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Tips to Reduce Food Waste at Thanksgiving

Posted by Jean Buzby, USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison in Food and Nutrition Health and Safety
Nov 17, 2020
A family sitting down to Thanksgiving
Before and after your Thanksgiving meal, consider these tips to reduce food waste.

Each year, the average American family of four loses $1,500 to uneaten food — that’s about 1,160 pounds of food. With Thanksgiving around the corner, it is timely to think about how we as individuals can keep our household food waste in check.

Thanksgiving may be different this year, but we can still have a special celebration with a few adjustments. At the same time, we can reduce our food waste. For example, we may not need the turkey that serves 12 people when we have only six at the table. While many of us like turkey sandwiches the next day with a slice of pumpkin pie, we may waste a lot of perfectly good food if we overprepare and don’t take steps to freeze or store leftovers properly until they can be eaten. Wasting food is a waste of money that could be used elsewhere. As the USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison, I would like to share with you a few tips that can help reduce food waste at our holiday meals and save you money.

Plan your holiday meal

Before you go to the grocery store or order online, plan and make a list to reduce the chance that you’ll buy more than you need. Research shows that making a written list can help shoppers avoid impulse purchases, which may include foods they don’t need. For turkey, one rule of thumb is to plan for one pound per person, or a pound and a half if you want leftovers. For smaller-than-normal gatherings, consider preparing only the favorite family side dishes to go with the main course. You might serve one type of your favorite rolls or dessert instead of several. If you want to prepare all of your family’s traditional dishes, consider cutting recipes in half if you are cooking for fewer people this year. If you do have guests who want to bring a dish, coordinate in advance on who is cooking which dish.

While preparing dishes, save the scraps for future cooking

Freeze scraps like vegetable peelings and meat trimmings for your future culinary creations. Use them later in savory broths and hearty soups to provide comforting warmth on cold days. Or cook the scraps to make other foods or ingredients. You can season potato peelings and bake them into chips, or sauté extra chopped onions to make recipe-ready caramelized onions.

Store or give away leftovers

Place food in clear containers marked with the contents and date. That can increase the chances that the leftovers in the fridge will be remembered and actually eaten. If you have guests who want leftovers, let them choose their favorite dishes so that their take-away food containers match what they will really enjoy. For example, guests who only like white turkey meat would likely waste a leftover drumstick or wing.

Be creative with your leftovers

My favorite post-Thanksgiving treat was when my mom made fritters with the leftover mashed potatoes for breakfast the next day. Extra rolls and bread that are getting stale can be made into bread pudding. Think about what your family did to save food from being wasted and add your own touch of creativity. Try your hand at making homemade turkey stock with the bones, or make turkey chili with leftover meat. Whip extra buttermilk or cream into French toast batter. You could even start a new family tradition of serving a pot of turkey soup on the weekend after Thanksgiving.


If you have extra cans of pumpkin pie filling, green beans, or cranberry sauce, consider donating them to your local food bank to help those in need. Visit the Feeding America website or EPA’s Excess Food Opportunities Map to find a food bank near you.

Don’t let your leftovers end up in a landfill

The food on your table is the result of many resources. Fresh water, energy, land, and labor are used to create, process, transport, store, market, and prepare that food. Do what you can to keep your food out of landfills so that all of those resources are not wasted. Food rotting in landfills emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, so by keeping food out of landfills you are helping the climate.

A great tool that you can use in your home to reduce food waste is the FoodKeeper App, which provides guidance on storage (e.g., in a refrigerator or freezer) for more than 650 food and beverage items and helps you track storage times for different foods. For example, for freshness and quality, rotisserie chicken should be consumed within three to four days when stored in refrigerator or within four months if stored frozen. This app also provides guidance on safe handling and preparation with helpful cooking tips, such as how to thaw and roast a turkey by weight. FoodKeeper is available free as a mobile application for Android and Apple devices, or via desktop at


Composting your food scraps can help your garden grow. Learn how to get started with composting resources from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Or, look into local community compost or compost collection/drop-off opportunities. A number of cities and counties across the country are making composting an option for their residents. When composting, make sure to only toss organics in the collection container and keep out produce stickers and noncompostable plastic bags, service ware, or utensils.

No matter how you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, these tips and tools can help you reduce food waste while enjoying your holiday.

For further reading:
USDA blogs on food waste