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Celebrate the Bounty, Not the Waste

November 13, 2018

Americans toss a lot of food in the garbage, equaling about $165 billion every year.  About $293 million of our food waste dollars are spent during Thanksgiving, and that’s just from tossing turkey. It doesn’t even count the mounds of other food we throw out during the celebration of our bounty—dinner rolls, Aunt Betty’s cranberry surprise, mom’s string bean casserole, etc. 

For our Thanksgiving meal, we’ll purchase nearly 3 million pounds of collard greens, 2 million pounds of kale and 1.2 million pounds of Brussels sprouts. In fact, food purchases during the week of Thanksgiving are second only to the week of Christmas for all food and beverage categories combined in the U.S.

Historically, Thanksgiving has its roots in the religious and cultural traditions of being thankful for the blessings of the harvest and of the preceding year. The English pilgrims and puritans who settled in New England in the early 1600s brought these traditions with them. In 1863, President Lincoln declared a national “Thanksgiving Day” to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November. The holiday, as declared by Lincoln, was to celebrate the bounties of the Union and its military successes in the Civil War.

Ironically, due to the continuing fighting, a nationwide Thanksgiving Day celebration wasn’t observed until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s. A joint resolution of Congress in 1941 and signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday.

So, in being thankful for our food bounties, should we really strive to eat so much of it during the holidays? Especially since I doubt a celebration resulting in so much food (and other) waste would be something our Puritan ancestors would take pride in. Being thankful is a good thing certainly, but remembering those who don’t get enough to eat and the fact that our waste generates a lot of environmental consequences should be on our minds as well.

When you really think about it, cooking more food does not equate with holiday joy. Sharing good food and conversation with others and being thankful is what makes the holiday.

And, let’s face it, more food means more leftovers. And, a lot of us don’t do well cooking leftovers. Leftovers can get boring… Perhaps we can have a more enjoyable and less wasteful Thanksgiving by purchasing and cooking less food!

In an effort to promote more free time (through less prep and cooking) and less food waste during the holiday season I offer the following shopping and meal preparation tips to reduce food waste:

  • Plan your holiday meal—how many people are joining you? Any vegetarians? Gluten free? Look in your refrigerator and cupboards to see what you already have for your meal needs. Create a shopping list of the items that you don’t have. Stick to your list and try to avoid “impulse purchases.” Check out Save the Food’s “Guest-imator” for your meal planning needs.  
  • If it’s important to have a variety of dishes offered during the holiday meal, keep in mind that large portions for every dish are not necessary.
  • If your main focus is on the “big meal” consider offering fewer pre-dinner appetizers and soup in order to “save room” for the main event. Play pre-dinner party games instead! Or, perhaps be different and create a holiday meal of apps and finger foods and forego the big dinner.
  • Get distracted while cooking? Add too much salt, burnt soup? Never fear, there may be hope. Check out the 5 Ways to Revive Food.
  • Stock up on storage containers/bags for leftovers; ask your guests to bring containers to take leftovers home with them.
  • If you’re not inclined to properly prep and eat leftovers, prepare less food. While full-sized turkeys, big roasts, etc. are impressive, smaller birds or meat cuts are equally tasty. Also, family traditions are charming, but if no one eats Aunt Betty’s cranberry surprise, then perhaps skip it!
  • Much of our food waste is fruits, vegetables, and bread. Consult Stop Food Waste's Storage & Cooking Essentials and NERC’s Reduce Wasted Food! Tip Sheet
  • Go buffet to reduce waste! Letting people serve themselves helps to ensure they take what they think they can and want to eat, helping to reduce plate waste.

Prepping and cooking leftovers:

  • If you are not familiar with storing, freezing, and reheating foods, check out USDA’s Keep Food Safe.
  • To safely store leftovers, dishes should be stored shortly after dinner is completed. So, put on some music, pour some wine, and make leftovers prepping a fun event!
  • To preserve a turkey (and other meats), strip the meat off. Leftovers should be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap or stored in a sealable container or freezer bag. 
  • The carcass and bones can be put in the refrigerator for making stock (use within three days) or frozen for use in stock at a later time. Store bones and meat separately.
  • Appropriately cooked and stored leftovers will be fine stored in a refrigerator for four days. Plan ahead. If you don’t think the leftovers will be eaten within four days, its best to put them in the freezer within two hours of cooking them.
  • Stuffing, mashed potatoes, and flour-based gravy can be frozen. Most vegetables—squash, sweet potatoes, broccoli, Brussel sprouts—can be frozen; casserole dishes, such as string bean casserole, won’t freeze well. Leftover dinner rolls, fruit pies, and even cranberry sauce can be frozen. Cool dishes completely and store in separate containers.
  • Freeze leftover cooked meat and gravy together to keep the meat from drying out.
  • To freeze gravy, give it a whirl in a blender first, to keep it from separating when you thaw it. Check out Storing Leftover Gravy for more gravy-storage tips.
  • To moisten frozen stuffing, sprinkle a little broth or water on it prior to reheating.
  • Its best to freeze individually packaged, meal-sized portions. ALWAYS label each container (item and date), using a sharpie pen!! Once defrosted, leftovers should be eaten within 24 hours.
  • There are lots of ways to use leftovers! Just do an Internet search for ideas. Check out Food and Wine’s Thanksgiving Leftovers to Love, How to Lay Waste to Thanksgiving Leftovers or FoodPrint for great tips on using all kinds of leftover food items.

Happy Thanksgiving!

By Athena Lee Bradley

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