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Planning a Thanksgiving menu is easy for most Americans. The turkey, whether raw or fully cooked, will be the highlight, even if half of the guests are vegetarian. Some family-approved parties and desserts are necessary to prevent a riot. And overly generous guests can be counted on to fill any gaps at the table with covered plates big enough to fill the neighborhood.
The hard part is reining in this reward.
For those who look forward to the festive mood of the celebration as well as fear the consequences of the feast, broadcaster and TV food expert Christopher Kimball offers this tip: “Cook half as much as you think you need. Most of us can cut our menus very short and no one will go hungry.”
This is wise advice – not just for our wallets, but for the planet as well.
According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no more than a third of our country’s food supply is eaten. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, waste food is the largest category of material that clogs municipal landfills. As it decays, it emits methane, a powerful gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide and warms the planet.
The holiday season is particularly difficult in Mother Nature. A 2018 report by the Center for Biodiversity states that Americans litter about 25% more between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day than any other time of the year. An estimated 200 million pounds of turkey meat, 150 million pounds of vegetable sides, and 14 million pounds of dinner each Thanksgiving produce about half a million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. That’s not counting fossil fuels burned for nationwide meetings, or plastic and other waste used for servicing, cleaning and packaging.
Kimball is the founder of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, a Boston-based food media franchise that focuses on practical home cooking, fresh ingredients and solid technique. This is a solution to deal with rising food costs while striving to be better stewards of the environment. His team’s latest effort is the cookbook “Milk Street: Cook What You Have: Make a Meal From Almost Anything.”
He and other sustainably minded culinary experts shared their personal strategies for celebrating autumn abundance in gratitude for the friends, family, and land that made the feast possible.
“I stay away from crowded buffet tables,” Kimball said in a phone call. Instead, she opts for a more modern, family-style turkey menu, basic mashed potatoes, and a few robust side vegetables that can be easily reheated from a local farm delivery—no salads that will turn into mush at the end of the meal.
“I don’t garnish my vegetables—I keep them very simple,” she said. “I can make roasted, charred brussels sprouts or boiled greens flavored with an interesting spice mix I made out there. If I have leftovers, I can make them into a frittata, mix them into a pasta sauce, or add them to a bowl of rice.
Instead of roasting the turkey whole, Kimball slowly roasts the cut pieces in a high-sided frying pan with some aromatics in a few inches of stock, “because there’s nothing worse than a big, gnarled leg that’s completely dried out.” This way, you can first remove the tender white meat so it doesn’t overcook and allow the tough dark pieces to stubbornly stick to the bone, allowing extra time to continue cooking. “And pan juices make a really great sauce.”
After eating, he cuts bones to make stock. “It makes too many basic ingredients to have on hand in the freezer. That’s where the pantry comes in and can take you in all sorts of different directions with huge bursts of flavor like anchovies, chipotle or pomegranate molasses.
This relaxed approach gives her more time to devote to her favorite part of prep, baking pies. “I never have to worry about eating with these anymore.”
Now the idea: A favorite of the Milk Street test cuisine, fried pearl couscous with sweet potatoes and cranberries is a delicious go-to for next-day roasted sweet potatoes and snacks from cabinets and crispers.
Cooking Thanksgiving for a small team comes with its own set of challenges. Michigan-based food writer Lindsay-Jean Hard says although her husband always dry-brine the turkey, “this year’s bird will be very small because my daughter and I are vegetarians and we know we don’t want to have a turkey. There is a lot left.”
An avid gardener with a master’s degree in urban planning and a passion for sustainability, Hard draws his menu upfront and scales his recipes close to what he knows will actually beat. It’s even looking for ways to incorporate bits of produce, which are typically sent to the compost bin, into family meals.
Some of these wasteless innovations, like Danish Pancakes with Carrot Pesto and Apple Seed Syrup, can be found in the 2018 cookbook “Cooking with Leftovers: Turn Your Shells, Cores, Shells, and Stems into Delicious Meals.”
Here’s a simple tip to keep in mind as you start cooking your banquet: Remove the peeler.
“Once you get into the habit of peeling things off, it can be easy to get on autopilot and keep doing it,” Hard said via email. “Take a moment and ask yourself if this is necessary. Carrots do not need to be peeled. Scrub them well with a vegetable brush and move on. Ginger also does not need to be peeled. And leaving the apple peels on (ideally organic) means it will add color, texture and nutrition to your apple pie.
Similarly, “the perfectly edible stems are easy to throw away – use them!” He said that finely chopped kale or chard stems can be added while sautéing with onions, and finely chopped soft plant stems such as parsley can be added to meals with the leaves.
And don’t be afraid to break tradition. “If everyone insists that Thanksgiving can’t be without a green bean casserole, and then no one eats more than a bite or two, make half a batch this year,” Hard advised. “Or skip it entirely by explaining that you’re doing it in the name of Mother Earth and start a new tradition with a green vegetable dish that people will actually eat.”
Remaining tip: Hard added that she loves silky-smooth mashed potatoes, so she saves the skins for reuse in other dishes like potato skin focaccia.
Georgia restaurateur, cookbook author, and “Top Chef” juror Hugh Acheson is a long-time supporter of local, sustainable agriculture, both at work and at home. His Thanksgiving preparations begin with a trip to a local farmer’s market, where he can personally thank the growers for his generosity.
“Everything but the turkey is vegetarian,” Acheson said, which ensures that anyone who randomly gathers around the kitchen island has plenty to choose from.
Leek is always on the grocery list for the delicious bread pudding it makes every year. Any excess, she said, is great for breakfast the next day, cut into squares and crunchy in butter. The rest of the menu depends on what looks best in the panes. “I cook everything pretty simply,” she said.
“I look carefully at a dinner plate and imagine what it should look like when it’s full,” Acheson explained, to estimate how much to buy before he starts. He uses this mental image to measure portion sizes multiplied by the number of guests and allows for some second helpings and leftovers.
Now the idea: Here’s how Acheson turns leftovers into a turkey avocado sandwich that’s as memorable as a feast.
“Thanksgiving is one of the biggest grocery purchases of the year, and to minimize food waste, you’ll want to review what you already have in your pantry and fridge before heading to the grocery store,” Lisa Bryan advises. “Downshiftology: The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook.” “The author of the book.
“Take the time to throw away expired goods and organize the items you’ll be using in the coming days so they’re visible and easily accessible,” he said.
Bryan understands that arranging a chaos-free Thanksgiving dinner takes practice. It offers detailed guidance on its website for those new to the game. He recommends making a grocery list and organizing it into sections (produce, dairy, dry goods) to make your shopping trip as efficient as possible.
“Our Thanksgiving is usually a get-together of multiple families and relatives, and after many years we have a great system,” he wrote via email. “We share the cookery with one person cooking the turkey, a few people in charge of sides, salads and sauces, and I’m usually in charge of desserts – because my jam is gluten-free pastries.”
As long as you have a game plan for before, during and after the banquet, making it a group effort can lighten the load.
Now ideas: With leftover turkey the next day, Bryan says, “you can easily make turkey poppy for breakfast, turkey Cobb salad for lunch, and turkey stew for dinner—take your pick!” said.