Agriculture, Food and Beverage

How to make your Thanksgiving more sustainable

Vegetable dishes can replace turkey as a main dish this Thanksgiving.

Vegetable dishes can replace turkey as a main dish this Thanksgiving. Image: Pexels/fauxels

Linnea Harris
Reporter, EcoWatch
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • More than 200 million pounds (90 million kilograms) of turkey is thrown away during Thanksgiving in the US.
  • Ways to make the celebration more sustainable include making some ingredients from scratch, such as apple and cranberry sauce, soup, or vegetable and chicken stock.
  • Instead of making turkey the main event, fill the meal out with lots of sides, or consider a vegan alternative.
  • Eliminating food waste would remove 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions related to the food system.

While you’re enjoying that pumpkin pie and thinking about what you’re grateful for this year, give the planet something to be thankful for, too!

During Thanksgiving week alone, 200 million pounds of turkey are thrown away in the U.S., according to the NRDC. Among other wasted resources, the water from these tossed turkeys alone could supply New York City with water for 100 days. Food waste is already a huge problem in the U.S.; it’s estimated that up to 40% of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted every year. For a holiday so centered around food, it’s crucial to consider the least wasteful way to celebrate.

Here are a few ways to make your Thanksgiving more sustainable, without sacrificing deliciousness.

Clean out the fridge and freezer beforehand

In the weeks before shopping and preparing dishes, eat foods you already have at home. Not only will this open up valuable space in the fridge and freezer for incoming ingredients and Thanksgiving dishes, but you won’t end up wasting produce or other perishables in the days after the holiday when you’re feasting on leftovers.

About 14.5 to 19% of all global greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to livestock grown for consumption, including the turkey on our Thanksgiving plates.
About 14.5 to 19% of all global greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to livestock grown for consumption, including the turkey on our Thanksgiving plates. Image: Pexels/ Kevin Malik

Plan for the right amount of food

In advance of the holiday, coordinate with guests about what they plan to bring for the meal. Make sure people aren’t bringing duplicates, and that there won’t be too many dishes for the amount of people attending.

Consider the size of dishes, too. Think about how much you’ve prepared in previous years and how much was left over. If you’re having the same number of guests as last year and you ended up with half a dish of leftover mashed potatoes, maybe you can safely cut down on the amount you prepare this year. Use Savethefood.com’s Guest-imator portion-planning tool to determine how much food you’ll need for your crew, and share this with your guests ahead of time so they can prepare accordingly.

An Instagram post talking about how much food you need to keep guests happy. Thanksgiving
Use Savethefood.com’s Guest-imator portion-planning tool to determine how much food you’ll need. Image: Instagram/Savethefood

Also, 86 the dud dishes. If there’s something that’s always left largely untouched — like the cranberry sauce or an unappetizing casserole that’s only baked out of a sense of tradition — skip it, or make a much, much smaller batch for the few people that do enjoy it.

Shop greener

Start Thanksgiving on a green note by shopping more sustainably for your meal.

Before you head to the grocery store, take inventory of what you already have to avoid buying unnecessary items. Also consider whether you can make dishes from ingredients in the cabinet instead of buying new ones. For example, if you have a ton of onions and a casserole calls for shallots, or if you have rainbow quinoa and a recipe calls for red, maybe you can make do with what you have on hand instead.

Start Thanksgiving on a green note by shopping more sustainably for your meal.
Start Thanksgiving on a green note by shopping more sustainably for your meal. Image: Unsplash/Milada Vigerova

When shopping, choose local and organic foods whenever possible to minimize the environmental impact of your ingredients. These products are often more expensive, but creating a budgeting plan beforehand can help you decide which sustainable ingredients you can feasibly purchase. Regardless, opt for unpackaged, unprepared produce, and plan ahead to do some prep work in the days before — like peeling and chunking butternut squash and pumpkin on your own — instead of buying bags of pre-cut veggies. Buy in bulk if you can, or at stores that allow you to bring your own containers for dry goods like rice, flour, sugar, and spices.

And, of course, bring your own bags!

Cook from scratch wherever possible

Many simple dishes and individual ingredients can easily be made from scratch, like apple and cranberry sauce, soup, or vegetable and chicken stock. It might require some planning ahead, but this year, try your hand at making pies, bread rolls, or other baked goods that you normally buy pre-made. Consult an easy recipe for these staple dishes, or ask guests who have a talent for baking if they can bring a pie or fresh bread as their contribution. Local bakeries or independent bakers might also have Thanksgiving offerings on their products, too.

Skip the turkey

Raising livestock for food is a major culprit of runaway climate change, habitat destruction, and use of global resources. About 14.5 to 19% of all global greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to livestock grown for consumption, including the turkey on our Thanksgiving plates.

Instead of making turkey the main event, pad the meal with lots of sides, or consider a vegan alternative. Plant-based meats have come a long way, and alternatives like Tofurkey, Field Roast-brand Celebration Roast, or even well-seasoned tofu and vegetable dishes can replace turkey as a mouth-watering main dish. Or, if you can’t imagine the meal without it, buy less turkey (maybe only one instead of two for a very large party) and prepare more sides instead (aren’t they really the star of the show anyway?).

Plant-based meats have come a long way and could potentially replace the turkey on Thanksgiving.
Plant-based meats have come a long way and could potentially replace the turkey on Thanksgiving. Image: Pexels/ Marianna OLE

Revive dishes after mishaps

Vegetables wilted? Soak them in ice water. Too salty? Dilute, or add vinegar, lemon juice, or brown sugar. Crackers too stale? Toss in the toaster oven. Overcooked the vegetables? Blend with some stock or milk for a veggie soup. There are plenty of ways to revive ingredients and dishes that go awry.

Waste no food

Wasted food has major implications for climate change; without food waste, 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food system would be eliminated, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. Also, American households spend roughly $1,866 a year on food that ends up being wasted, so keeping food out of the trash also keeps money in your wallet.

Consider food waste while you’re cooking. Are you tossing food that could still be used? Keep leftover parts of raw ingredients — like leek, carrot, and beet greens — and use them for other creative recipes later. And, keep food scraps like carrot peels, kale stems, and onion skins to make a healthy, waste-free vegetable stock. If a recipe calls for only half a bell pepper, maybe you can find a use for the other half, like chopping it up to enjoy with the hummus appetizer.

Leftovers are the secret star of Thanksgiving.
Leftovers are the secret star of Thanksgiving. Image: Pexels/ cottonbro studio

Leftovers are the secret star of Thanksgiving, so make sure you’re prepared to dole them out so they don’t end up getting tossed. Instead of buying a pack of plastic containers, ask guests to bring reusable Tupperware to bring home leftovers, or lend out your own. If there’s still more food than you can handle, donate the excess to local food banks. Many will accept Thanksgiving leftovers or unused ingredients. Research pantries and kitchens in your area that will be open for donations the day after Thanksgiving and what they’ll accept.

Consider other sources of waste

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, U.S. households throw away 25% more trash than any other time of year. Ask guests to bring their contributions in reusable dishes instead of disposables, and use reusable napkins, silverware, and dishes for the meal. This will definitely require a little more effort during cleanup, so plan ahead and have the dishwasher or sink empty and ready for after-dinner dishes. Make sure to clean dishes while you’re cooking so they don’t pile up; maybe even assign dishwashing duty to an enthusiastic (or unenthusiastic) helper (and, remember that dishwashing machines are more water-efficient and environmentally friendly than hand-washing).

A potluck-style meal also helps cut down on dirty dishes in the host’s home. Guests prepare their dishes in their own kitchens, and thus won’t clutter your counter and sink with dirty pots and pans.

Have recycling and compost bins ready and available, and make sure that guests know what items can go in each (meat- or dairy-heavy dishes can’t go in the compost, for one).

Skip the Black Friday craze

After a day of appreciating and giving thanks for what you have, why go out and look for more?

Discounts and special offers on Black Friday and Cyber Monday trigger overbuying and a sense of urgency in consumers to purchase things they don’t really need. A 2019 report suggested that up to 80% of purchases on Black Friday (and their packaging) are sent to landfills, incinerated, or are subject to low quality recycling. The impact of the post-Thanksgiving buying frenzy has only grown as online shopping becomes a preferable option to in-store shopping; for example, buying a t-shirt online could entail 4x more emissions than a shirt bought in the store. Stay home (or log off) from the sales this year, and enjoy a longer night at home with your loved ones.

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