How to Host a Low-Emission, Climate-Friendly Thanksgiving Feast
For most Americans, planning the Thanksgiving menu is easy. The turkey, whether bought raw or fully cooked, is sure to be the centerpiece, even though half the guests have gone vegetarian. Certain family-approved side dishes and desserts are necessary to avoid a revolt. And overly generous guests can be counted on to fill any gaps on the table with covered dishes large enough to feed the neighborhood.
The hardest part is mastering this bounty.
For those who dread the aftermath of the party almost as much as they look forward to the togetherness of the celebration, editor and TV food personality Christopher Kimball offers this advice: half as many dishes as you think you need. Most of us could drastically reduce our menus and no one would leave hungry.
That’s wise advice – not only for the sake of our wallets but also for the planet.
More than a third of our nation’s food supply goes uneaten, estimates the United States Department of Agriculture. Wasted food, according to United States Environmental Protection Agency, is the largest category of materials clogging municipal landfills. As it rots, it emits methane, a powerful gas that warms the planet which is much more potent than carbon dioxide.
The holiday season is particularly tough on Mother Nature. A 2018 report by the Center for Biological Diversity notes that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans throw out about 25% more trash than at other times of the year. Each Thanksgiving, according to the report, about 200 million pounds of turkey meat, 150 million pounds of vegetable sides and 14 million pounds of dinner rolls produce nearly half a million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not counting the fossil fuels burned for gatherings across the country or the deluge of plastics and other waste used to serve, clean and package.
Kimball is the founder of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, a Boston-based food media franchise focused on convenient home cooking, fresh ingredients, and sound technique. It’s a way to deal with rising food prices while striving to be better stewards of the environment. His team’s latest effort is the cookbook “Milk Street: Cook What You Have: Make a meal out of almost anything.”
He and other sustainability-minded culinary experts shared their personal strategies for celebrating fall’s abundance with gratitude for the friends, family, and earth that made the celebration possible.
“I stay away from crowded buffet tables,” Kimball said in a phone interview. Instead, he favors a simpler, more family-friendly turkey menu, basic mashed potatoes and some sturdy side vegetables from a local farm that can easily be reheated – no salads that will turn to mush by the end of the meal.
“I don’t dress my veggies – I keep them very simple,” he said. “I could make roasted and charred Brussels sprouts seasoned with an interesting spice blend that I make on the spot, or boiled greens. If there are leftovers, I can fold them into a frittata, toss them into pasta sauce, or add them to a bowl of rice.
Rather than roasting the whole turkey, Kimball slowly braises the dissected parts in a few inches of broth with a few aromatics in a high-sided roasting pan, “because there’s nothing worse than a big, knobby leg that’s all desiccated”. This way he can remove the tender white meat first so it doesn’t overcook while giving the dark, tough bits that cling stubbornly to the bone more time to continue cooking until that they disintegrate. “And the cooking juices make a really good sauce.”
After the meal, he cuts the bones to make a broth. “That’s so much of a staple ingredient to have on hand in the freezer. This is where the pantry comes in and can take you in all sorts of different directions, with huge bursts of flavor like anchovies, chipotles or pomegranate molasses.
This laid-back approach leaves him more time to focus on his favorite part of prepping: baking pies. “I never have to worry about having leftovers with those.”
Leftover idea: Grilled pearl couscous with sweet potato and cranberriesa favorite of the Milk Street test kitchen, makes a tasty vehicle for the next day’s roasted sweet potatoes and cupboard and crisper treats.
Cooking Thanksgiving for a small team comes with its own set of challenges. Michigan food writer Lindsay-Jean Hard said that although her husband always dry-brines a turkey, “this year’s bird will be very small because my daughter and I are vegetarians, and we know we don’t want to not have a lot of leftovers.”
A keen gardener, with a master’s degree in urban planning, and passionate about sustainability, Hard prepares her menu ahead of time and tailors her recipes to what she knows they’ll actually eat. It is even looking for ways to incorporate parts of the product typically intended for compost bin in family meals.
Some of these no-waste innovations, such as Carrot Top Pesto and Danish Pancakes with Apple Core Syrup, can be found in his 2018 cookbook, “Cooking with leftovers: turn your peels, cores, rinds and stems into delicious meals.”
An easy tip to keep in mind when you start cooking your feast: put away the peeler.
“Once you get into the habit of peeling things, it can be easy to go on autopilot and keep doing it,” Hard said over email. “Take a moment to stop and ask yourself if it’s necessary. Carrots do not need to be peeled. Scrub them well with a vegetable brush and continue. Ginger also does not need to be peeled. And leaving out the apple skins (ideally organic) means your apple pie will have added color, texture, and nutrients.
Likewise, she added that “It’s easy to throw away perfectly edible stalks – put them to good use!” Finely chopped stalks of kale or swiss chard can be added with onions as they sauté, she said, and finely chopped stalks of sweet herbs like parsley can be added to dishes with the leaves.
And don’t be afraid to break with tradition. “If everyone insists it’s not Thanksgiving without a pot of green beans, but no one ever eats more than a bite or two, make it a half batch this year,” said recommended Hard. “Or skip it altogether, explaining you’re doing it in the name of Mother Earth, and start a new tradition with a side dish of greens that people are actually going to eat.”
Tip remaining: Hard added that she loves silky smooth mashed potatoes, so she saves the peels to reuse in other dishes such as potato peel focaccia.
Georgian restaurateur, cookbook author and “Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson is a longtime supporter of the sustainable agriculture both in his businesses and at home. His Thanksgiving preparations begin with a trip to a local farmers market, where he can personally thank the producers for their generosity.
“Everything but the turkey is vegetarian,” Acheson says, ensuring that anyone who casually gathers around her kitchen island will be spoiled for choice.
Leeks are always on the grocery list for the salty bread pudding he does every year. Any extras, he said, are perfect for breakfast the next day, cut into squares and crispy in butter. The rest of the menu depends on what looks best in the bins. “I cook quite simply,” he said.
To estimate how much to buy before I start, “I look carefully at a plate and imagine what it should look like when it’s full,” Acheson explained. He uses this mental image to portion sizewhich he multiplies by the number of guests, allowing for a few second helpings and leftovers.
Leftover idea: Here’s how Acheson turns leftovers into a turkey and avocado sandwich as memorable as the party.
“Thanksgiving is by far one of the biggest grocery errands of the year, and to minimize food waste, you’ll want to first take stock of what you already have in your pantry and fridge before to get to the market,” advised Lisa Bryan, author of “Downshiftology: Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook.”
“Take the time to throw out expired products and organize the items you’ll be using in the next few days so they’re visible and easily accessible,” she says.
Bryan understands that executing a chaos-free Thanksgiving dinner takes practice. She offers detailed advice on her website for people new to the game. She recommends make a shopping listand by organizing it into sections (products, dairy products, dry products) to make your shopping journey as efficient as possible.
“Our Thanksgiving is usually made up of multiple families and relatives getting together, and after many years we have a great system in place,” she wrote via email. “We split the kitchen with one person cooking the turkey, a few people in charge of sides, salads and sauces, and I’m usually in charge of desserts – since gluten-free baking is my jam.”
Making it a group effort can ease the burden, as long as you have a game plan in place for before, during, and after the party.