Planning a zero waste Thanksgiving

Whether you’re recreating your favorite dishes at home this year, celebrating with loved ones over zoom, or planning the meal while you quarantine, I thought I'd share some of my favorite ways to reduce waste at Thanksgiving. I've written about this before, but not from as personal of a viewpoint, so it's really fun to be thinking about past holidays and things we've done to make celebrations more sustainable.

Usually around this time of year, I'm back on the East Coast with my family for a week of cooking and baking, watching old movies and family walks on the beach. Every time I walk into their neighborhood grocery store, I'm reminded how lucky we are to have a bulk section back home. (PS If you know of a bulk foods store anywhere in Rhode Island, please, please find me in the comments) They are more rare than I realize! So, I return to more old school ways of reducing waste. We look for aluminum cans, glass jars/bottles and cardboard or paper instead of plastic. We bring our own bags and cloth produce bags, we shop at the fresh meat and cheese counters and the bakery, and we do whatever we can to cut down on packaging waste.

Cloth produce bags

Now here's the thing. I talk to my family about zero waste all the time, and so many of my relatives have low waste products all over their homes, but one thing I don't do is complain about plastic in the grocery stores or comment on it in their homes. First of all, I'm far from "zero" myself, but more importantly, every one is on their own path. I like to talk about sustainability when it feels natural, I ask questions, I let other people ask me questions, and I also recognize it's a lot harder to reduce waste in places that don't have composting or even recycling. I believe in the power of the individual, but I also believe it's really important that we make changes at the public policy and corporation level. Zero waste should come from a place of feeling inspired and empowered, never pressured or guilt-ridden.

After our grocery store run, we start cooking! Like, all week long. I kid you not, my grandmother prints out an oven schedule. Every one has to make a dish, and we try to get creative every year and try some new recipes in the mix. Of course, there's the classics, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and my mom's famous chocolate cream pie. But one thing I want to do a better job of is making our meal more plant based! We do still get a turkey every year, although we get a much smaller one now - who needs a week's worth of turkey-at-every-meal? We do try to use the whole bird, make a gravy out of it, and use up all the leftovers, but as I learn more about the impact of meat on the environment, I'm reminded that wherever we can cut down is really important. Minimalist Baker shares about a million recipes for plant based Thanksgiving dishes if you are choosing to skip the turkey this year!

sweet potato casserole

I've definitely gotten my family hooked on all the reusable food containers... in August for my wedding, my aunt and uncle brought all their food from Vermont in reusables! They had peas from their garden in reusable bags, premade dishes for my rehearsal dinner in glass pyrex containers, and too many more to remember. My grandmother uses the stasher bags to microwave leftovers, and I'm excited to show her how to use them in the oven or sous vide next time we cook a big meal at her house. Reusable containers are nothing new to her - her fridge is full of upcycled plastic containers that definitely don't contain what's on the lid. For example, I always know to look in the cool whip container for the parmesan. What can I say, her generation grew up needing to be frugal and resourceful! We all know zero waste is nothing new. If we think about the real history of this holiday, we have much to learn from indigenous people about taking care of the land. I've been reading a lot this year on how they used plants to make food, dyes, medicine, building materials and even music. 

My parents and sister are well versed in the reusables, too. They have stasher bags, bee's wrap, and metal food containers in their cabinets. I've realized that the metal containers in particular come in handy when it comes to the "oven schedule," because we always premake things that just need to be heated up, and we can pop the metal containers in the toaster oven to save time and space for larger dishes.

Stasher bag fridge

Last year around the holidays, I gave these herbal seasoning blends to almost every one in my family. We go through purple rain and kanye west sooo fast in my household. The gifted spices were a huge hit and I can't wait to enjoy them on Thanksgiving dishes! (If we have any left, that is).

My favorite part of any holiday is the decorations. We'll pick flowers from my grandmother's garden, put out lace table cloths that are generations old, light candles in crystal holders, tell stories, and enjoy the special meal together. Holidays are all about family in my mind, and it's always so sweet to end the year tucked inside together, with twinkle lights and traditions.

Last but not least, I think we can all agree that the meaning of Thanksgiving has drastically shifted over the years. We know some of the darker history this country was founded on, and now we give thanks for reconciliation, for family, for learning about culture that was washed away, for strides in justice, and even for the work ahead of us. This fall, I purchased a book called An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.⁠ I bought it from a Black and Brown owned bookstore in South Seattle called Estelita's Library, which I linked to here. If any of you are reading this too, I'd love to do a virtual book club of sorts. 

Cheers to a holiday of learning, of family, of new and old traditions, and of giving thanks for all that the Earth has given us. Stay well, friends.