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Tips & Ideas For A Zero-Waste Thanksgiving

Many of us love and look forward to Thanksgiving, a holiday set aside to reminisce on the good things in our lives and celebrate them. It’s a chance to reunite with family and friends and experience lots of love and inclusiveness. However, Thanksgiving usually involves large gatherings, lots of cooking, gift buying, and other activities that can generate a lot of waste. In this article, we share timely tips for a zero-waste Thanksgiving.

The problem

According to a Stanford University study, Americans generate about 25% more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year. Wasted food in America amounts to 40 million tons yearly, which takes up about 22% of landfill space. In addition, disposable plastic and paper plates and cups in U.S landfills amount to over 2 million tons. Apart from aggravating food insecurity, this waste also worsens climate change.

Zero waste has many environmental benefits, and with a bit of planning and preparation, it's easy to minimize the amount of waste we generate over Thanksgiving.

Related: For more holiday season tips, you might like our guides to a zero-waste Christmas and zero-waste holidays. To help you get in the mood for the day, browse our Thanksgiving quotes

General preparations for hosting thanksgiving

1. Make a guest list

Zero Waste Thanksgiving - Make a Guestlist
Photo by fauxels

Before baking the largest turkey you can find and hoping people show up, reach out to friends and family with an invitation. Be sure to note on the invite that all who intend to attend must RSVP as you are planning on zero-waste Thanksgiving.

Knowing how many guests you'll have helps you curate a zero-waste shopping list to help only buy what you need. It also allows you to consider any dietary restrictions and avoid trashing leftovers. 

2. Get your guests to pitch in

Many Thanksgiving hosts wait for guests to turn up with surprise dishes and end up with too many of the same dishes on the table. Typically some of the food goes to waste. It is better to ask guests what other dishes they are bringing or ask them to bring something specific. You can list what food to expect and prepare the rest. 

You can also ask guests to contribute in other ways. For example, they could bring their own containers for leftovers or send you unused meal ingredients and decor for Thanksgiving they have lying around. Allowing your guest to contribute to the preparations is a smart way to reduce waste and save some money.

3. Resist the urge to splurge on Black Friday deals

We know that holiday binge shopping isn't healthy for our planet or your wallet. Think of all the carbon emissions from manufacturing and waste. But during the holiday season, brands roll out all kinds of price-slash deals. As a result, many folks get carried away buying items they won't ever use, reuse, or already have at home.

So before swiping your card for Thanksgiving, ask yourself if the item is reusable or recyclable. Remember to check your pantry and cupboards to take proper inventory of ingredients you already have at home. Do the same for decorations, too; it will help you cut costs and generate less trash.

Related: Importance of 4Rs - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

4. Use reusable crockery

Thanksgiving dinner
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Plastic or disposable paper crockery are such unsustainable use of natural resources. Your guests will only use these items for one meal before they end up in the garbage bin. So for large gatherings, ask family and friends to bring their plates. For smaller groups, your plates and cloth napkins should suffice.

Your leftover food storage, cookware, and serving dishes should be reusable too. If you are concerned about how much washing you'll need to do after, enlist the help of your dinner guests. Also, use a dishwasher instead of handwashing as the latter consumes more water.  

And when it comes to washing up, opt for detergent without plastic bottles. To help you along the way, check our guides to zero-waste dish soap and zero-waste dishwasher detergents

Zero waste Thanksgiving food preparation

5. Cook from scratch

Cooking from scratch prevents a lot of plastic packaging waste from semi-prepared processed foods. It also means you know what you are eating, there are no preservatives, and your food tastes fresh! Your local zero-waste store will have a bulk aisle for many store cupboard essentials you can stock up with in advance to avoid the last-minute supermarket dash for packaged items. 

You could do a few things to make cooking from scratch less challenging. Start with a critical look at your Thanksgiving recipes and eliminate any meal that folks hardly ever eat. That reduces how much food you have to make. Also, try sharing hosting duties with someone else. For example, they can deal with decorations while you are busy with the turkey.

If you need to learn to cook some dishes, ask one of your trusted family or friends to come a little earlier to help with the preparations. 

6. Shop at the local farmers' market

Fresh produce at the local farmers market
Photo by Mark Stebnicki

It may be more convenient to buy all the ingredients for your mouth-watering festive recipes from the store. But shopping locally at the local farmers’ market near you, if one exists, is a better choice. Not only will you contribute to the local economy, but you will also get the freshest and in-season produce.

Buying locally also means that your food has a lower carbon footprint and food miles; the sellers don’t have to ship in the produce from overseas. 

You can get humanely reared turkey at the farmers market. In addition, you can bring your bags for even less packaging. Sourcing herbs and spices from your neighbor’s garden, if they’ve previously offered them, is also something to consider.

7. Reuse or give out leftovers

Creative meal planning can turn leftover food into tasty new dishes. The turkey breast, for instance, would make excellent broth the next day. But first, you'll need to look up recipes and eco-friendly food preservation methods. Be sure to research, as many preservation hacks will require preparations beforehand.

As we mentioned, ask your guest to bring reusable food containers or reusable Ziploc bag alternatives with which they'll take leftovers home. Your guest will be happy to take some more food home and enjoy eating a post-Thanksgiving festive meal.

8. Donate to avoid waste

Consider donating if you have leftover produce or whole meals you couldn't preserve or use. Your local food pantry, a nearby shelter, or a religious center may need it as they reach out to the needy. You can make the holidays more wonderful by giving someone who is not privileged to eat at a family/friends table a nice dinner to be thankful for.

9. Compost food scraps

Even with careful planning, food scraps are inevitable. And although throwing them in the trash seems like the easiest thing to do, it is not the only option. Composting is one way to eliminate food waste in an eco-friendly manner. 

Both cooking scraps and leftovers can go in the compost, but you want to be careful because only some things are suited for home compost. While at it, remember to recycle beer cans and any plastic containers.

Waste-free Thanksgiving decorations

10. Go natural 

If you are DIY-inclined, you can create very tasteful Thanksgiving decorations using natural elements. Pine cones, butternut squash, dried foliage, and fresh flowers are lovely natural decor items. In addition, you can use old decor items from last year, so you don't go shopping for brand-new ones. 

There are many creative ways to set up the table with seemingly simple things to create a warm and cozy atmosphere. A quick look online would surprise you.


We should never forget that Earth is one of the many things we are thankful for. Therefore, as we celebrate, we should also make conscious efforts to protect and preserve it. This Thanksgiving, let us reduce our holiday waste and pollution. The tips in this article will help you avoid food waste in a few steps that are simple and practical. Even better, these tips will come in handy for Christmas too.

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash
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