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6 Ways to Have an Eco-Friendly Thanksgiving

Having an eco-friendly Thanksgiving is easy with these tips. Learn how to plan your feast with the planet in mind, deal with waste, and more.

eco-friendly thanksgiving
Written by
Brightly Staff
Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to celebrate everything we're thankful for. Oh, and put on our
sustainable leggings
and eat a lot of great food. What you may not realize, though, is between the food waste and
holiday travel emissions
, Thanksgiving is one of the least sustainable holidays.
Each year,
about 40% of all food
in the United States goes to waste. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans throw away
25% more trash
than the rest of the year. On Thanksgiving week alone, that's
200 million pounds
of turkey, over 150 million pounds of veggies (including potatoes and green beans), and 14 million pounds of dinner rolls. 
The good news is you don't have to sacrifice your holiday fun. Here's everything you need to know to make your Thanksgiving more eco-friendly.

How to Have an Eco-Friendly Thanksgiving

1. Get Creative With Decor

When it comes to festive
Thanksgiving decor
, don't peruse the aisles of your favorite
overstock store
. Instead, look to nature.
"If we're celebrating the abundance that nature provides, then let's celebrate that on our table," says
Sarah Robertson-Barnes
, a low-waste living expert and the founder of
Sustainable in the Suburbs
, in an episode of
Good Together
. "You can take a lot of your Halloween decorations and just keep them going for Thanksgiving. I'm talking about your little teeny pumpkins, your gourds, dried corn, corn husks, twigs, birch bark, pine cones—all of that sort of fall, outdoorsy stuff that you can probably get outside for free—is going to look great on your table."
Not sure where to start? "Pinterest is bursting at the seams right now with different styling ideas for things like that," she says.

2. Plan Your Meal With Care

eco-friendly thanksgiving
Meal planning
can feel like a chore, but it has a positive impact on the planet and your wallet. For an eco-friendly feast, it’s even more critical to plan ahead: The average carbon footprint of a
Thanksgiving dinner
is 103 pounds of CO2.
"Be deliberate about what you're putting on your menu, right down to the last potato," says Robertson-Barnes. "What are you going to do with your vegetable peels? You can
make veggie broth
. Are you going to be making stock out of your leftover turkey and bones? Can you make it into a shepherd's pie? Can you make it into a casserole afterward? That sort of thing."
It can be challenging to estimate how much food to make for Thanksgiving. "Make sure that you have a really firm idea of how many folks are coming over if you're the one hosting," says Robertson-Barnes. "That's going to help you figure out how much food you actually need."
Something that can help is a Thanksgiving food calculator, like the
from the Natural Resources Defense Council. It will tell you exactly how much of each dish to make and it accounts for different appetites and how many leftover meals you want. You can even check out meal planning apps to get a better understanding of how meal planning works in your day-to-day routine.
During your recipe selection, keep in mind you can cut most recipes in half. Try adding “small batch” or “two-person” in front of the item you want to make during your Google search. 

3. Get Creative With Leftovers

When you're coming up with meals,
Laura Wittig
, Brightly's founder, says to ask yourself something important: "Are you comfortable eating this again? And are you comfortable eating this again, for like, a long time? Because I feel like that's what often happens with leftovers," she says.
The good news is there are always creative ways to utilize your Thanksgiving leftovers, whether that's
, or
mashed potatoes
. You could even make it a fun challenge for the entire family, seeing who can come up with the best dishes.

4. Buy an Organic Turkey

While a decorated tree symbolizes Christmas, a turkey represents Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the average 16-pound Thanksgiving turkey generates about
64 pounds of CO2
. Thankfully, there are a couple of ways to
reduce the environmental impact
of your Thanksgiving bird.
First, try to purchase a turkey locally—especially if you have a high-quality farm or butcher shop in your town. If that’s not an option, look for an organic, humanely-raised turkey. Organic turkeys are fed a vegetarian, non-GMO diet free of chemical pesticides and herbicides. They must have access to the outdoors and are not treated with antibiotics or hormones. In terms of price, organic turkeys run about $2 more per pound than non-organic turkeys. 
If you have the budget for it, there are also heirloom and heritage varieties of turkey. These turkeys are raised with unlimited access to the outdoors, and because of this, they have a varied diet that makes the meat richer. Heritage and heirloom turkeys run a pretty penny, though. While the average turkey costs about $1 per pound, heritage and heirloom turkeys can be between $4 to $6 per pound.
Not everyone has access to a butcher shop or even a grocery store that carries more humane, eco-friendly options. If that’s the case for you, we recommend
. Its meat is always humanely-raised, free of antibiotics and hormones, and mostly organic.

5. Eat Turkey Alternatives

eco-friendly thanksgiving
If you’re pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, or just won’t be able to polish off a whole turkey with a smaller Thanksgiving gathering, there are plenty of other
turkey alternatives
for your show-stopping dinner spread.
Fish is an excellent option for a smaller group; you can prepare a whole fish, a pile of tuna steaks, or some tasty grilled salmon. For plant-based folks, try making
vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes
vegan Thanksgiving recipes
for your centerpiece, like portobello steaks or cauliflower "turkey."

6. Utilize Your Freezer

eco-friendly thanksgiving
Utilizing your freezer space is one of the easiest ways to keep food out of the trash. The freezer is also a great money-saver: Having something delicious to thaw and reheat can save you from extra trips to the grocery store or another pricey
takeout order
During your Thanksgiving meal prep, save the stems of any vegetables in a freezer bag for later. These scraps are the perfect way to add richness to chicken or
vegetable broth
. You can also freeze leftovers in small, easily-thawed portion sizes—especially if you live alone or with one other person. That way, you can just defrost what you need, and extra leftovers won’t go to waste.