sustainable holiday without filling trash bag after trash bag throughout the day. Reduce waste from a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner with careful planning and precycling.

1. Make Lists

Create detailed shopping lists for your holiday prep. Itemize what you will need from each market, grocery, or other store so you can be mindful of where, how, and when you shop. Shop locally for sustainable goods — including your turkey! — and try to get your errands completed on one trip to cut down on CO2 emissions from travel.

2. Shop Your Pantry

Before you leave the house, first shop your pantry. Whether you’re trying a new recipe for Thanksgiving or making your tried-and-true dishes, there is a good chance you already have some of what you need on your shelves or in your cupboards. The less food you buy, the less that goes to waste.

3. Cherrypick Your Destinations

Shopping in bulk or wholesale works well for many families who have the storage space or live in a dead zone when it comes to fresh foods. Purchasing your most-used items in bulk avoids unnecessary packaging, like one box with six brownie mixes instead of six separate boxes of mix. You might not need all that dessert at Thanksgiving, but stored properly, that one box could last you well into the new year. And when it’s empty, it will take less real estate in your recycling bin.

4. Shop in Person

Grocery stores offer incredibly convenient curbside pick-up services. While having someone else shop for your groceries is a major help, visiting the store in person reduces multiple kinds of waste. You’ll avoid an overload of unnecessary disposable bags, both plastic and paper, and may discover along the way that items you originally planned to purchase are available in more sustainable versions. If you must use a personal shopper, take advantage of the “notes” section of your order so their shopping habits can mimic yours as much as possible.

5. Take Your Own Bags

Take along reusable shopping bags for your groceries, like mesh produce bags for fruits and vegetables and heavy-duty canvas totes for your entire order. Opt for unpackaged goods whenever possible to avoid having to trash non-recyclable containers.

Note: During the pandemic, stores may not allow you to use your own reusable bags, but keep them handy for when the restrictions are lifted!

6. Have Reusable Containers at the Ready

If you’re the we-love-leftovers kind of family, make sure you have glass storage containers at the ready to hold onto your turkey and stuffing and pies. Planning to send friends and family home with Black Friday lunch? Compostable to-go clamshells get the job done. Better yet, reuse food containers destined for the recycling bin, like glass mayo and pickle jars or plastic yogurt and cottage cheese containers.

7. Minimize Food Waste

You’ve worked hard to create a sustainable, minimal-waste Thanksgiving, so encourage your family and guests to follow your lead, clearly marking receptacles for composting, recycling, and trash.

If you end up with fewer people at your holiday meal than anticipated, set aside some dishes and donate the surplus food to a shelter or food bank. Or use an app like OLIO to share the food with neighbors. For ingredients that didn’t make it into any dish, settle on some new recipes to eke out over the next few days so no food goes to waste.

This article contains affiliate links. If you purchase an item through one of these links, we receive a small commission that helps fund our Recycling Directory.

Originally published on November 22, 2019, this article was updated in November 2020.


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