Whether you view the six-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as a license for gluttony or as a treacherous onslaught of health-jeopardizing temptations, you’ll find no shortage of media advice on how to make the most (or the least) of the season. That advice, particularly in America, typically revolves around food.
But as you plan your menus — and your post-feast damage control — consider a stunning fact that Dana Gunders points out in her blog for the Natural Resources Defense Council: When Americans throw out an estimated $282 million in turkey meat this Thanksgiving, they will also be wasting the 1 million tons of carbon dioxide and 105 billion gallons of water used to produce that turkey.
While Gunders did not include similar calculations for all of the mashed potatoes, casseroles, salads, and desserts (well, maybe not much of the desserts) that will surely end up in the trash after the holiday indulgence ends, we can imagine that they will contribute a healthy chunk of the estimated 34 million tons of food that Americans waste every year.
The waste of resources associated with production of trashed food is staggering enough, but the impact extends to the landfills where food ends up and subsequently becomes a significant source of the greenhouse gas methane.
Though less than 3 percent of food waste is recovered from the waste stream, according to the EPA, it is actually an energy resource that can be turned into compost or used in an anaerobic digester to create electricity. The EPA estimates that if 50 percent of this food waste were anaerobically digested, it could generate enough electricity to power more than 2.5 million homes for one year.
(Related: A Fuel That Doesn’t Go to Waste)
The better solution, of course, is to prevent waste in the first place. To that end, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet blog has some advice worth paying attention to, no matter what your personal dining goals:
10 Tips for Reducing Food Waste
Before the meal: Plan your menu and exactly how much food you’ll need.
1. Be realistic: The fear of not providing enough to eat often causes hosts to cook too much. Instead, plan out how much food you and your guests will realistically need, and stock up accordingly. The Love Food Hate Waste organization, which focuses on sharing convenient tips for reducing food waste, provides a handy “Perfect Portions” planner to calculate meal sizes for parties as well as everyday meals.
2. Plan ahead: Create a shopping list before heading to the farmers’ market or grocery store. Sticking to this list will reduce the risk of impulse buys or buying unnecessary quantities, particularly since stores typically use holiday sales to entice buyers into spending more.
During the meal: Control the amount on your plate to reduce the amount in the garbage.
3. Go small: The season of indulgence often promotes plates piled high with more food than can be eaten. Simple tricks of using smaller serving utensils or plates can encourage smaller portions, reducing the amount left on plates. Guests can always take second (or third!) servings if still hungry, and it is much easier (and hygienic) to use leftovers from serving platters for future meals.
4. Encourage self-serve: Allow guests to serve themselves, choosing what, and how much, they would like to eat. This helps to make meals feel more familiar and also reduces the amount of unwanted food left on guests’ plates.
After the meal: Make the most out of leftovers.
5. Store leftovers safely: Properly storing our leftovers will preserve them safely for future meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that hot foods be left out for no more than two hours. Store leftovers in smaller, individually sized containers, making them more convenient to grab for a quick meal rather than being passed over and eventually wasted.
6. Compost food scraps: Instead of throwing out the vegetable peels, eggshells, and other food scraps from making your meal, consider composting them. Individual composting systems can be relatively easy and inexpensive, and provide quality inputs for garden soils. In 2010, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to pass legislation encouraging city-wide composting, and similar broader-scale food composting approaches have been spreading since.
7. Create new meals: If composting is not an option for you, check out Love Food Hate Waste’s creative recipes to see if your food scraps can be used for new meals. Vegetable scraps and turkey carcasses can be easily boiled down for stock and soups, and bread crusts and ends can be used to make tasty homemade croutons.
8. Donate excess: Food banks and shelters gladly welcome donations of canned and dried foods, especially during the holiday season and colder months. The charity group Feeding America partners with over 200 local food banks across the United States, supplying food to more than 37 million people each year. To find a food bank near you, visit the organization’s Food Bank Locator.
9. Support food-recovery programs: In some cases, food-recovery systems will come to you to collect your excess. In New York City, City Harvest, the world’s first food-rescue organization, collects approximately 28 million pounds of food each year that would otherwise go to waste, providing groceries and meals for over 300,000 people.
Throughout the holiday season: Consider what you’re giving.
10. Give gifts with thought: When giving food as a gift, avoid highly perishable items and make an effort to select foods that you know the recipient will enjoy rather than waste. The Rainforest Alliance, an international nonprofit, works with farmers and producers in tropical areas to ensure they are practicing environmentally sustainable and socially just methods. The group’s certified chocolates, coffee, and teas are great gifts that have with long shelf-lives, and buying them helps support businesses and individuals across the world.
For more ways to slim down, check out the 360º Energy Diet, with tips for how to shrink energy consumption in six key areas, including food.
Editor’s note: The original version of this post ran on Nov. 21, 2011.