top of page
  • Jenny Hill

Adventures in Sustainability: Prevent Holiday Food Waste

The abundance of produce that is available in late summer through fall inspires many gatherings, special dinners and celebrations, of which Thanksgiving might be the most well-known. Holidays are often extra stress filled too–in part because not all of us are used to preparing special meals or even simply cooking for more than ourselves.

A fancy table set with turkey dinner

Another consequence of preparing a big meal can be food waste. Food waste is a serious issue. Did you know that the impact of heat-trapping gases created by food waste is more than double the impact of all airplane flights in the world? Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe devoted an entire recent issue of her newsletter to food waste, which you can read here.

In a previous post from July, we explore some alternatives to letting food go to waste. But what about reducing waste by careful planning, not only for the big meal itself, but for the time after the big event? There are some excellent resources out there!

Save the Food

This amazing website,, is the brainchild of the Natural Resources Defense Council and offers tips on things like meal planning and recipes as well as food storage. It also offers a savings calculator on what the pay off will be for less food waste.

But what is really useful in the ramp-up to Thanksgiving is the Guest-Imator where you answer questions like: How many guests will there be? What type of eaters are they (small, average, big)? How many meals of leftovers would you like to have?

The leftover question made me thump my forehead, as in “What?? You can plan for how much you had leftover?” In my family growing up, we would no more expect to know how much would be leftover from a meal than we would to know how much rain we were going to get by looking at the clouds. My Mom was a creative cook and housekeeper, so looking back, I assume the food didn’t go to waste. But that is no doubt a privileged view–just like I was privileged to know there always was going to be a big, special meal on holidays.

Blue and black screen shot of place to enter number of guests on Guest-imator website

Back to the Guest-Imator. As you click through the tool, you select the type of meal you would like (Classic Dinner Party, Veggie Paradise, or Smorgasbord). You’ll do more clicking to select things like type of meat, vegetables and desserts. There are even recipes and storage options.

Shop Your Pantry

Un-fun fact: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates food waste increases an additional 25% during the holidays. You can save yourself (and your holiday meals) from becoming another statistic by shopping your pantry, freezer, and cupboards. What does that mean? There are at least two possible approaches.

Rows of tin cans

  1. Shop at home ahead of selecting the menu. BEFORE you even try the Guest-Imator or firm up menu ideas, stick your head in your freezer, cupboards, and pantry. Are there things you purchased and forgot about…delicious sustainably raised chicken? That amazingly priced 10 pound bag of brown rice from a warehouse food store? The 5 cans of coconut milk that weren’t going to expire for 12 months when you bought them almost a year ago?

  2. Shop at home once the menu is firmed up. Make the same commitment to looking deeply into your food storage areas, but AFTER you have menu ideas in hand. If you run into things that seem to have expired, check out this link for definitions and guidelines of commonly used date-labeling phrases from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Recipe Reflection

You’ve selected recipes, so take a step back and evaluate

  1. Do any recipes share ingredients? If so, you can save time and money by buying in bulk

  2. Are there opportunities to eat root-to-stem (using all the parts like broccoli stems, lemons after juicing, etc)

  3. Buying “ugly” produce–depending on where you live, there may be a local store or mail order service that offers this.

This article from public radio station WBUR has some timeless tips, including root to stem suggestions.

Wrangle Those Leftovers

Maybe your favorite part of a holiday meal is after the guests have gone and you have a refrigerator full of leftovers for your own enjoyment. Maybe you get great satisfaction from sending your beloved grandpa home with a few extra pieces of his favorite pie. Maybe you would make someone’s holiday by offering them leftovers that cover their lunches for work the following week. Consider starting a new tradition when guests ask: “What can we bring?” by responding “Containers to take home leftovers!”

Full refrigerator shelves with leftover containers

There are some safety concerns, of course, in handling leftovers, so don’t miss tips from the National Science Foundation on how to handle leftovers safely.

Other Strategies

If this isn’t the year to embark on a new organizing meal-planning project, maybe it’s the year to hold a potluck. Less planning and expense for you and just a little communication goes a long way to preventing waste by letting people know how many guests to expect and who is bringing what. Find a potluck sign up sheet here.

What started as a pandemic strategy for some restaurants has carried over to a holiday model–pre-ordering a holiday meal. Yes, it’s expensive, but there are potential sustainability benefits in only ordering as much food as you know you will use.

Winding Up

Preventing food waste through strategies like we’ve looked at here brings all these sustainability benefits as listed below by the Environmental Protection Agency in their wasted food scale. Incorporating even a few in your holiday meals this year helps you be part of the solution.

  • Save energy and resources associated with growing, preparing, and transporting food, including land and water use.

  • Prevent pollution from food production, such as application of fertilizers and pesticides.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the food supply chain and reduce methane emissions from landfills and other disposal methods.

  • Save money by buying only what is needed and by avoiding disposal costs.

  • Save labor costs through more efficient handling, preparation, and storage of food that will be eaten.

  • Feed more people with the amount of food currently produced.


bottom of page