How to reduce food waste at Thanksgiving dinner

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post; props by Limonata Creative for The Washington Post)

Food waste is a year-round concern. Still, the large Thanksgiving meal presents a particular challenge when it comes to preventing it. You’re buying many more ingredients. You’re making large-scale recipes, with lots of potential leftovers. You may just be even more preoccupied with everything else going on around you.

But there are ways to reduce food waste and therefore your environmental impact, even around the holidays. Here are a few tips geared toward Thanksgiving dinner.

How to save money on your Thanksgiving dinner

Figure out how much food to make for Thanksgiving.

You won’t know how much food to make until you know how many people are coming. So, nail it down. People who haven’t RSVP’d, people who “might swing by” — no, thank you. Press for answers and get people to commit.

After that, it’s time to do some math. The Agriculture Department suggests buying one pound of turkey per person. We’ve previously suggested about 1½ pounds for each diner to allow for leftovers, but there’s something to be said for not having to buy a lot of meat, given the prices, and not being saddled with tons of extras. A 22-pound turkey will yield 12 pounds of roasted meat, including scraps, which equates to 22 servings, according to the “Chef’s Book of Formulas, Yields & Sizes” by Arno Schmidt. That lines up perfectly with the USDA guidance. “Chef’s Book” also suggests you can stretch that 22-pound bird to 40 servings “on a buffet when served with other meats and salads.”

If you’re not someone who usually pays much attention to servings in a recipe, now’s the time. Assume folks will want to sample at least 3 or 4 sides, and that one serving of a typical side is about 1/2 cup (figure about half that much for more condiment-style dishes, such as gravy or cranberry sauce). A roll and a piece of pie rounds out a typical meal.

Here’s something else to ease your mind: It’s okay if you run out of something — or two things! — after everyone has had a chance to sample around. Truly! There will be plenty to eat and enjoy and, hey, less for you to deal with at the end of the day.

Make an entire Thanksgiving with fewer ingredients.

Part of the joy of Thanksgiving dinner is how many different types of dishes it can include. Part of the problem is that can mean separate lists of ingredients for every single recipe. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay if your sides, main and even dessert have some overlap. In fact, it’s smart, thrifty and eco-friendly, because it means less packaging and less of a chance that you’re going to have lots of half-used bottles and cans hanging around your fridge or pantry waiting to go bad. Even better, synchronizing ingredients and flavors can make your meal seem like a well-thought-out package and make you look like a genius menu planner. If that strategy appeals to you, check out my colleague Aaron Hutcherson’s brand new Thanksgiving menu, which uses just 20 ingredients total across six recipes, including sides, mains and dessert. And, yes, that includes oil, salt and pepper!

A bountiful Thanksgiving dinner with just 20 ingredients

Use every part of the Thanksgiving ingredients wisely.

After you’ve shopped and before you reach leftovers phase, there are ways to make smart use of the extra bits of various ingredients, from top to bottom and outside in. To start, be sure to read Food editor Joe Yonan’s piece on root-to-leaf and seed-to-stem cooking with fruits and vegetables. In Seed-to-Skin Squash and Sage Pasta, he shows you how to use the more expected seeds and the less expected peels of butternut squash for a crispy garnish that would work on any soup or salad. When you have peels left from apple pie, toss them with cinnamon, sugar and lemon juice and then bake to make crisps. At the very least, hang on to scraps for vegetable broth. Freeze the scraps, or make the broth and then freeze that.

The same line of thought applies to whatever meat you may be serving, as well. Rendered or strained fat can be refrigerated and saved for roasting vegetables or sauteing ingredients for hash made from leftovers. Get the most out of your turkey carcass (whole, breast or leg/thigh bones) by simmering them with some aromatics for an outstanding stock to be used in future soups. Giblets included with your turkey can become part of the dressing or gravy.

Extra pie crust or crust trimmings can be brushed in butter, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, twisted into any shape you want and baked for a quick sweet treat.

Know how to use and store Thanksgiving leftovers.

Even if you’ve calculated the exact right amount — on paper — for the number of people at your Thanksgiving, you’re probably going to end up with at least some leftovers. And, really, leftovers are often built in to the overall plan anyway.

How to make the most of Thanksgiving leftovers

To prepare, have lots of containers for packing up food on hand. Your usual glass or plastic hard-sided options are great, but now is also the time to make the most of all those takeout containers you (and I) have been hoarding the rest of the year. Plan to send guests home with food? Ask them to bring storage containers, too. That way no one is scrambling when it comes time to pack up.

And you need to be relatively prompt about it. Perishable food, including turkey and many sides, can be left at room temperature for a maximum of 2 hours. Even less is better, so as soon as everyone is done eating, start cleaning up, as much of a drag as it can be. Eat your refrigerated leftovers within 4 days. If you need to buy yourself more time, go ahead and freeze them before the 4 days are out, though ideally sooner for best quality. Hand out leftovers to guests when they leave.

Before you even sit down for the big meal, have a few possibilities in mind for recipes to make with your leftovers, so you’re not hamstrung by indecision later on. And, yes, we have plenty of suggestions, whether it’s soup, strata or waffles.

Dig into these Thanksgiving leftover recipes for waffles, soups and sandwiches