Hannah Katsman is a mother of six and an expert on efficient cooking. At Cooking Manager, she shares easy recipes and tips on planning menus, shopping, food storage, appliance usage, entertaining, leftovers, and more. Below, she lends her insight on how to reduce waste and enjoy your Thanksgiving:
Lots of guests, a table groaning with food, holiday specialties–everyone looks forward to Thanksgiving dinner. But if you’re not careful, much of the meal you slaved over could end up in the garbage. Here are tips to help you get the most from your Thanksgiving dinner, or anytime you cook at home.
- Choose the right size. If you are buying a whole turkey, 3/4 to 1 pound per adult allows for seconds. If a whole turkey is still too much, stick to a breast and allow 1/3 to 1/2 pound of raw turkey per person.
- Don’t dry it out. A plastic cooking bag keeps meat moist and cuts down on roasting time. Turkey cooked with the oven closed is moister than basted turkey.
- Buy fresh turkey a day or two before cooking, or defrost frozen turkey in the refrigerator over several days. Allow a day for every 4-5 pounds. (But even if you forget to thaw the turkey, you can still cook it!)
- Bring ice packs or a cooler or to the store to keep food cold on the trip home. Choose frozen items just before checkout.
- Cook stuffing in a separate baking dish, not inside the turkey. The stuffing inside a turkey takes a long time to reach a safe temperature. By that time, your turkey may be overdone.See this USDA site for more turkey safety tips.
- Deglaze the turkey pan. Don’t waste your hard-earned flavor. Pour about two cups of boiling water in the pan, scrape with a spatula, then carefully pour the drippings into a jar or two. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator. When it’s cool, you can remove the layer of fat and use the drippings to flavor rice, soups, vegetables, or your leftover turkey. For extra convenience, freeze drippings in an ice cube tray.
- Slice or cube leftover turkey and store it in meal-sized packages. Freeze everything but what you expect to eat during the next few days.
- Turkey soup. Cover the carcass in water and make stock. Strain and freeze in serving-sized jars or plastic containers for future soups.
Before the Meal
- Clear out your refrigerator and freezer before you begin cooking. You’ll probably find food for easy meals to serve while you’re busy preparing the big dinner. And you’ll make room for fresh holiday food and leftovers. As a bonus, incorporate found food into your Thanksgiving menu.
- Know your guests. Any allergies? Diabetics or vegetarians? Do your guests prefer light or heavy food? Include at least one or two items for special diets.
- Plan quantities carefully. Follow suggested serving amounts in cookbooks, remembering that if you serve more items, you’ll need smaller amounts of each one.
- Stick to a reasonable number of side dishes. You don’t need ten salads and five cooked vegetables. Additional items means more cooking, serving, and storing. And they’re more likely to lie forgotten in back of the fridge.
- Store freshly cooked items right away, while they are still hot. Stagger end times to prevent a too-warm refrigerator.
- Plan for leftovers in advance. Experienced cooks think about leftovers before starting to cook. Choose foods that freeze well. If you must have mashed potatoes make a smaller amount. Assess containers and freezer space for leftovers.
- Avoid special ingredients. Some holiday favorites require a special ingredient, and the rest of the bottle ends up in the garbage. Be realistic. If you won’t be using that saffron or chestnut puree again, borrow some from a friend, look for a substitute, or try another recipe.
- Avoid cooking and freezing in advance. The food will taste better and last longer if you serve it freshly cooked. See Cook in Stages, tip #6 in the category below.
Cooking mistakes can lead to inedible food, and therefore waste. To stay focused and not frazzled:
- Write out a menu, shopping list, and schedule. Include time for defrosting, cleanup, and last-minute shopping.
- Allow extra time for a new recipe, and consult an expert for tips.
- Double-check that you have all required ingredients and utensils.
- Prepare a clear workspace. This prevents spills and other accidents.
- Use a timer to remind you to go on to the next cooking step and to check whether food is done.
- Cook in stages. You can prepare ingredients one day and cook the dish the day before the meal. For example, measure out dry ingredients like flour, breadcrumbs, and rice, and put them away in jars or bags. Wash and chop your vegetables.
Serving and Clearing
- Cut pies and quiches into small pieces. Guests, especially children, like to try things but they don’t always finish them.
- Add dressings and garnishes at the last minute. Dry vegetables keep better.
- Hold back excess food on a hotplate or in the refrigerator.
- Cover food tightly and return it to the fridge after each course.
- Ask for help. Now is the time to include Aunt Molly or break the ice with your shy nephew.
After the Party
- Offer excess leftovers to guests. Let them know you are sincere. Instead of offering all the leftover stuffing, you can give samples of a few items to make a complete meal.
- Assess the situation. After your guests have gone, or early the next day, review the contents of your refrigerator. Decide what should be eaten in the next few days and what will keep longer. Cooked vegetables, baked goods, and grains freeze well. Salads, potato dishes, custards and puddings don’t.
- Write out a menu for the next few days incorporating the most perishable leftovers.
- Divide the rest into meal-sized servings and freeze. Store individually or prepare your own “TV dinners” to heat up in the oven or microwave.
- Don’t freeze leftovers you know you’ll never eat. If it’s edible, give it away.
- Fully reheat leftovers before eating. Here’s a guide to safe storage of leftovers.