5 Ways To Reduce Food Waste At Thanksgiving

Plus, how to use up leftovers.

An array of Thanksgiving dishes on a pink table with hands reaching into the frame to eat, pour wine

(Photo: Erik Putz; Food styling by Ashley Denton; Prop styling by Christine Hanlon)

Tossing forgotten leftovers in the trash might not seem like a big deal, but household food waste is a growing cause for environmental concern—and one that’s totally preventable. In Canada alone, the national food waste campaign Love Food Hate Waste (LFHW) reports that 63 percent of the food Canadians throw away is avoidable waste, meaning that it could have been eaten at some point.

“We often say that food waste feeds climate change,” said Sophie Langlois-Blouin, vice president operations performance at RECYC-QUÉBEC, a partner of LFHW. “When you throw away food and it goes to landfill sites, it creates greenhouse gas emissions.”

Those emissions are specifically known as methane gas, which is released into the atmosphere when organic waste decomposes. Methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas: Over a 20-year period, methane traps 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. And it doesn’t stop there—when we waste food, we’re also throwing away all of the resources that went into producing, transporting and cooking the food in the first place.

Of course, food waste is something we should be mindful of on an everyday basis, but big holiday gatherings can be a particular culprit, as all the factors that contribute to food waste in the first place—over-buying, lack of planning, forgetting about leftovers in your container zoo of a fridge—often go into overdrive. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, there’s no time like the present to curb food waste in your own kitchen. Use these tips to get started:

Stop, think and plan before you shop

Before you head to the store, take a moment to reflect on the last big dinner or gathering you hosted and note any spots for improvement.

“We all have our little things when it comes to food waste, so think back on what [foods] you typically end up with [for leftovers]—what is the common theme? And then see what you could do differently this year,” said Getty Stewart, a professional home economist and food waste champion with LFHW. “Maybe you always end up throwing out half a container of sour cream, so this year buy a smaller one. It might cost more per millilitre, but in the long run, you’ll save money by not tossing half out.”

Making a list—and sticking to it—is an important part of not over-buying, but Langlois-Blouin also notes it’s a good idea to check your pantry before you even start your list. “Sometimes we have things in the cupboard or freezer that we forget we [bought]. So check what you already have, and then you can buy what you really need,” she said.

(Photo: Erik Putz; Food styling by Ashley Denton; Prop styling by Madeleine Johari)

Be mindful when buying specialty ingredients

If your shopping list includes ingredients that are new to you or that you’re unlikely to use again, try to buy the least amount possible. “If you don’t actually need 500 grams of a particular spice, go to the bulk store and just buy as much as you need,” Stewart says.

Certain specialty ingredients can sometimes also be substituted with more common ingredients that you may already have on hand—so be sure to check first if there’s an alternative.

“If I only need half a cup of buttermilk, instead of buying a jug of buttermilk, look for a substitute,” Stewart says. “Just by mixing a little bit of vinegar and milk, you can get the same great results in biscuits or dressings, for example.”

Best turkey recipes: Roast turkey on a bed of salad

(Photo: Roberto Caruso)

Use a portion planning tool

When you’re hosting an event it can be difficult to estimate just how much food you should make. That’s where portion planning tools come in handy. LFHW has an everyday portion planner, or you can try using this dinner party calculator. If you’re cooking a traditional turkey this Thanksgiving, Canadian Turkey also has a whole-bird turkey calculator that helps you determine what size of bird to buy based on the guest count, plus how long you should thaw and cook it.

Stewart also notes that side dishes are one area that people tend to over plan for. “Ask yourself how many side dishes you really need. If you do want to have lots of selection, you don’t have to prepare full proportions for every side dish for every person. Just make half the amount.”

Choose self-serve

Rather than serving the meal to guests or doing a plated meal, opt for a buffet or family-style dinner where guests can serve themselves. “That way, everyone puts on their plate the amount they really want,” Langlois-Blouin said.

With dishes that are more likely to go bad quickly—like a tossed green salad—let guests add their own toppings or salad dressing, which will help keep the undressed portion of the salad fresh for later.

Classic turkey soup recipe

Classic turkey soup (Photo, Roberto Caruso.)

Think ahead for leftovers

In Canada, the most commonly wasted foods are vegetables and fruit, but leftovers are third on the list. And when it comes to the holidays, one thing’s guaranteed: there will be leftovers. If you’re planning on using up the leftovers yourself, Langlois-Blouin recommends making room in your freezer the day before, so that you have space to store food properly. If you want to make stock or soup, you can also prepare a freezer bag in advance for any vegetable trimmings and turkey bones, and then add to it as you go along.

If you do plan on freezing leftovers though, Stewart says to do it right away. “Don’t wait three days and then decide to freeze some turkey. Think about what has been an issue in the past—if you never finish the meat and end up throwing it out, then first thing, freeze it, or send it home with someone else.” Separate leftover meat from the bones, and freeze them in separate containers for up to four months.

Sending leftovers home with guests can be a win for everyone, and you can even tell guests in advance to bring their own reusable containers too.

Dutch baby photos, Erik Putz; Food styling, Ashley Denton; Prop styling: Madeleine Johari; Staub cast iron fry pans:

Turn extras into something delicious

Turkey soup or stock are a classic Thanksgiving leftover game plan, or you can whip up a shepherd’s pie using leftover turkey, vegetables and mashed potatoes. For something simpler, try a savoury dutch baby, which you can fill with whatever leftovers you have on hand (turkey, soups or stews work well), or make a gourmet grilled cheese with turkey, brie and cranberry sauce. Mashed potatoes can also be turned into crispy mashed potato cakes.

If you made homemade cranberry sauce for dinner using fresh cranberries, any leftover berries can be added to baking like muffins or scones, or used as a beverage garnish. One of Stewart’s favourite post-Thanksgiving recipes is cranberry fruit leather, which is a fun way to use up leftover cranberry sauce.

She adds: “Leftovers don’t have to be boring repeats—they can turn into new creations that you can look forward to.”

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