Because nothing should ever really go to waste.

By Stacey Ballis
November 13, 2020
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The one thing that living through this pandemic has taught us is to become much more aware of food waste. Which makes the impending abundance of Thanksgiving cooking a bit fraught. Between wondering what a family of four is going to do with the leftovers of a 12 pound turkey, to thinking strategically about food scraps and how to make the most of them, this year is the time to get really creative about making sure the meal and its contents work for your household, not just on the day, but in a broader sense.

This is about more than delicious leftover ideas

Specific recipes for converting existing Thanksgiving foods into other fun and festive foods abound. But usually it is just about using up those leftovers during the long holiday weekend after folks get bored with sandwiches. But this year won’t be about turning your leftovers into a layered casserole for Saturday brunch, but more about how to effectively make sure that you aren’t throwing away spoiled food by Sunday.

Here are 5 easy steps to take best advantage of everything you’re buying and making for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Credit: GETTY/ LauriPatterson

1. Put your prep scraps to work

As you prepare your meal over the next weeks, be sure to save your vegetable scraps and peelings—onion and carrot peels, celery leaves, parsley stems, and so on—and stash them in your freezer. Once you have your protein finished, whether it is a turkey carcass or a ham bone, you will have the makings for a wonderful stock, which is a godsend as we head into winter. And don’t throw those sweet potato and potato peels away: If you scrubbed well before peeling, you can make some great potato peel chips for snacking. You can deep fry them, or just toss in a bit of oil and season and spread them on a lined sheet pan to crisp up in the oven.

2. Build amazing soups

Soup is one of the easiest things to do with leftovers, both raw and cooked, whether it is the rest of that head of celery after you use two ribs for your stuffing, or the sauteed mushrooms that accompanied the meal. Leftover mashed potatoes, already full of milk and butter, need only some chicken or vegetable stock to make the most luxurious creamy potato soup, and the same for leftover sweet potatoes, pureed with water and with the addition of some spices, for a sweet and savory sweet potato soup. Soup is an ideal way to deal with leftovers; whether you go for simple brothy vegetable soups or heartier stew-like soups, they last for days and freeze beautifully.

3. Don’t reduce the recipe, reduce the size of the vessel

Does your apple pie recipe call for a two-crusted towering 10-inch pie that serves 10-12 and you are just 2-4 people this year? Make two 6-inch pies and freeze one pre-baking for a future pie you can bake right from frozen with a little time added. Do you usually make a three-layer cake? Bake all three, but wrap two well and freeze, and serve a lovely one-layer version on the day. Things like stuffing, sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole all freeze beautifully pre-cooking, so buy some 2-4 portion size foil pans with lids, divide your recipe accordingly, and either freeze or gift the excess. There are also great freezer and microwave safe glass divided containers on the market right now, so think custom future meals for one, and pack up your own fancy version of the old TV dinners as you prep and clean up.

4. Plan how you’ll consume your leftovers

Not everything you cook on the day has the same shelf life after the meal is over. That cranberry sauce has at least a week in the fridge to become a swirl in a pound cake or the filling in a crostata, but the turkey only has about three days max of optimal food safety. Make a smart plan in advance, so that you know what you want to make in the days that follow, and that you have any pantry ingredients or containers to help you affect that. Assume everyone will want a day of straight as-is leftovers, and then use the rest in order of how quickly they spoil. Whether you are making frittatas or gumbos, casseroles or stir-frys, be sure that you have considered your leftover situation before you find yourself with a fridge full of fuzzy and fizzy Thanksgiving losses.

5. Not a leftovers person? Don’t have great freezer space? Take a drive

Wherever you are, you are likely less than a 10-minute drive to people who are in deep need. You know which viaducts may be sheltering people without a home, which exit ramps have groups of kids and their dogs. Pack up the food you know you won’t be able to eat yourself or store properly into one-person meals, preferably with a napkin and some disposable utensils, a bottle of water if you have one lying around, and take some holiday sustenance to someone who needs it. In the spectrum of not wasting food, nothing feels better than this.