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Creating a Low-Waste Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love that there is one full day that we can devote to gratitude for all the blessings around us: our family, friends, or solitude, our homes, food and good fortune. For the past four years, my house has been the gathering place for my family, and I have been the cook responsible for serving anywhere from 15 to 25 people. Cooking Thanksgiving dinner has been a labor of love for me; I enjoy taking over the kitchen, turning on the radio and creating the dishes I have selected for our meal. One thing I have noticed over the years is how much waste one large meal can produce. After doing some research and employing some simple strategies, I have learned how to lower the amount of waste my household produces on this day of gratitude.

During my research, I came across some staggering statistics; the average American household wastes about 14% of the food brought into the house. If you take into consideration the waste produced by grocery stores and restaurants, this number jumps to 27%. The latter percentage averages out to be about a pound of food thrown away in an average day for every person in the United States. And Thanksgiving isn’t an average day. This holiday is one of the most food-focused days of the year, and I can imagine that the amount of food thrown away for every person climbs up to nauseating proportions. Most Co-op Owners are conscious about waste, but knowledge is power and Thanksgiving can be a perfect jumping off point for learning how to put additional strategies into effect to reduce waste.

Food waste

Reducing the input—do the math
There are two types of waste produced on this holiday: food waste and non-food waste. First we will examine reducing food waste. Reducing the amount of waste you produce from your kitchen begins with reducing the amount of food you bring into your house. So before you shop, spend time working on your menu and shopping list. If you come to the store armed with a list (and a full stomach) you will be less likely to fall prey to an impulse buy. Impulse buys result in a higher grocery bill, more prep time, and likely additional wasted food (either the item that was the impulse buy or the item that got pushed to the side to make room for your impulse buy).

Another way to avoid over-shopping and over-spending is by basing the amount of ingredients you are shopping for on a reduced serving size calculation from your recipe. Imagine the typical Thanksgiving plate, it contains the following: turkey (if you are a meat-eater), gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, sweet potatoes, green vegetable, and perhaps a spoonful of a signature or traditional dish served at your Thanksgiving (in my family it is green Jell-O). Unless you have imagined a plate the size of a large platter, you will see there isn’t room for a full serving of any of these dishes. So when you are doing the math to figure out how much food to buy, consider reducing the serving size by a third or a half. There is the consideration of leftovers, but pick and choose wisely what you want extra of. For instance: leftover cranberry sauce or pie can be tasty, but reheated mashed potatoes, not so much. If you are anxious that there might not be enough food at your house for the big day, keep in mind that the Co-op is open from 7:30am until 2:00pm on Thanksgiving Day.

Reasonable portions
Keeping the portions reasonable also comes into play with the meal’s centerpiece: the turkey. If you are making a turkey for your meal, start by asking yourself, has there ever been too little turkey? In the case of our family, the answer is no; we always have enough turkey to serve during the meal and plenty for leftovers. The Joy of Cooking recommends the following size considerations: for a turkey less than 12 pounds, average about 3/4 to 1 pound per person, so a 12 pound turkey could serve 12 plus a few guests. For turkeys over 12 pounds: average about 1/2 to 3/4 pounds per person. If you do end up with leftover turkey, I have some ideas about leftovers that I share later in this article.

Turkey selection
The other way to reduce waste at Thanksgiving is by thoughtful selection of the type of turkey you purchase. There is great variety in turkeys; they run the spectrum from a commercial, mass-produced turkey found in the frozen department of most supermarkets to a fresh, free-range turkey from a local farmer. There are multiple issues raised by commercial turkeys, but for this article, I will focus on waste. Commercially grown turkeys and their feed are typically grown, processed, and shipped in from long distances thus producing processing waste and greenhouse gasses. On the other hand, a locally grown, grass-fed, free-range turkey creates less of these types of waste. This year, the Co-op is taking pre-orders for turkeys from Black Earth Meats (local) and Ferndale Market (regional from Minnesota). We will also have open-stock Bell and Evans turkeys, both natural and organic.

Local produce
In addition to choosing a locally raised turkey, choosing locally grown produce is another way to reduce food waste. Local produce will be fresher, more nutrient-packed and will use less fuels and packaging than their cousins grown across the country, continent, or ocean. I let the previous week’s CSA box dictate the vegetable I serve at our Thanksgiving meal. I rely on the potatoes, onions, carrot, parsnips, turnip, and rutabaga to compose part of the stuffing and contents of the bottom of the roasting pan. The sweet potatoes, leeks, and cabbage in the box are the makings for some great side dishes. And if we are lucky, there may still be my personal favorite, Brussels sprouts, coming in from local farms at Thanksgiving. Additionally, by choosing a local turkey and produce, not only will you be wasting less you will also be also supporting local economy and keeping the agricultural viability of our community alive.

Once you are in the kitchen with your ingredients, it is time to make the most of them and reduce the waste you produce in the process. Composting is a great way to deal with vegetable waste. What you can put into compost varies depending on what kind of composting you are doing. Some of my lucky neighbors are a part of Madison’s pilot composting program. In my house, we have an outdoor compost bin and a happy worm bin to help us reduce the amount of food waste in our garbage can.

Making the most of your turkey
Another way to reduce waste is to get all you can out of your turkey before you discard the bones. First of all, many turkeys come with a bag of organ meat and a giblet. Instead of throwing these away, boil them down to create the rich stock for your gravy. Once boiled, the giblet will need to be thrown away, but the remaining organs are considered a delicacy. In our family, the cooked organs are the perfect thank you gift for our earnest Border Collie who puts up with the chaos and crowd that Thanksgiving brings.

After the bird is cooked, carved up and served, there may still be some meat left on the carcass. At my house, I get out four bowls, one for each of the following: large pieces of light meat, large pieces of dark meat, small bits of meat, and one for bones and connective tissue (to be used for stock). I assign a few helpful people (adults and children) to the task of cleaning the turkey. Cleaning a turkey is an excellent opportunity for an anatomy lesson and it is a visceral reminder of where turkey meat comes from.

Once you have cleaned the bird, it is time to make a stock. This is an easy task and can be done while you are serving up the dessert and cleaning the dishes. Chef Angela, owner of Stagioni, kindly provided me with this terrific and simple stock recipe: put the turkey into a stock pot, cover with cold water, and bring to a simmer for 30 minutes without letting the water boil. While the stock is simmering, skim off anything that rises to the top and roughly chop an onion, two carrots and two celery stalks. When 30 minutes is complete, add the roughly cut vegetable along with two bay leaves, two smashed cloves of garlic, two peppercorns, and (optional) six parley stalks and leaves. Simmer this at the lowest temperature for four or more hours. When done, drain the stock into a container and chill. Once the stock is cool, pull off the fat cap, portion the thick stock off and freeze. These rich frozen portions can be used for any recipe that calls for stock and will likely allow you to get through the winter without having to buy prepackaged stock.

After the meal, it is incredibly important to get the food sealed up, put into the refrigerator and brought back down to safe temperatures. Giving consideration to food safety will have you wondering less about whether something is safe to eat when you grab it from the fridge later. You will beless likely to throw leftovers away because you will know it is safe to eat.

What to do with them: for the larger pieces of meat, get some good bread, mayonnaise, lettuce, and avocado and create a delicious sandwich. The smaller chunks of meat can be turned into hearty enchiladas or cabbage rolls. Our family’s favorite leftover is turkey soup that incorporates the small pieces of meat, some of the turkey, and leftover vegetables. Alternately you can add stewed tomatoes, beans, and chili powder to the leftover turkey and vegetables and create a filling turkey chili.

Non-food waste
My husband used to joke that his parents have created their own greenhouse gas cloud just above their suburban Milwaukee house with all of the resources they consume. I laughed at this until I spent my first Thanksgiving there. My stomach dropped when I saw that his joke was based on a lot of wasteful habits. Their beautiful china, everyday ware, napkins and silverware sat in the cupboards as we piled over 20 thick Styrofoam plates into the trash on top of aluminum foil, saran wrap, discarded food, plastic bags, paper napkins, and plastic ware. The amount of resources, fuel spent, and space consumed in the landfill for our one meal had me sweating out an apology to our future generations. But looking at it from the hosts’ perspective, I can see that it isn’t in their conscious mind to waste less; they were raised in a generation that looked at resources and comfort differently. They see that fewer dishes, more prepackaged, pre-cut, shrink-wrapped vegetables and ingredients out of a can or a box is the way to make a large meal less of a hassle and therefore a better experience for host and guest alike.

But I see it differently; I believe that the less waste I produce and the more time, care and love I give to meal preparations results in more care and love transferred to my guests. So when I began hosting Thanksgiving at my house, my in-laws marveled that I made a pumpkin pie out of real pumpkin. They didn’t know that this could be done. They were brought up in families who bought pie filling out a can. And I was too, but after becoming a more conscious consumer, I figured out that shortcuts to make our lives simpler, like buying pie filling in a can, often made them more complicated. Cutting a pumpkin in half, removing the seeds, baking for an hour and scooping out the flesh is almost as easy as getting out the can opener, opening the 14-ounce can, and scooping out processed pumpkin from a farm far, far away. It is definitely easier on my waste-conscious mind.

Avoiding disposable
Maybe you are hosting a large gathering this year that has more guests than you have plates, silverware or glasses. Before heading out to buy the disposable version of what you are lacking, try your local thrift store to see if they have what you need. And though these thrifty options may not match your set of dishes, they certainly look better than plastic ware in the garbage. While you are there, consider getting some interesting cloth napkins to set your table with instead of a column of paper napkins. And perhaps you are also lacking in cookware for your meal. This is the time of year when shelves are full of aluminum pies tins and roasting pans at any grocery store waiting for their 15 minutes of fame and eventual trip to the recycling center. Better to leave these on the shelf and call up a friend or neighbor whom you know will be out of town. At my house, I have three pie plates, but at Thanksgiving, I serve five pies: one apple, one cherry (made from the cherries picked from the tree at my son’s preschool), one pumpkin to serve at Thanksgiving dinner, another pumpkin to send home with my father-in-law who loves ‘real’ pumpkin pie, and, lastly, one vegan, gluten-free pumpkin destined for me and me only. Three pie plates for five pies leaves me short two plates. This is when I call a girlfriend I know isn’t hosting and borrow her two pie plates that would otherwise be sitting idle on this holiday. You may also call upon your guests to help you reduce waste; in my pre-Thanksgiving email to my guests, I ask them to bring their own food containers so I can send them home with some of their own leftovers. Not only are you wasting less in disposable packaging, you are also spreading out some of the meal you lovingly made for others to share.

Something to strive for
For those of you who love a good challenge, here is one for you: can you get through this holiday without buying a product contained in one of those non-recyclable small plastic tubs like the ones that hold sour cream, yogurt, or French onion dip? If this is too difficult, you could strive to become more conscious about the amount and type of packaging your food comes in and try to reduce.

Here is another great reduction challenge that is even easier: see if you can shop the bulk aisle without using any of the plastic bags, brown bags or twist ties that the Co-op provides. I will give you a tip on how to do this: whenyou are creating your shopping list, put an asterisk next to the items you can get from the bulk aisle. When you are about to head out to the Co-op, grab your canvas shopping bag, your list, and the same number of food storage containers as you have asterisks on your list. These containers can be tared out on the scale above the sink in the bulk aisle and you can write the tare (container weight) and the PLU number on the container so your super-efficient cashier can ring it up quickly. If you want to take it a step further, when you are packing up your canvas bags with the food storage containers for your bulk purchases, include some extra reusable plastic or small cloth bags to pack your produce purchases. You may be able to entirely avoid using those plastic bags on a roll in the Produce section.

Practicing conservation, patience, and gratitude
I had an interesting experience at my house last Thanksgiving that taught me some lessons about conservation, patience and gratitude. A few months before the holiday, one of my guests told me that he wanted to deep-fry a turkey at my house and serve it in tandem with the turkey I was planning on serving. I wasn’t sure why he wanted to do this, but I agreed to this arrangement as I was trying to be a gracious host. So he drove his truck from New Jersey and, in it he had a frozen turkey, a large vat of oil, a deep fryer and a propane tank. He set up his cooking station in my backyard (NOT ON THE PORCH!) and cooked his turkey. After the whole deep frying affair was complete, we sat down to our dinner of dueling turkeys. I will say that when the attention and conversation turned to the two large turkeys on the table, it was awkward. None of my polite and slightly passive aggressive guests wanted to make outward comparisons. I too resisted judgment, but I will admit here that while the deep-fried frozen turkey cooked up in about a fifth of the time, the oven-roasted turkey was better overall. Maybe that is because care was taken raising the bird, and thoughtfulness, time and care were given to its selection and preparation. Truth be told, the frozen deep-fried turkey was more wasteful too. I say this, in part, because after the meal while I was sharing coffee and pie with some of my guests, the gentleman who had deep-fried the turkey proceeded to wash out his deep fryer in our bathtub (in full disclosure, without my knowledge my husband had given him a green light to do so). And as I said a kind farewell to my Garden State guest, and he packed his deep fryer into his truck, I offered that he leave the cooking oil in my hands so that I could find an interested biodiesel processor. He had never heard of such a thing, so he declined my request. Thankfully I have another bathtub in my house that I now choose to shower and bathe in exclusively.

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