5 Ways to Avoid Unnecessary Food Waste on Thanksgiving

When picturing Thanksgiving, you probably envision a dining table overflowing with dishes such as mashed potatoes, gravy and, of course, turkey. But, have you ever noticed while reveling in the cornucopia of the holidays how much food you're likely wasting?

Americans generate “an extra 5 million tons of household waste each year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, including three times as much food waste as at other times of the year,” reports the Worldwatch Institute. We aren’t doing too well the rest of the year, either, with 40 percent of food in the United States getting thrown away, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In order to avoid any unnecessary wastefulness this Thanksgiving, experts have shared with ATTN: five easy ways to reduce food waste during the holidays.

1. Shop wisely.

When planning your Thanksgiving meal, consider taking this piece of advice: "If there’s a dish no one likes but you make because it’s one person's favorite, then don’t make it," said Regina Northouse, executive director of Food Recovery Network, the largest student movement against food waste and hunger in America. Likewise, she added, there's no reason to make three different types of cranberry sauce. Prior to going grocery shopping, she also suggested doing a quick scan of what you already have at home.

When you do take stock of your food supplies, you should be aware of what date labels really mean. People throw out food much earlier than they need to because of confusion around the differences among date labels, such as “sell by,” “best before,” and “use by,” according to a 2013 national survey by researchers from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the National Consumers League and the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

"Often, people think that a [date] label might mean food is becoming unsafe, when really, the label is referring to minute changes in the quality of food," said Roni Neff, one of the researchers who conducted the survey and the program director of food system sustainability and public health at John Hopkins University.

In addition to becoming aware of what dates on food mean, Neff suggested using an online calculator to properly measure how much food you will need to feed a certain number of people.

2. Pick imperfect fruits and vegetables.

As you're shopping for your Thanksgiving meal, consider choosing "imperfect" fruit and vegetables, said Kevin Mullin, executive director of Community Plates, an organization that rescues food from businesses and delivers it to people in need.

"Besides the fact they don’t look as good, there's no difference," said Mullin. "They have the same nutritional value and flavor, but there's an American addiction to perfect-looking produce, which is a major factor in our food waste."

If you have fruit on display, Mullin said you could still use imperfect fruits and vegetables and use them as a conversation-starter. "You could say, 'We chose to have a pumpkin that’s not perfect to be part of change in how we think about food.'" For parents, he notes this is an ideal learning opportunity to tell your children why you picked certain produce and to teach them that all food has value.

3. Limit your food packaging.

While many companies are trying to figure out how to make packaging biodegradable and recyclable, it's still difficult for the consumer to limit this type of waste, according to Northouse. "It's not our fault that some of the foods we want are in this crazy packaging," said Northouse. "To combat that, you can go to farmers markets and shop local. Typically, those vegetables and fruits don't come in a lot of packaging and require you to bring your own bag for your groceries."

If your favorite company doesn't use recyclable materials, she adds, you can voice your concern to them. "Use your voice, and send an email that says, 'I don't know what to do with your bag after I use it,'" added Northouse.

4. Make a plan for leftovers.

If you do have leftovers, don't fret – you can still avoid wasting food. Neff recommended making ample use of your freezer: "You might be completely sick of this food by Saturday, but in a month, it might seem amazing."

She added, "If you’re having guests, have plastic containers and tin foil ready and, as a host, encourage them to bring food home."

Another option would be to donate your leftovers to a local soup kitchen. "While organizations like ours don't pick up food from people's homes, most soup kitchens in the U.S. will accept food from people’s homes if you package food in the correct way," said Mullin. To do this, you might want to contact a soup kitchen ahead of time to find out the best way to contain and deliver your leftovers.

This option allows you to contribute to people suffering from food insecurity, on which the statistics are staggering. In 2015, "42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children," and “13 percent of households (15.8 million households) were food insecure,” according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks with a mission to feed America’s hungry.

5. Compost food scraps.

For food scraps that are inedible, Northouse offered composting as an option. Depending on where you live, she noted compost services might be available for a small fee every month or local community gardens might accept composting in addition to training people on how to compost without attracting pests.

According to Neff, most people don't think they waste food. In a 2015 survey, Neff and a team of researcher found that “three-quarters of respondents said they discard less food than the average American.”

Now, with these tips in mind, hopefully unnecessary food waste will be prevented and an awareness around better food habits can be cultivated for the rest of the year.