How to Reduce Your Thanksgiving Food Waste

Thanksgiving is a time for good food, good company, and good conversation. Unfortunately, 37 million people are food insecure in the United States (almost 11 million of which are children) according to Feeding America. This is a shocking statistic, especially given that between 34-40 percent of the food produced annually in this country goes uneaten, according to a 2017 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

This Thanksgiving, let’s do our part to try and make this right. Whether you own a restaurant, grocery store, or other business that often finds itself throwing out food waste, or you just want to know how you can reduce your Thanksgiving food waste from your family meal, read on for Rubicon’s tips on what to do with your Thanksgiving leftovers and food waste.

Where to Donate Thanksgiving Food

If you bought too much food for your Thanksgiving meal and you have some leftovers (as does just about every American!), you can donate it to your local food bank to ensure it doesn’t get wasted.

Feeding America has an online tool on its website that makes it easy to search its nationwide network of food banks for the one closest to you. Feeding America distributes “4.3 billion meals each year through food pantries and meal programs throughout the United States,” so they’re a great place to start your search.

If you own a business that creates food waste, you may also want to check out a food donation startup, such as Goodr, Copia, and Spoiler Alert. Data and technology are increasingly being used to make food donation easy and efficient.

Once you find your closest food bank, look up their drop-off hours and what items they are most in need of at the moment. As a general rule, Feeding America notes that the items that food banks are most interested in around the Thanksgiving holiday are “healthy, non-perishable” food items, especially:

  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Canned vegetables
  • Boxed stuffing
  • Dried macaroni
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Canned pumpkin

Don’t worry about donating too much; even if your food is not used over Thanksgiving, it will be used soon enough.

How to Prepare Thanksgiving Dinner to Minimize Food Waste

Now that you have donated any food items you don’t need, it’s time to look at how best to prepare your Thanksgiving dinner in order to minimize the amount of food being wasted in the first place. Think of this as your strategic plan for next year’s Thanksgiving meal!

Here are some tips from my Rubicon® colleagues and I:

  • Check what you have already: You’ll be surprised by what you can find in your pantry or freezer. Before running out to grab something you need at the last minute, look around to see if you already have it or an equivalent that will work just as well.
  • Understand the differences between expiration date formats: There’s a good chance that something you were going to throw out for being past its sell-by date is perfectly fine to eat.
  • Embrace vegetable skins: With few exceptions, vegetable skins can be eaten without ruining the flavor of the individual vegetable or the dish they’re contained within. Mashed potatoes with the skins left on is a particularly delicious treat.
  • Come up with a meal plan for rare and unique ingredients: If you find yourself purchasing rare and unique ingredients for your Thanksgiving meal that are unlikely to be used up, plan in advance what other recipes you can use these in so they are not wasted.
  • Encourage smaller serving sizes: Encouraging your guests to take smaller serving sizes by using smaller plates and standard tablespoons in place of serving spoons will go a long way towards reducing food waste this Thanksgiving.

When you minimize food waste while preparing your Thanksgiving dinner, you also ensure you’re not wasting money by throwing out perfectly good food.

What to Do With Thanksgiving Leftovers

Of course, even after donating unneeded food items and ensuring you waste as little food as possible during the preparation and cooking phases, you are still going to be left with some Thanksgiving food waste.

According to Waste Dive, Americans discard approximately 35 percent (204 million pounds) of edible turkey meat each year, and “What goes uneaten from that one meal served in households around the country will generate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 800,000 car trips from New York to San Francisco.”

Leftover food cannot typically be donated, so it’s important that you have a plan in place for your Thanksgiving leftovers (and leftover food at any other time of the year). Here’s what we suggest:

  • Set aside any bones and vegetable peelings for stock—freeze them if you don’t think you’ll get to them for a while.
  • Ask your guests to bring their own food storage containers in which to take Thanksgiving leftovers home. If there is a significant amount of food left over, consider making everyone up a miniature thanksgiving meal in their container.
  • Any food that is still left over after your guests are gone should be refrigerated and/or frozen, depending on how quickly you believe they can be eaten.
  • If you have pets, feel free to give any leftovers that are safe for them to eat to them.
  • If you still have leftover food at this point, compost it! If you’re a business, see below how Rubicon’s food waste recycling program can help with composting.

Rubicon’s Food Waste Solution

At Rubicon, we operate a food waste recycling program in which we work with businesses of all sizes to find solutions for food waste challenges, including assistance with state and federal food waste laws and regulations.

If you own a restaurant, grocery store, or any other business that often finds itself throwing out food waste, we can help you become a food donor so food is picked up on a convenient schedule that works for your business.

Reducing Thanksgiving food waste is a step in the right direction towards a circular economy that reduces our impact on the environment while helping to tackle food insecurity at the same time.

From all of us here at Rubicon, I wish you a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving.


Ryan Cooper is a Waste Diversion Manager and the Organics Recycling Lead at Rubicon Global. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.

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