How to Lay Waste to Thanksgiving Leftovers

By now, you've probably already read one of our most popular posts ever: 18 Little-Known Facts That Will Motivate You to Cut Back on Food Waste. In it, Kyle breaks down the topic of food waste, including its environmental, economic and even humanitarian effects. Some tidbits that really struck me, especially as we come upon the holiday season:

  • Americans throw away more than 20 lbs of food each month.
  • If we wasted just 5 percent less food, it would be enough to feed 4 million Americans; 20 percent less waste could feed 25 million Americans annually!

Pretty sobering figures – but the the Worldwatch Institute says that we waste up to three times more food during the holidays than we do other times of the year! (That’s a lot of good food going into our landfills.) With Thanksgiving coming up, I'm going to be more mindful of wasting food and using up leftovers. To that end, we've compiled this handy guide to help you reduce your holiday food waste:

1. Plan, Plan, Plan

Really good meal planning can help you save money and reduce food waste. (Warning! This may require math!) Calculate exactly how much you'll need for each recipe per person instead of winging it. (Add a couple of “people” to your calculations if you want leftovers.) You'll likely save some money grocery shopping, and you'll end up with far less food wasted. For the turkey, I usually calculate 1.5 lb per person (this includes room for some leftovers). Here’s a genius tip from Martha Stewart: the smaller the bird (12 lbs or less), the lower the meat-to-bone ratio, so you'll need more like 2 lbs per person.

Other great tips for reducing food waste before you cook your meal are here.

2. Do it Buffet Style

Encouraging self-service for the meal (i.e., buffet style) ensures that your guests take only what they think they'll eat (give or take an extra scoop of mashed potatoes). This virtually guarantees that less food will get scraped off their plate and into the garbage at the end of the meal.

3. Compost Fruit and Vegetable Scraps

Cooking a large meal like Thanksgiving dinner can generate a lot of fruit and vegetable scraps. Consider starting a compost collection in your kitchen! I use a stainless steel container and keep food scraps on the counter (just for a day or two or until my husband complains), but you can freeze them, too. Here’s a handy home compost guide if you have the room for a bin (we have a super small, NYC-sized rotating bin in our teeny backyard that makes awesome compost in five weeks).

If backyard composting isn’t your bag, many municipalities have food scrap drop off programs – Google “compost drop off [your city]” or “food waste drop off [your city]” for locations.

4. Freeze It!

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the USDA says that you should only keep leftovers in the fridge for three or four days, or frozen for three to four months. Here is their guide to leftovers and food safety.

Freezing your T-day leftovers is probably the easiest way to avoid food waste. Lots of components of the traditional Thanksgiving meal can be frozen. Here are some tips:

  • Store meat and gravy together to keep the meat from drying out
  • To freeze gravy: whiz in food processor blender first to keep it from separating when you thaw. (More excellent gravy-storage tips here.)
  • Freeze stuffing in plastic freezer bags. Sprinkle with a little broth or water before re-heating to avoid the dry-out factor.
  • Freeze cranberry sauce. (Then make fancy grilled cheeses by spreading a little thawed cranberry sauce on crusty bread before adding your cheese of choice and grilling.)
  • I've successfully frozen whole pumpkin pies: wrap the entire pie tightly in plastic wrap, then foil. Freeze. To thaw, leave in the fridge for a day until entirely thawed out. (Don’t thaw on the counter or the USDA will hunt me down.)

5.  Lots of Leftovers? Get Creative!

Pretend you're on Top Chef and you've been given a challenge to use up your leftovers. (That’s what I do. Actually, I pretend I'm on Top Chef probably once a week. But I digress.) Here are some ways to do it:



I usually think potato pancakes are the way to go, for both leftover raw potatoes and mashed, but these mashed potato biscuits look awesome, and would be killer with the turkey hash (above) topped with a poached egg. Just sayin.'


Here’s my favorite cornbread recipe that includes fresh corn – just sub equal amounts of the already-cooked corn you have on hand for the kernels called for in the recipe. Or just toss leftover corn kernels into the turkey pot pie that I know you're going to whip up.

Leftover Bread

Croutons! Or whiz leftover bread in the food processor to make fresh breadcrumbs. Use to coat all sorts of delicious things, like chicken cutlets or potato croquettes (bonus: these use mashed potatoes!).


I guess I dig the idea of hash. Here’s another hash recipe: Stuffing Hash with Eggs and Arugula. Another great idea I saw somewhere: use stuffing as the crust for a quiche.


  • Use as a chutney alongside hard cheeses like cheddar.
  • Add a teaspoon of cranberry sauce to pancakes as they're cooking.
  • For leftover fresh cranberries, make cranberry pie!


I love to mince fresh herbs and toss them in everything and anything: eggs, biscuit dough, soup – you name it. Or another of my favorites: make herb butter and freeze it (thyme and sage are stars). Or make Kim’s lentil pate with rosemary!

For more creative leftover ideas, check out Mark Bittman’s guide with lots more fun ideas to use up your Thanksgiving leftovers.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

This post was originally published November 2011.

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