The Environmental Impact of an Average Thanksgiving Dinner
Curious about the environmental impact of Thanksgiving dinner? Here's the carbon footprint of the meal, plus ways to make it more sustainable.
Thanksgiving dinner is one of the grandest meals of the year. In fact, it's the only major American holiday that's all about food.
As the second most popular holiday in the United States, millions of people celebrate Thanksgiving every year, gathering around a table of mouth-watering dishes. While loading up your plate is undoubtedly exciting, Thanksgiving dinner can also come with a hefty carbon footprint.
That's why we did the math, calculating the carbon footprint of an average Thanksgiving dinner to reveal the holiday's impact on the planet. We also offer some tips and tricks to make your own gathering a little more eco-friendly.
How Eco-Friendly Is Thanksgiving Dinner?
Everyone's Thanksgiving looks different, but for most people (81% to be exact!), turkey is the centerpiece. Along with the turkey are other popular dishes, like pork stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pie. We used this typical spread of dishes to calculate the carbon footprint of an average Thanksgiving dinner.
We also factored in guests. Because the average Thanksgiving table hosts 12 people, we multiplied the carbon emissions of each serving by 12. In addition, we added in the carbon emissions associated with cooking time.
The Average Carbon Footprint of a Thanksgiving Dinner
Total Emissions: 64 pounds of CO2
The turkey may be the most famous part of the Thanksgiving meal, with 46 eaten every year. But it's also the most carbon-intensive. According to Mike Berners-Lee, author of How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, the average Thanksgiving turkey can emit about 3.0 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of CO2 per kilogram of turkey.
Additionally, it's recommended for hosts to make a 20-pound (9.1 kilograms) turkey for 12 guests, leaving no room for leftovers. This can generate about 60.2 pounds (27.3 kilograms) of carbon dioxide (CO2).
But what about cooking time? To cook a 20-pound turkey, you'll likely run your oven for at least four hours. Each oven consumes energy a bit differently, but running an electric oven for four hours is associated with approximately 3.5 pounds (1.6 kilograms) of CO2.
Overall, a 20-pound Thanksgiving turkey to feed 12 people can generate about 63.7 pounds (28.9 kilograms) of CO2.
Total Emissions: 25 pounds of CO2
There are many ways to make stuffing, but most holiday stuffing recipes include sausage or pork.
Animal-based foods have a higher carbon footprint than plant-based foods. A single serving of pork stuffing is associated with roughly 2.0 pounds (0.9 kilograms) of CO2. Therefore, a dish large enough to feed 12 creates 24.0 pounds (10.8 kilograms) of CO2.
If it takes an hour to cook stuffing, add another 0.9 pounds (0.4 kilograms) of CO2 to bake it in an electric oven. In total, cooking pork stuffing can release about 24.9 pounds (11.2 kilograms) of CO2.
3. Mashed Potatoes
Total Emissions: 9 pounds of CO2
Mashed potatoes are a holiday dinner staple, and Thanksgiving is no exception.
Classic mashed potatoes require potatoes, butter, and either milk or cream. To serve 12 people, a sample recipe calls for 6 pounds of potatoes (3.4 kilograms of CO2), one cup of milk (0.4 kilograms of CO2), and 8 ounces of butter (0.1 kilograms of CO2). In total, these ingredients release roughly 8.6 pounds (3.9 kilograms) of CO2.
This recipe only requires the potatoes to boil on an electric stovetop for about 15 minutes, which releases 0.2 pounds (0.1 kilograms) of CO2. Therefore, making mashed potatoes can emit about 8.8 pounds (4.0 kilograms) of CO2.
4. Cranberry Sauce
Total Emissions: 2 pounds of CO2
Cranberry sauce is usually made from cranberries, sugar, and citrus juice. It's a holiday classic, and fortunately for cranberry fans, relatively sustainable.
Because this dish doesn't include meat or dairy products, it's associated with fewer carbon emissions. One serving of cranberry sauce only creates about 0.2 pounds (0.1 kilograms) of CO2. An entire table's worth only adds up to 2.4 pounds (1.2 kilograms) of CO2.
Total Emissions: 3 pounds of CO2
Which kind of pie are you baking and/or devouring this Thanksgiving? Pumpkin, apple, or pecan? Buttermilk or sweet potato? Depending on the type of pie you make, the carbon emissions will vary.
For example, a buttermilk pie is associated with more carbon emissions because it's more reliant on dairy products. A fruit pie, on the other hand, will be associated with lower emissions.
An apple pie with cream emits about 1.3 pounds (0.6 kilograms) of CO2. If you bake a pie for 40 minutes in an electric oven, you'll be releasing about 0.7 pounds (0.3 kilograms) of CO2.
However, to feed 12 people, you'll likely need two or more pies. For two pies plus cooking time, you're looking at about 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms) of CO2. If you bake more than two pies, carbon emissions will be relatively higher.
Total Emissions for the Entire Thanksgiving Dinner
Total Emissions: 103 pounds of CO2
Everyone's Thanksgiving table looks different. But for the average household, a table with enough turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pie to feed 12 guests is associated with about 103.1 pounds (46.8 kilograms) of CO2.
Keep in mind that these estimates don’t include the carbon emissions associated with traveling to Thanksgiving dinner. To put the meal’s footprint in perspective, the carbon emissions of this mock Thanksgiving meal could be equivalent to driving 117 miles or charging 5,683 smartphones.
These figures are estimates and will vary depending on your recipes and how many people you feed. In 2020, about 38% of people planned on celebrating Thanksgiving with at least 10 people. Last year, many Thanksgiving dinners were smaller as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as more people get vaccinated, more people feel comfortable gathering for the holidays.
6 Ways to Make Thanksgiving Dinner More Eco-Friendly
No one is expected to forgo their favorite holiday dishes in order to reduce their carbon footprint. After all, Thanksgiving is only celebrated once a year with family and friends.
However, there are many ways you can make your Thanksgiving dinner a little more planet-friendly, from swapping ingredients in recipes to cooking more efficiently. We've rounded up some highly effective ways to make your holiday meal more sustainable.
1. Make Vegetable Stuffing
Pork stuffing may be the most popular stuffing recipe, but vegetable stuffing is far more eco-friendly. By using veggies instead of meat, you can drastically cut the carbon emissions of this dish.
2. Avoid Roast Beef
Roast beef on Thanksgiving? It may not be traditional, but it's fairly common. However, one kilogram of beef creates about 48 kilograms of CO2, which is significantly higher than the carbon footprint of turkey. Beef is actually one of the least sustainable meats, despite how popular it is among Americans.
If your family tends to serve beef on Thanksgiving, whether it's the main dish or an additional side, try to leave it off the table this year for a much more sustainable holiday.
3. Cut Down on Dairy
Most traditional recipes require butter, milk, cream, or cheese—sometimes all four. Because dairy products have a high carbon footprint, opt for recipes that use dairy alternatives.
Whether it's cutting down on butter and cream in some of your recipes or seeking vegan alternatives, removing some of the dairy from your table can significantly cut down carbon emissions.
One way to cut down on dairy is by making vegan pies. They're just as delicious, and they're estimated to create about half of the emissions of non-vegan pies.
4. Cook It All at Once
What you cook may be the biggest contributor to how planet-friendly your Thanksgiving dinner is, but how you cook is important, too.
In order to make the kitchen feel a little less chaotic, many of us cook dishes ahead of time and reheat them later. While this might feel more effective, it actually increases the carbon emissions associated with cooking.
Keeping your oven on for longer is better than reheating your oven multiple times. Instead of cooking the day before, prep your dishes ahead of time and wait to cook them all at once.
5. Defrost Overnight
We've all been there. You go to put something in the oven only to realize you haven't defrosted it yet. While most ovens and microwaves have a handy defrosting setting, using that setting creates more carbon emissions than necessary.
Defrosting your frozen foods in the fridge overnight—except the turkey, which needs to defrost for days—reduces the cooking time and saves the energy that would have been needed to defrost.
6. Add More Veggies
Finally, add vegetables! You've probably noticed the most sustainable dishes on this list were those that relied on plant-based ingredients. Meat, especially beef, uses the most carbon emissions, followed by dairy products.
Talk to your family and create a menu that includes more vegetables and plant-based options. This also makes Thanksgiving easier for your vegetarian and vegan family members.
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