Easy Ways to Reduce Waste After Holiday Dinners

Sarah Moore Impact Mill Contributor
Holiday Cart

I love my mom dearly, but the woman really does go off her nut during the holidays. You’d think, walking into our home on Thanksgiving Day and looking at the groaning table, that we were hosting every Seattle Seahawk who had ever lived. I mean, sure, we can eat…but not that much. Now, unlike many, my mom is also a food waste Nazi, so almost none of it gets thrown out. But sadly, the same is not true across the nation.

The average American wastes about 20 pounds of food per month, and it only goes up during the holidays, when our eyes are not only bigger than our plates…they’re bigger than our refrigerators. If you want to cut waste this holiday, you can take a different approach with those big fancy dinners and all the smaller meals in between. Here’s how:

Prepare “Just Enough”

holiday table

Be mindful of the portions you will actually need over the holidays| image: Igor Shatokhin/Flickr

This seems kind of obvious, but it’s harder than you might think for most of us. The holidays are based on harvest time, which is a time of plenty. Although many of us live in a year-round land of plenty now, the urge to splurge is strongest this time of year. But that urge leads to waste, which you can cut down fairly easily by reducing the amount of food you intend to make.

One easy way to do that is to actually estimate the amount of food each person is going to eat. While this portion primer is actually geared toward health, it makes for a handy guide on how much food to serve. Make a rough estimate of servings based on hand size, taking into account the number of people you’re serving, and the total number of leftover portions you’d like (say, one for each guest the following day). It won’t be exact, but you’ll avoid the problem of having 50 percent more food than you really need.

Make the Most of Everything

Most foods offer more use than you think. For instance, onion skins and chicken carcasses can be made into delicious stocks. Other scraps worth simmering up and using as a soup base are:

  • Beef and lamb bones
  • Fish carcasses
  • Shrimp shells
  • Sweet potato skins (really thickens soup)
  • Celery, carrot, pepper and garlic trimmings

Avoid greens, brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) and russet potato peels. In my experience, these are all kind of gross in stock. Ditto for organs other than hearts or livers.

apple cores

A food mill helps minimize apple waste | image: Stacy/Flickr

Apples are often a source of major waste because people just hack out the cores and throw them away. This isn’t necessary at all. I make my applesauce by baking whole apples in the oven at 400 degrees until they’re shiny and bubbly, then putting them lock, stock and barrel through a food mill. This way, only a bit of skin and seed gets tossed away. If you don’t have a food mill or that’s too far outside of your comfort zone, here’s another good method that minimizes apple core waste.

I also save bread ends to turn into crumbs, use pasta water to thicken pasta dishes and salads, and turn pie scraps into yummy “cookies” with sugar sprinkled on top.

Use Small Serving Plates

This is one of the easiest tricks. We tend to pile the food high on our plates during holiday meals, taking advantage of all the square footage. Then, when it turns out we can’t hold as much as we thought, that food gets scraped into the garbage. Use salad plates instead, and people can go back for seconds if they’re really hungry.

Learn to Repurpose Dishes and Reinvent Leftovers

Especially during the holidays, it’s pretty uncommon to finish a whole family-sized dish in one night (my famous creamed onions being the exception, of course). After a serving or two, you may have had your fill of those foods…in their current form at least. I’ve become a ninja at repurposing foods, though, and you can too.


Leftover cranberry sauce can be transformed into other uses | image: Kim Love/Flickr

A few of my tricks include blending leftover cranberry sauce into applesauce (see above). Cornbread can be turned into stuffing or fried in a little butter or bacon grease for a delicious breakfast dish. Use up leftover turkey in this version of chicken noodle soup all grown up. Put leftover veggies and meat into a chicken or turkey pot pie.

Be Responsible with Scraps

Of course, not everything can be used. You have several more options, though. I like to feed leftovers to animals first, so I can cut down the amount of processed food I have to give my dogs or chickens. The compost pile is another good option.

If you’re a business, food rescue services present an even bigger opportunity. This essentially means donating foods, which no longer meet strict federal food requirements, to the needy instead of tossing them. There are options for schools, restaurants and other businesses. Sure, you can’t send the rest of your holiday dinner to them, but if you work in an industry that prepares food – especially over the holidays when work parties, special events, restaurant traffic and home catering are all higher than usual – this can be a real waste-saver while helping people in need.

Reducing your food waste takes a little planning and forethought, but it’s really not a foregone conclusion. Try a few of these steps to save money, garbage space, and the world.

Sarah Moore is an Impact Mill contributor and freelance writer who focuses on sustainability, local food, and the weirder side of science. In her spare time she enjoys writing fiction, running, and cooking. Sarah lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two children, two dogs, and an unshakable colony of June bugs.