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Climate and Environment

Eat Your Leftovers, And Other Ways To Have A Sustainable Thanksgiving

A roasted turkey sits on a wooden table with greens beneath it, surrounded by Thanksgiving side dishes
Thanksgiving leftovers may do damage to your waistline — and also to the planet.
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It’s that time of year again, when we eat to our heart’s content and our belly’s distension. It’s also a time when we use way more energy, waste way more food, and throw out way more trash.

So how can you have a more environmentally-friendly Thanksgiving and holiday season?

First, let’s be real: Individual changes without collective action can’t do much in the face of the climate emergency. We need rapid transformation at systemic levels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid the worst outcomes of the climate crisis.

But personal and systemic change don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

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And individual choices can add up. Research shows it takes only 25% of a population to change a social norm. L.A chef and Ventura County farmer Mollie Engelhart points out that fast-food joints now have vegan options because enough consumers created a market for them.

But back to Thanksgiving. One way we can each show appreciation for our planet is by making more earth-friendly decisions. And hey, maybe a couple of these will stick in the long run.

A wooden bowl of shiny red apples
Buying at farmers markets can give you a better sense of how your food was grown
(Caroline Attwood

Buy Local

Buying food produced locally is a big way to lower the carbon footprint of your food while supporting family farms, Engelhart says. Locally-grown, in-season food doesn’t require long-distance shipping, and you’re likely not buying from industrial agriculture operations, a huge source of global emissions. (Note: buying in-season is also often less expensive).

“No matter what time of year it is, eating local food is profoundly impactful,” Engelhart says.

Engelhart and her husband own Sow a Heart Farm in Fillmore, where they practice what’s called regenerative agriculture. It’s a way of farming that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere, rather than releasing it. It’s not widespread, but it’s increasingly being seen as a way to combat global warming.

The food goes directly to their four vegan Sage restaurants, located across L.A. County. Then, whatever food waste is produced at the restaurant goes back into the soil at their farm.

Get To Know Your Farmers

One of the most important aspects of eating locally, though, is really getting to know your farmers and understanding how your food is grown or raised, Engelhart says. Not all small farms are pesticide-free or sustainably operated, though they’re more likely to be. The bulk of emissions from the food sector come from destructive farming practices, not transportation.

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The best way to do that is by going to your local farmer’s market. Below are a few farms that sell at local markets in Southern California. Many of them also deliver fresh food right to your door (this list is not close to exhaustive).

Cow farts are not the number one cause of methane on the planet. Food scraps going into the landfill are.
— Mollie Engelhart, restaurateur and farmer

Buy Organic

No matter what’s at the center of your table, buy organic if you can, says Monica Smith, a UCLA archaeologist who specializes in humans’ long-term relationship with the environment.

“Just try buying something organic, like olive oil or organic wine or organic fruit, something that helps us to celebrate the farmworkers’ health and the production of food,” Smith says.

While the organic label doesn’t tell you much about whether the food was produced in a climate-friendly way, it does tell you that there weren’t pesticides and other chemicals used, so it’s better for your personal health and the health of the people who grow and harvest the food.

For animals, it means they weren’t fed antibiotics or hormones, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they had a better quality of life than animals raised in non-organic settings.

“The things that we want to think about is buying from farmers that we know, buying local and buying meat and dairy where the animals are treated like the sovereign beings that they are,” Engelhart says.

The organic label is enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can learn more here.

Eat Allllll The Food

Not that you needed it, but now you have another excuse to eat all those leftovers: helping the planet.

Americans are expected to waste more than 300 million pounds of food this Thanksgiving, according to the national food waste non-profit, ReFED. Most of that will end up in a landfill where, here in California, food scraps make up about 18% of the waste.

That’s not good — landfills are also the state’s largest source of methane emissions. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, tens of times more effective at heating the planet than carbon dioxide.

“After the holiday is over and you're all so full and stuffed, and you can't even look at another piece of mashed potatoes and you're tempted to throw it all in the trash, my request is that you don't,” Engelhart says.

"We may not be able to change how farmers are having cows in feedlots, but we can change where we put our food scraps, each of us, every day.”

So don’t be ashamed — eat all those leftovers and keep them out of the landfill. If you can’t finish it all, try to compost. You can learn more about how to compost here, buy a compost bin here and find drop-off sites here.

And the most obvious way to avoid that mountain of leftovers? Try to cook only as much as you and your loved ones are really going to eat.

Next year, a new state law will require every local jurisdiction to compost organic waste so California can reach its methane reduction goals.

Turn Off The TV And Get Outside

We live in Southern California, where it’s 70 degrees in November, so we don’t have any excuse to stay indoors during Thanksgiving. Instead of leaving the lights and TV running all day, sucking up energy that’s powered by fossil fuels, turn everything off and get outside, says Smith. And you’ll also be doing a safe activity as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“That will let you get out and not only have a more sustainable energy experience, but it also reconnects you to nature,” she says.

Here are some final tips from UCLA’s Smith:

  • Carpool to the party and save on gas, as well as emissions. 
  • Try to avoid additional meat dishes and make veggies the star of the meal.  
  • Don’t be afraid to drink the tap water: L.A. actually has pretty good tap water, so use it instead of buying bottled water or drinks, says Smith. (Check out the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s 2020 drinking water report here). You can add flavor with fruits or lemon or cucumber. 
  • Save water! Don’t leave the water running when you do the dishes. After all, we’re in the midst of an official drought emergency
  • Don’t put grease down the drain. It’ll solidify in the pipes which can cause blockages and lead to sewer spills, which are bad for the environment and public health. It’s also expensive to fix. 
  • Buy that bruised and imperfect grocery store fruit. It’ll cook just fine, be just as tasty, and you’ll keep more food out of landfills.
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