Americans love Thanksgiving, they just don't love turkey. It turns out that more than one-third of the turkey meat we buy each holiday gets thrown in the garbage. Blame it on bad planning, lack of leftover ideas or just a wealthy, slothful society.
"We love to have the big feast at holiday time," said Dana Gunder, food and agriculture scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "That results in a lot more extra food. People do leftovers for a day or two, but people are sick by day three. I think it's just basic math."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans throw away 35 percent of the turkey they buy, and that does not include bones. That's compared to only 15 percent waste for chicken. What's worse, throwing away turkey isn't just bad manners or a big waste of money ($282 million), it's also bad for the environment, according to Gunder.
Growing a pound of turkey meat uses 468 gallons of water and releases 12 pounds of CO2 emissions according to a report by the Environmental Working Group — equivalent to driving your car 11 miles and taking a 94-minute shower. Gunder says that nationwide, consumers will purchase around 736 million pounds of turkey this Thanksgiving, of which about 581 million pounds will be actual meat. Unless Americans change their ways this Thanksgiving, about 204 million pounds will be tossed, along with about 1 million tons of CO2 and 95 billion gallons of water.
"We can do a lot better," said Dawn Undurraga, nutritionist and registered dietitian at the Environmental Working Group. "Especially when we have doomsday predictions about the future of food."
Undurraga noted that each American throws away 253 pounds of food each year. In other parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa, that figure is only 13 pounds per person annually. So how can we waste less and still have a Happy Thanksgiving?
"Buying smaller turkeys is a great start," Gunder said.
The National Turkey Federation has a couple of ideas on how to waste less:
- Buy one-half to 1 pound of whole turkey per person, a formula that includes an ample supply for leftovers.
- If there's only a few guests, perhaps cook a bone-in turkey breast or just turkey thighs and legs.
- If you want both white and dark meat, ask the butcher to cut the whole turkey in half, freezing the second half for another holiday meal.
- For a more upscale meal, try one of these recipes for Thanksgiving leftovers
Experts say another idea is to bring some plastic containers or Tupperware with you to a Thanksgiving meal, along with that bottle of wine or extra pumpkin pie. Sharing food with others is a great way to remember the Pilgrims who the meal is supposed to celebrate.
"There is irony here in that we are celebrating how rough it was for the Pilgrims and all of the challenges they had," Gunder said. "And here we are just tossing it."