Tips for Reducing Thanksgiving Food Waste

Maxwell Bernstein | November 27, 2020

The USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison released tips and facts on reducing food waste at Thanksgiving. The average American family of four annually loses $1500 or 1,160 pounds of uneaten food.

The USDA recommends: 

  • Planning holiday meals.
  • Storing or giving away leftovers.
  • Use leftover food creatively by incorporating them in other dishes. 
  • Donate extra food through Feeding America or the EPA’s excess food opportunities program. 
  • Composting.
  • Preventing leftovers from ending up in a landfill.

Families can freeze Thanksgiving food and use it long term as a way to prevent food from being wasted. 

Calculate your food’s impact this Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska| November 27, 2019

As Thanksgiving is a holiday both reflectance AND eating a ton, Americans who are grateful for both the food on their plate and the planet that provided it might be interested in the BBC’s “Climate Change Food Calculator,” published in August.

The food calculator provides estimates of annual greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land use for one person’s consumption different food items based on how frequently the user says they eat those foods. Results are based on global averages.

The food calculator does not have information on turkey specifically, but below are results for daily consumption of other foods often shared on Thanksgiving:

  • Potatoes: 16kg greenhouse gases
  • Wine: 114kg greenhouse gases, 5,026 liters of water
  • Bread: 21kg greenhouse gases, 8,995 liters of water
  • Chicken: 497kg greenhouse gases, 33,294 litres of water, 616m² land
  • Beans: 36kg greenhouse gases, 8,888 liters of water
  • Pork: 656kg greenhouse gases, 95,756 liters of water, 926m² land

So enjoy your feast tomorrow, if you are having one, but remember to thank the Earth for the resources it took to get your meal on your plate, too.

Reduce food waste at your Thanksgiving feast

Give thanks for your food by making sure it’s eaten or disposed of responsibly (flickr).

Julia Poska | November 22, 2018

Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of food produced and sold in the U.S. goes to waste, according to varying estimates. Some is cooked but uneaten. Some goes rotten in the fridge. Some never makes it off the grocery shelf, and some never even makes it off the farm field.

Food waste is not only a disservice to the hungry, but a disservice to the planet, too. All food, from carrots to highly-processed cookies, is organic matter, which requires oxygen to decompose properly. In a densely compacted landfill, food waste decomposes anaerobically, without oxygen, and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The considerable water and energy resources used to produce food are wasted as well when food goes in the landfill. Nearly 250 gallons of water go into just two 15 oz cans of corn. Over 2,000 gallons of water go into just two pounds of poultry, which includes the water used to grow food for the birds.

Be conscious of food waste this Thanksgiving by following these three tips.

1. Pace yourself

On a day reserved for overeating, it can be tempting to load up your plate with several servings at once. While eating is the best way to reduce food waste, when you eventually reach your limit, what is left on your plate will most likely go in the trash. Take only what you are certain you will eat, and go back for more as many times as you need. When you finish, your plate will be clear and leftovers will be prime for saving.

2. Actually eat your leftovers

If you anticipate having leftovers, be sure to account for them when shopping at the grocery store. You won’t need to buy as much food the weekend if Thanksgiving dinner will be making a reprise. If you still have more leftover than you think you will need, send it home with guests or even share it with pets. You can also freeze individual portions in airtight containers or bags to be eaten for weeks after the holiday.

3. Give scraps new life

Most food waste can be composted! See dos and don’ts here. If the host does not keep a compost bin or use a pickup service, someone else in attendance may be willing to take scraps home in a garbage bag or large container. Check with your city’s waste management department to see if they accept cooking oil for recycling (especially if you are frying a turkey!), which can be used to create biofuel.



Modern turkeys twice the size of turkeys from 80 years ago


A wild turkey roams a field in California (Don McCullough/Flickr)
A wild turkey roams a field in California (Don McCullough/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 27, 2014

Turkey has been a staple of Thanksgiving dinners for generations but the bird’s evolution over the past century or so has been particularly interesting.

Turkeys raised and served these days are more than twice as large as they were in the 1930s. Many of the reasons for the increase in the size of these fowls is directly related to the turkey farming industry. Beginning in the 1950s turkey farmers began selectively breeding birds for both size and speed of growth to accommodate for increased demand of turkey meat. With some male turkeys weighing as much as 50 pounds they became unable to impregnate their female mates and today nearly all turkeys are bred through artificial insemination.

There is debate much about whether these selectively-bred turkeys are considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While most scientists would not classify turkeys as GMOs, some conventionally-raised turkeys are fed GMO corn. Since turkeys are being fed in close quarters with modern farm operations, the birds are given lower doses of antibiotics to protect against infection. This change in antibiotic dosages has caused violence among turkeys and has even lead instances of cannibalism.

Farm-raised turkeys also suffer from various health complications ranging from foot and leg deformities to premature heart attacks because of their larger bodies. Wild turkeys, which are generally slimmer and more mobile than their farm-raised counterparts, are able to reach speeds of 25 miles per hour on the ground and up to 55 miles per hour in the air. Selective breeding practices have caused this evolutionary rift between farm-raised and wild turkeys.

Minnesota leads the nation in turkey production with approximately 49 million birds each year. Iowa ranks ninth nationally with 11 million turkeys annually.

UI: turn off electronics before Thanksgiving break

Photo by satmandu, Flickr

University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability is reminding students and staff to power down their electronics if they leave town for Thanksgiving.

Many electronics such as phone chargers continue to use energy even when they’re not in use. These should get unplugged before leaving for Thanksgiving break.

Read more advice from the Office of Sustainability here.