Cooking Up A Sustainable Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving Day is only two weeks away; a day where families all over the U.S. celebrate all that there is to be thankful for by having a nourishing Thanksgiving feast. Although some families have their own traditions, we all know the staples of this yearly event: dishes like mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and of course, turkey.

If you have you ever thought about the impact of these millions of turkey dinners on the environment, you would be right to feel concerned. Like any other day of the year, a massive amount of carbon is used to transport food to your grocery store from factory farms. At those farms, millions of acres of land are used to raise beef, chicken and turkey. These millions of acres include not only the land where the animals graze, but also the land used to grow food to feed to our livestock. Additionally, billions of gallons of water are used to raise these animals.

Thanksgiving is a meal on a large enough scale that significant planning is required for most families. If you are already putting extra effort into this meal, why not also incorporate sustainability into your meals? There are many things you can do to lower the carbon footprint of your turkey dinner.

TurkeyThe Turkey: Buy Local

Luckily, we are off to a good start by eating turkey! Turkey is much less environmentally intensive to produce than, for example, beef. Beef accounts for approximately 65% of greenhouse gases emitted from the livestock sector (FAO). Additionally, beef requires more than 5 times as much water to produce as poultry does (Chapagain & Hoekstra 2003).

However, you can take it a step farther by buying a local turkey. Buying from local farmers reduces the fossil fuels used in transporting the animal. Also, supporting local businesses helps to bolster local economies, and often you are supporting farmers who use more sustainable and ethical methods of farming as compared with factory farms.

See a list of Connecticut farms that sell turkeys.

The Side Dishes: Substitute

Another way to make a more sustainable Thanksgiving dinner is to substitute as many animal products as you can for plant based dishes. If you are already serving a turkey, don’t serve anther meat based option- instead, opt for mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, and other plant based dishes!

The Décor: Go Natural

If you are decorating you house, apartment or dorm room for Thanksgiving, go outside or to a farm and grab some leaves, acorns, squashes and flowers for decoration. These items are biodegradable with very little environmental impact. Try to avoid plastic, store bought decorations, especially if you intend to dispose of them at the end of the season. These decorations cost you more money, and contribute to carbon emissions through every step of their production and disposal. In addition to décor, also consider using reusable plates, napkins, utensils and cups to reduce the waste you produce.

The Location: Reduce Travel

Thanksgiving is one of the biggest travel holidays, which is part of why flight costs are sky high for this weekend! Flights are very carbon intensive. If you can stay closer to home, this will greatly reduce your carbon footprint. And if you do intend to travel far and wide, driving instead of flying if possible will also help you to contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions.

The Aftermath: Leftovers

If you don’t already enjoy days’ worth of turkey cranberry sandwiches after Thanksgiving, you are missing out! But besides making a tasty lunch, eating up all of those leftovers reduces food waste. Food waste is a major problem, since roughly a third of the food produced every year ends up in a landfill (FAO) instead of where it should be – on your plate! Reducing food waste is a social justice issue, but it is also an environmental issue. All of that food in landfills represents wasted resources. And what’s worse, some of the rotting and decomposing food in landfills can produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. So, by enjoying leftovers for lunch, you are reducing your food waste and your carbon footprint!


I hope you found these tips useful and will try to green your Thanksgiving dinner. However you decide to celebrate, here’s to wishing you and your family a happy holiday.

If you liked this article and are interested in food waste and the environment, come to the food waste-themed lecture, “Getting Real About Food Waste: The British Perspective”. This lecture will be held on Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 at 4pm in Andre Schenker Lecture Hall (behind Monteith). The lecture features the British group, The Waste & Resource Action Programme (WRAP). They will be discussing food waste management and addressing the issue from generation to handling of food waste.



Chapagain, A.K. and A.Y. Hoekstra. 2003. Virtual Water Flows Between Nations in Relation to Trade in Livestock and Livestock Products. UNESCO Institute for Water Education, Delft, the Netherlands.

Key facts and findings. 2016. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome Italy.

SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction. 2016. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome Italy.