How to Have a Zero Waste Thanksgiving Gathering with Family

Thanksgiving is going to be here before we know it! It’s one of my favourite holidays as it is centred around family, gratitude, and usually some really good food.

No matter who you are able to celebrate with this thanksgiving season, I encourage you to consider the implications of holiday waste. Especially when hosting a meal for a large group of people. When preparing to write this I tried to take a deeper look at the hard facts of thanksgiving waste. I couldn’t find much information for Canada but in the US 40% or 293 million dollars of thanksgiving food goes to waste every year. That was a bit of a staggering statistic to read if I’m being honest. As with most of my waste related findings , I am not surprised if we have close to similar numbers here in the North.

For a holiday that is intended to be centered around appreciation for what we have, especially when so many families across the world are without, the absolute least we can do is try to minimize the amount of waste we produce. Today I’m sharing all my low waste tips for thanksgiving gatherings. I will let you know now that the majority of them are centered around food with that 40 percent weighing heavily in my mind.

I encourage you to choose to be a bit more mindful this thanksgiving and implement some of these tips to minimize your waste production. In gratitude and care for our planet, but also with consideration for the families across the world with less.

Plan for your thanksgiving

Planning ahead is zero waste 101 when it comes to basically everything. Before you even start to carry out how everything will go, there are a few things to map out to ensure you are only purchasing what you need.

Here is what you need to take into consideration when you meal plan:

  • number of guests

  • how many nights do they stay over

  • is eating out a possibility

  • are there any dietary needs

Confirm the guest list

This will help you narrow in on how much of everything you need. Guessing or estimating can leave you with a whole lot of waste. Sometimes with family, we can tend to leave too much room for casual plus ones or last-minute cancellations. It’s not insensitive to ask ahead of time. Be sure to double-check your guest list before moving forward with any shopping or preparations.

Consider dietary restrictions

Asking your family members and other guests about any dietary restrictions or preferences beforehand will ensure you choose to make dishes that will be enjoyed by the majority if not all of the guests. I wouldn’t rely on your previous knowledge to determine this (unless you dine together often) as dietary changes can happen at any time. It would be terrible to make a ton of bread-based dishes just to find out a family member recently went gluten-free.

Inclusive menus will help minimize the number of dishes and ingredients necessary. We are lucky that we live in a time where gluten-free, dairy-free, and even vegan options are easy to find and quite delicious — even for those who might not usually consider these restrictions.

Think about serving sizes

It’s important to think about not only the number of dishes you will serve but how much of each will be eaten! It’s all too easy to hop on Pinterest and be overwhelmed by deliciously impressive-looking dishes that take hours on end to prepare. I would take this opportunity to compare your cooking abilities to your aspirations for the meal. Would you rather serve more dishes in a lesser quantity? Or pick a few crowd-pleasers to make in bulk?

If you are into trying new things and have a family with an adventurous palette — keeping to smaller-sized dishes are best. Even if they are mouth-watering, a limited quantity will keep them memorable and allow you to plan for more next year. If you aren’t big into cooking, or your family prefers the classic traditions. Why make more work out of it? Keep things simple and stick to a set number of vegetable and starch-based dishes. You can always win with potatoes. (bonus that they are easy to work with as leftovers!)

Make a shopping list

Pick out your dishes in advance and make a shopping list. This might seem obvious, but still, an important preparation step to mention. Sometimes we overestimate the number of lists we can hold in our head. Writing them down will give you the mental space to focus on gratitude and cooking! Write down a master list with all of the things you will need, and then divide your list into smaller ones or sections store by store. Instead of hitting the grocery store for your seasonal produce, why not support local by visiting a local farmer’s market where possible instead.

Meal Prep in Advance

Save yourself the headache of rushing through cooking duties, cleanup, and hosting all in the same day. Being organized will help you minimize waste and be present with your family on the day of.

Shop in bulk

Wherever you can, shop bulk and package free. Put your collection of jars or reusable silicone bags to use and stock up on recipe essentials however you can. You can also do this for extra home supplies such as cleaners, dish soap, and hand soap to make sure you have enough for clean up.

Make dishes ahead of time

There are a lot of great dishes that can be made either entirely, or partially in advance to save you time and energy on the day of. Stuffing, gravy, potatoes, and vegetables can all be prepared in advance. Your main meat or protein dish can be too. Not only will it save you time, but you can prepare with the intention of making the most of your food scraps.

Sometimes when we are pressed for time, we have the tendency to throw things away out of convenience. Slowing the process and taking your time will help you be more intentional. If you aren’t familiar with being mindful of food waste, check out my blog post Practical Food Waste Solutions for Busy Households. If you are persistent in making all your food the day of, at the very least you can save the vegetable peeling and chopping for the days leading up to the gathering.

Clean and organize leftover containers

Have empty containers ready! Even with all the precautions in the world, it’s inevitable you will be left with some extra food. Ensuring your container collection is clean, organized, and easy to get to (and that they all still have lids) will allow for an easy transition between mealtime and clean-up. If you are wanting to share the wealth with your family, encourage them to bring along their own containers as well.

Collaborate on activities

The way your family has fun will look very different than the way my family has fun. That’s what makes it so great! When you are calling or emailing to confirm the guest list, be sure to ask your guests what their ideas are for activities on the day of. Some might not have an answer for you, while others will be grateful to be included in the plans. Collaborative creativity is the best kind!

Perhaps someone has a new board game they could bring or a video game console with great party integrations (I highly recommend jackbox games). Maybe one of your family members has a great lawn game they can bring to set up or an idea for an activity you can do as a family. Don’t feel the need to organize the entire day on your own! The collaboration will make everything flow naturally and encourage other family members to step up while you focus on the meal.

Thrift fall decor or DIY 

When I see the words show-stopping or memorable all I hear is complicated and stress-inducing. At the end of the night, no one is going to care whether it took you 2 hours or 12 days to prepare so long as they ate good food and were able to enjoy time with family. The best memories are made in experience and time together. I’m not saying to set your expectations low by any means, but keeping things simple is key.

Stick to Minimal decor

There is no need to go out and buy a bunch of wasteful seasonal decor. Use what you have! If you already own some seasonal pieces, put them to use — even if they are the same as last year. Let them be a part of the tradition. If you don’t and are still wanting to create a festive atmosphere, consider using seasonal vegetables for decor. After the gathering, you can use them for future meals or distribute them to family members to use. Who wouldn’t love a free pumpkin or squash in the fall time!

Lead a gratitude EXERCISE at mealtime

This is a simple way to bring your family together while also acknowledging the holiday. Encourage everyone around the table to list a few things they are grateful for. This can be done in whatever way feels most natural. Take the time to reflect on the past year and appreciate events that have happened in each of your lives. You could also prompt guests to share something they appreciate about one another or speak to a particular memory you all have together. No matter which way you do it, this is sure to jumpstart further conversations and brighten up everyone’s mood.

Use dishes with lids

Save time after serving by cooking in dishes with lids. No need to transfer leftovers right away, you can simply put the lid on, throw the entire thing in the refrigerator, and enjoy the remainder of the gathering. If you don’t have these, you will easily be able to find some cute vintage ones at your local thrift store — ones with good handles are a bonus!

Have a bin or bucket for compost ready

Have your compost container cleaned and ready to take on the contents from the day that can’t be saved as leftovers. If you are serving a meat and it isn’t too odd to ask, try requesting your guests to keep their sides separate from their meat dishes. If mixed, you won’t be able to compost the scraps at home since meat and animal fat don’t fair well with home composting mixes. Check out my list of what can and cannot be composted at home here.

Prepare the sink area for dishes

Before you sit down for your meal, make sure your sink area and dishwasher is prepared to handle the dish aftermath. Assuming you make use of reusable cutlery and place settings (single use is SUCH a waste!) you will need some fresh dish soap, scrub brushes, and cotton towels handy. If you have it, a shallow laundry or dish tub can come in handy here to make your life a whole lot easier. You can leave out for guests to carefully place their plates, cutlery, and glassware inside after scraping the leftovers into the compost, recycling, or trash. Then you will be able to handwash or load the dishwasher in the best way after they are gone.

Use a steam cleaner to tackle clean up

If you read the blog you know this is my tried and true cleaning tool. You can easily disinfect and clear away kitchen messes without the use of any extra chemicals or products. Especially since the start of the pandemic, a lot of us are a bit more mindful of leftover germs and bacteria from these gatherings. A steam cleaner will help make cleanup a breeze.

Consider vegan dishes for Thanksgiving

Hear me out. How about this year you cook some vegan dishes in addition to your regular dishes? Or maybe experiment a bit and go full-on vegan for Thanksgiving 2021. 

Sarah from my has some fantastic vegan Thanksgiving recipes that I will try myself this year. 

Buy from a local butcher.

If you want your turkey to come without a plastic wrapper, you better call now your local butcher to make an order and request for a turkey that is not wrapped in a plastic bag. 

Your butcher might be able to deliver in an eco-friendly package, or they will ask you to bring your own container. 

Chances are you will get a fresh turkey that you can cook right away. 

What other tips do you have for having a zero waste family gathering? Share them with me in the comments, I would love to learn more!

— Claudia

Hey, Claudia here

I am a senior graphic designer, a dog mom, an advocate for a zero-waste lifestyle, climate change, and sustainability. My articles are based on personal experience and well researched to give you the best source of information for all things zero-waste.