Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, while millions of people around the world go hungry, Americans produce an extra 5 million tons of food waste. That’s three times as much waste as during the rest of the year, according to the Worldwatch Institute, which conducts independent environmental research.

Throughout the world, the institute notes, roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption —approximately 1.3 billion tons — is lost or wasted each year.

Wasting less food can save you money. It might also help slow climate change. Food is the single largest “ingredient” of municipal solid waste in U.S. landfills, which are compacted so tightly that food tends to decompose without oxygen. This produces the greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. In the United States, landfills produce nearly 25 percent of all methane emissions, according to City Harvest, a non-profit that “rescues” food to feed the hungry in New York.

Related: 9 Ways to Prevent Food Waste

Have a waste-not, want-not Thanksgiving

There’s a cornucopia of ways to celebrate Thanksgiving without wasting food.

Make a shopping list — and stick to it. Write down what you need before you head for the supermarket. This can reduce impulse buying that results in too much food.

Prepare only enough to feed your guests. To cut down on food waste, Dean Maupin, the chef-proprietor of the C&O Restaurant, a French provincial restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia, suggests asking yourself a simple question: How many people are you cooking for? Then adjust quantities and recipes accordingly. For example, “If you’re serving six to eight people and you don’t want a lot of leftovers, a ten- to twelve-pound turkey is big enough,” he says.

Set the table with small plates. In order to fill up a large plate, guests may dish up more than they can handle, leaving half-eaten portions of food you’re likely to toss out. Diners can always go back for seconds.

Let family and guests serve themselves. They can better gauge how much they want and will actually eat.

Package and store leftovers within two hours after serving the meal. This is the optimal window to prevent food spoilage, according to the Department of Agriculture. Keep out any longer and you'll have to throw it out.

Compost plant-based scraps. Put vegetable peelings, eggshells and other scraps in the compost bin outside. This will create a rich loam for your garden while cutting down on landfill waste.

Related: How to Compost Without Attracting Pests

Donate leftovers. Give unused canned and dried foods to a homeless shelter or food bank. Some communities also have food-recovery programs in which volunteers pick up leftover prepared foods from people’s homes.

Love your leftovers

Send guests home with doggie bags. Stock up on re-sealable containers or plastic freezer bags so they'll be handy for filling with leftovers. Relinquishing extra food also will prevent a refrigerator-storage dilemma.

Get creative. Spread cranberry sauce on toast and bagels for breakfast or bake some of the sauce in a muffin mix. Shred leftover turkey and add to scrambled eggs or roll up thin slices of roasted bird into breakfast burritos.

Stock up. “Don’t throw away the turkey carcass,” says Maupin. "Use it to make turkey stock. Freeze it until a cold winter day, then thaw it and prepare a delicious homemade soup from it." To make turkey stock, place the turkey carcass in a large pot and cover with water. Add leftover carrots, onions and celery — including trimmings. (“Never throw these away,” Maupin says). Simmer two to three hours, then transfer to freezer-safe storage containers and freeze immediately.

Turn mashed potatoes into potato pancakes. Shape leftover spuds into patties and fry them in a skillet with a tablespoon of butter or margarine until both sides are golden brown. Season with salt and pepper. Mashed potatoes also can top off a turkey shepherd’s pie, says Maupin.

Cook up a casserole, like this easy one from Maupin:


  • Leftover turkey
  • Leftover potatoes, carrots, celery and onions
  • Salt and pepper
  • Thyme
  • Sage
  • Parsley

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Cut turkey and vegetables into bite-size chunks and layer them in a casserole dish. Stir in a tablespoon of vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper. Add sage and thyme to taste. Top with a layer of dough flattened with a rolling pin or arrange canned biscuits on top. Sprinkle with parsley. Bake 30 minutes or until the top turns golden brown.

Related: How to Pack a Waste-Free School Lunch

Steve Evans, MA, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience in daily news, investigative, health and business journalism. Among other jobs, he has served as managing editor of the Central Virginia Newspaper Group, as a senior writer for SNL Financial and as a staff writer for The Progress Index and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.