Reducing Food Waste During the Holiday Season | Civil Eats

Reducing Food Waste During the Holiday Season

The holiday season is a time for gifts, decorations, and lots and lots of food. As a result, it’s also a time of spectacular amounts of waste. In the United States, we generate an extra 5 million tons of household waste each year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, including three times as much food waste as at other times of the year. When our total food waste adds up to 34 million tons each year, that equals a lot of food. With the holidays now upon us, the Worldwatch Institute offers 10 simple steps we all can take to help make this season less wasteful and more plentiful.

“Family, community, love, and gratitude are all unlimited resources,” says Worldwatch President Robert Engelman. “Unfortunately, food, energy, water, and other natural resources that go into producing it are not. The logical strategy is to let ourselves go in enjoying the unlimited conviviality and communion of the holidays, but to avoid wasting the limited resources. Even simple shifts toward sustainability—and reducing food waste is an easy one—can have major impacts when multiplied by millions of people.”

According to the United Nations (UN)’s Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption—approximately 1.3 billion tons—is lost or wasted each year. Consumers in developed countries such as the U.S. are responsible for 222 million tons of this waste, or nearly the same quantity of food as is produced in all of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, an estimated 8-10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with uneaten food.

“We need to start focusing on diverting food from going into our trashcans and landfills and instead getting it into the hands of those who need it most,” added Engelman.

As Americans prepare for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, here are 10 tips to help reduce the amount of food we 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 and over-shopping, 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 we can eat. Simple tricks such as using smaller serving utensils or plates can encourage smaller portions, reducing the amount left behind on plates. Guests can always take second (or third!) servings if they’re still hungry, and it’s much easier (and hygienic) to use leftovers from serving platters for future meals.

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4.     Encourage self-service: 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 waste.

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 (USDA) 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 left behind after from making your meal, consider composting them. Individual composting systems can be relatively easy and inexpensive, and provide quality inputs for garden soils.

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.

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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.

The food wasted in the U.S. each year is enough to satisfy the hunger of the approximately one billion malnourished people worldwide, according to Tristram Stuart, a food waste expert. As we prepare for holiday celebrations, the simple changes we make, such as using food responsibly and donating excess to the hungry, can make all the difference.

Originally published on the Worldwatch Institute’s website.

Danielle Nierenberg is co-founder of FoodTank: The Food Think Tank is an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. Danielle served as the Director of the Food and Agriculture program at the Worldwatch Institute. She also worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Read more >

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  1. Great list...we all need to do our part to reduce food waste. Another idea to consider -- using (and gifting) FreshPaper, a new organic, sustainable product that easily keeps produce fresh for longer, reducing waste due to spoilage (

    FreshPaper is taking off in Boston and is a remarkable innovation for both consumers and growers to address the massive, yet often overlooked challenge of food spoilage.
  2. The best part of holiday cooking is the leftovers!

    I just had a holiday party last weekend and as always, I made a little too much food, but then I don't have to cook for the rest of the week! Lol. Plus, repurposing leftovers is fun. At least in my opinion.

    Smaller plates is a good idea as is letting people serve themselves. I always do buffet-style for parties. It means less food waste and people can eat how much they want of whatever they want.

    The other fun thing of party planning is trying to come up with dishes that can be made from ingredients you already have on hand! I only had to buy a couple pounds of chicken, some heavy cream, frozen peas, and some sour cream for my holiday meal of creamed chicken and vegetables over cornmeal biscuits, creamy dill dip with carrots, cream cheese scallion beef dip with crackers, orange and red onion salad with honey mustard vinaigrette, potato and green onion soup, moist pumpkin cake, Norwegian fruit soup, and rice pudding.

    Of course, I also keep a ridiculously well-stocked kitchen. But that's another story.
  3. It seems that we take for granted what type of food we have access to. A lot of people are starving and we don't even want to spend our money to buy the best possible quality food. It really didn't make much sense. We need more people to value health over consumerism.

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