A Different Type of Holiday Wasted

What’s getting wasted this holiday season — other than your great uncle Earl? Turns out, a lot of food. In King County, 33% of household waste is food. That’s an average of 390 pounds per household per year! When 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, reducing food waste would also help lower emissions and curb climate change.

Holiday meals are notorious for food excess. With a little preparation and creativity, reducing your food waste is easy as (pumpkin) pie!


The Impact of our Food Systems on Climate Change

The food system includes all processes involved in getting food from the ground or sea into your watering mouth. This includes the food supply chain: the growing or raising, harvesting, processing, packaging, shipping, marketing, consuming, and disposing of food. It also includes and is influenced by our economic, social, and political systems. Natural resources like land, water and energy are critical inputs to the system. Unfortunately, once our food system has its way with those inputs, out usually comes degraded land, eutrophic water, and about 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. 

That’s why it’s especially disheartening to see the (literal) fruits of the system go to waste. Sure, backyard composting may turn our unused food scraps into plant fertilizer and keep them out of landfills. But industrial composting still has a long way to go, and in many cases, items we think are compostable end up in the landfill anyway. For example, Seattle-based Cedar Grove won’t accept food packaging, even if it’s labeled compostable or biodegradable. So, if we’re going to devote so many resources to, and risk our climate for the sake of food production, we might as well eat what we grow. But, for so many reasons, that’s just not the way the cookie crumbles.

There’s a difference between items that are compostable for consumers versus those that are compostable for facility operators. Commercial composting facilities vary across the country, so even items labeled “compostable” won’t always break down.


Why Food Gets Wasted – and How to Avoid It

For the most part, food gets wasted because we either bought too much, stored it wrong, or made too much. Let’s walk through the process of preparing for and hosting a holiday meal and see how food waste can be minimized. We’ll use Thanksgiving as an example, but these tips can apply to any dinner party, or even just your weekly food consumption.

When it comes to lowering food waste this holiday season, it may be helpful to start with a reflection. What was wasted last year? If you hardly made a dent in that green bean casserole, maybe consider leaving it off the menu this year. If grandma absolutely can’t spend a Thanksgiving without it, then at least reconsider the portion size.

How much of each dish do you really need? Use a tool like the Guestimator to appropriately portion holiday meals and reduce food waste.


Speaking of portion sizes, make sure to prepare appropriately before you hit the store. Know how many people you’re serving (and include a straggler or two if that’s how you roll) and use a tool like the Guestimator* to develop your shopping list based off your menu. Choose recipes that share ingredients and provide opportunities to eat “root to stem” (here’s lookin’ at you, citrus peels and celery tops). And while you’re at it, focus on in season, local ingredients if you can. 

Once you’re home, make sure to store your food at the proper temperature and humidity. According to the United States Department of Food and Agriculture, fish and seafood account for the highest percentage of US food waste at the consumer level. However, fresh fruit and vegetables come close behind, together accounting for half of all consumer food waste in the US. Learn how to store your food for optimum freshness here, and tips on how to revive it once it starts looking a little sad. 

Look at these beautiful, fresh green beans! What a shame it would be if they were to be wasted due to poor food storage. Keep your unwashed green beans in the refrigerator in a breathable bag in the high-humidity drawer, and try to eat them as quickly as possible (within 3-5 days).


While you’re cooking, keep a bowl handy to fill with compostable food scraps, and another for scraps that can be thrown into a soup or stew later. Remember that whole “root to stem” thing? That’s right, save those stems, leaves, and peels for future recipes. Once you’re done carving the turkey, keep the carcass so it can serve as a flavorful base to a hearty soup. 

Now you’ve reflected, shopped, prepped, and cooked. Time to enjoy that delicious, nutritious meal with friends and family. Find that, despite all your efforts and your champion eating skills, you still made too much of some dishes? It happens, so be prepared! Ask your guests to bring tupperware so they can take home any leftovers that you don’t think you’ll be able to eat. Then make sure to label anything that’s still left so it doesn’t end up in the back-of-the-fridge wasteland (let’s be real: you’re never going to open that container of mystery leftovers). 

Now it’s time to get creative with your leftovers! Make a hearty dump soup with the scraps you saved while cooking, your turkey carcass, and that carton of broth you’ve had in the pantry for a while. While it’s cooking, peruse the Food Network for recipe inspiration (there’s definitely more to life than just leftover turkey sandwiches). Don’t think you can possibly eat one more leftover meal? Go work up an appetite! Trust me, you’ll be grateful for those leftovers after a long, tiring day exploring the outdoors. 

Make a soup with leftover vegetables. Here’s one for a vegan butternut squash soup!


Go beyond food! Other ways to reduce waste this holiday season:

  • Pick decorations that can either be: 
    • Composted — pumpkins and greens always look good on a table. Bonus if you buy them locally!
    • Reused — invest in basics that you’ll use for the next 10 years, like neutral-colored ceramic gourds that can easily transition from Halloween to Thanksgiving. 
  • Wrap gifts in recyclable paper or an upcycled gift bag. This includes your hostess gift! 
  • Serve holiday meals on reusable dishware, with reusable cutlery, and cloth napkins. You may groan a little at first, but some of my favorite holiday memories involve me elbow-deep in dirty dishes, swapping highlights of the night with my family. 

Start Reducing Your Waste – Slowly

There are so many ways to reduce your waste over the holidays (and always!), that sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming. The good news is, you don’t have to tackle all these tips at once. Try incorporating two waste reduction tips to start, then challenge yourself to add another once those first two become the new normal. By starting slow with realistic goals, these new habits are more likely to stick and become part of your life. 

P.S. Struggling to explain these changes to your kids or family? Check out these lesson plans on the food system from Johns Hopkins for some inspiration and tips on how to break it down.