The amount of perfectly edible turkey meat Americans will throw into the garbage can this Thanksgiving is enough to make you lose your appetite. Of the nearly 248 million turkeys raised for slaughter in the United States, a whopping $282 million worth of perfectly edible meat will be wasted, enough to feed each American household in the country 11 additional servings!
"Thanksgiving is the ultimate irony, really," explains food waste expert Dana Gunders, PhD, food and agriculture scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council. "We feast to celebrate that our ancestors had enough food to survive their first winter, acknowledging that once upon a time food was something to be grateful for. Then the next day, we throw half of it away."
Chew on These Food Waste Stats
• The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that Americans will throw away more than 200 million pounds of edible turkey meat this Thanksgiving holiday. This plays out that each household will waste about 35 percent of edible turkey meat.
• 105 billion gallons of water will be wasted on producing turkey meat that people will never eat—that's enough to supply New York City for more than 100 days.
• Producing one turkey requires as much water as a two-hour shower.
• Greenhouse-gas emissions to produce uneaten turkey equal 800,000 car trips from New York to San Francisco, Gunders found.
• Over the past 40 years, the amount of food we waste has increased by 50 percent.
Food Waste as a Public Health Threat?
The average American may consume more than 4,500 calories during Thanksgiving. "Portion sizes are certainly one place where food waste meets human health risk because large portions make us choose between eating too much or wasting food," explains Gunders.
Over the past several decades, the average diameter of our dinner plates has grown more than 30 percent, and diet-related diseases have been on the increase. To really stop the issues of both overeating and food waste, we need to look at our norms around portion sizes.
Part of the reason Americans can afford to overeat—and waste—so much food is industrial farming practices. How does this work? The standard Thanksgiving turkey comes from warehouse-style farms that typically produce 100,000 birds a year. These concentrated animal-feeding operations raise turkeys that were crossbred to grow unnaturally fast. This growth pattern often leads to heart failure and fractured limbs, and the turkeys would die if not slaughtered. The waste generated by these turkey factory farms amounts to about 4.5 billion pounds of waste litter.
Most supermarket turkeys were fed meals laced with antibiotics, an industry secret that helps the birds grow faster—this keeps costs down for the grower and the supermarket shopper, but it also creates an unhealthy environment in which harmful bacteria flourish and learn to outsmart antibiotics. This could lead to superbug infections in humans that can be hard or impossible to treat.
Here's how to never waste an ounce of Thanksgiving turkey again:
Buy a smaller turkey. "When was the last time anyone actually ran out of turkey on Thanksgiving?" asks Gunders. Exactly. We usually buy—and then subsequently waste—too much. Portion planners typically recommend one pound of turkey per person, but Gunders says that calculation doesn't factor in our emphasis on fun side dishes, so we could actually plan a smaller turkey serving per person. "This year, try downsizing a pound or two," she says. "Your guests will likely not even know the difference."
While you're at it, choose an organic turkey so you can avoid antibiotics. Pasture-raised turkeys supplemented with organic grain are considered the most earth-friendly and humane options, too. Buying a heritage-breed turkey helps keep certain old-school breeds from going extinct because it keeps farmers dedicated to preserving the breeds in business.
Read More: Cook the Tastiest Thanksgiving Turkey Ever
Know how long it'll last. According to the USDA, cooked turkey will be fine in the fridge for three to four days. After that, put it in a freezer-proof storage container or bag and store for four to six months.
Arm your guests. Hosting a holiday dinner? When your guests ask what they can bring, make sure you mention storage containers for leftovers. Be sure to have a few on hand in case someone forgets.
Think beyond the leftover turkey sandwich. To avoid fatigue from the same old ways to use leftovers, try these turkey tactics:
• Toss bits of turkey in gravy, heat, and serve wrapped in heated whole wheat flour tortillas. If you have time, put the filled tortillas in a baking pan, pour enchilada sauce over them, add a sprinkling of shredded cheese, and bake till hot and bubbly.
• Dice and serve bits of turkey over mixed greens for a light main-dish salad, or toss them into your favorite pasta salad for a more substantial entrée.
For more ideas on how to deal with leftover turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes, use this Thanksgiving Leftovers Survival Guide. And remember—you can substitute turkey into most chicken recipes. Here's to a zero-waste Thanksgiving!