The economics of wasted leftovers

What do you do with your Thanksgiving leftovers? Americans trash millions of dollars worth of Thanksgiving turkey.

What better place to talk to folks about food than a grocery store? I run into Elizabeth Willson, coming out of a bustling supermarket in downtown Washington. Her arms are full of groceries. Wilson planned to spend the holiday at her parents’ house with their groaning Thanksgiving table... and lots of leftovers.

She says, “I often find that leftovers are a little bit of an issue for us because there’s only about five of us usually at the dinner and my mom usually makes about 13 dishes and six desserts.”

Willson says she hates to waste. But with that much food, it’s inevitable. She estimates that 5-10 percent of the family feast goes in the garbage. But compared to the rest of us, they’re doing pretty well. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that Americans trash 40 percent of our entire food supply. For a family of four, that works out to more than $2,000 a year. Dana Gunders is a food project scientist at NRDC. She puts the numbers in perspective.

“Imagine going to the grocery store, buying three bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and not bothering to pick it up," she says. "That’s essentially what we’re doing in our food system today."

Gunders is talking about all the food we waste. From veggies left to rot in the fields because they’re not exactly the right shapet to uneaten food on restaurant plates. And, of course, forgotten leftovers that morph into something monstrous in the refrigerator. Gunders says we waste even more food than usual during Thanksgiving -- trashing more than $280 million worth of turkey. She says the pilgrims would be appalled.

“It’s a time we’re celebrating what a struggle it was for those pilgrims to have enough food to survive," she says. "And yet the way that we celebrate is by having so much food we’re not able to finish it."

So, what are your options if you don’t want to waste all that food? Our downtown D.C. grocery shopper, Elizabeth Willson, says her family has a pretty straightforward strategy for avoiding waste.

She says, “We just try and eat as much as we possibly, humanly can.”

But Willson says her mother does give away a lot of food. She loads everybody up with leftovers before they leave. That’s a good way to avoid waste. Talking turkey -- you can freeze the parts of your bird you don’t eat. Your favorite chicken recipe can be made with turkey. But you have to get creative with the other leftovers jockeying for space in your fridge. Jonathan Bloom is an author and blogger on food waste. 

“A great way to eliminate fridge food waste is to keep a picture in the back of the fridge," he says. "And if you can’t see that picture, that means, chances are you have too much food in your fridge.”

Bloom says you can be a bit less vigilant when evaluating the contents of your kitchen cabinets. If you didn’t use all the boxes of stuffing mix crowding your shelf, think twice about throwing them out. Even if they’re past their use-by dates. Bloom says those dates just tell you when the product is at its freshest. It’s not spoiled after that.

“And I think there is this misconception that if we eat a food one minute past the stroke of midnight on the date that’s stamped on the package we’re really taking a chance," he says. "And that’s just not the case.”

But Bloom says the best food saving strategy starts in the grocery store. During holidays -- and the rest of the year -- plan what you’re going to get ahead of time. And don’t overbuy. Because even if you’re getting a great deal by buying in bulk, you’ll lose money if you end up throwing out mountains of food.

What do you do with your Thanksgiving leftovers? Post your photos to our map.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.
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Thanksgiving leftovers are easy. Tell your guests to bring their own containers & insulated lunch bags. Fill them up while you're cleaning up the kitchen.

@ Marketplacelistener: "Nobody likes cranberry sauce. " HAH! I take as much of my son's whole cranberry-horseradish relish as i can. It's a great change-up for chicken, pork, salmon, broccoli, or kale year-round. Freeze in meal-sized containers.

--package much of the leftovers and send them home with the guests

--spend a bit of time thinking realistically about how much food to prepare, and
willfully prepare less

--don't bring home as many boxed frozen dinners and they you'll have more room for your
well preserved and safely frozen leftovers

--I noted the entire turkey carcass in the above refrigerator. In the next two days, pick off the obvious meat and throw the whole thing in a pot to boil down to a broth. It takes a bit of work, but it makes a great soup. (Yes, you need to pick the smaller bones out with a fork.) Check any cooking website for details.

Planning what you eat does reduce waste. it also reduces cost to your wallet. I love that having a menu, even if it is just one weeks worth, lets me increase my food dollar value while increasing my food storage for bad times.

1. How we got into this mess: corporations like the Propa & Ganda Company spent $billions on hatefearteasing to teach us to fear germs; any amount of rot or fermentation on the food is viewed like a deadly plague. Mothers warn their children: Stay out of the Garbage! The terror of being accused of child neglect should the kid eat something "dangerous" pervades the education system.

2. One obvious solution to the waste problem which maybe should have been in the article: composting. Google it, there are plenty of informative articles and pictures showing how to do it. Some hints:

a. Every household should have a source of sifted "woodflour" (sawdust) or leaflitter which is dumped into your compost can each time covering the latest foodscraps entry. (Grinding dry leaves etc. against a quarter-inch or half-inch Mesh screen is a way to produce this medium.
Or be in touch with some nearby carpentry shop and pick up their dust regularly.

b. Carrying the compost out to the collection pit or bin in the garden or driveway is educational work for kids to do.

c. If you produce more compost than you can use in your garden consider building a Bin on a Pallet. Periodically a big truck (sorry we haven't founded the company yet) shows up, and a fork lift truck hoists your loaded bin into it, then replaces it with the empty. You'll need at least a four-foot wide pathway leading to where the bin stands.

We have some ideas for turkey leftovers. Check out Tin Can Toubadours You Tube video singing the Turkey Blues. One creative woman's ideas for using turkey leftovers.

I freeze the turkey carcass in three parts, with chunks of meat. We then have turkey soup three times between now and Christmas. I learned that trick a number of years ago, and it saves us from getting overwhelmed by the leftovers. We do keep out some of the meat for sandwiches, etc., but not more than two days worth. The sides generally tend to get eaten.

What happened to the Thanksgiving leftovers here? They went to the farm animals. Chickens love meat and leftover milk. Goats like vegetables, fruit and bread as do meat rabbits. Nobody likes cranberry sauce.

No guilt about uneaten food here as some being is happy to have it as a treat!


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