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Thanksgiving Leftovers Are Good for Longer Than You Think

Don’t automatically assume a date label on food has to do with safety. (Also: Don’t forget to freeze your leftover stuffing and pie.)

By Zahra Hirji, and originally published by Bloomberg on Nov. 23, 2023

At Thanksgiving, food is the main event. But despite all the effort that goes into buying and preparing a turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, some 312 million pounds of food will end up in the trash this week. That’s roughly $600 million worth.

While Thanksgiving is known for its excess, the holiday is a microcosm of a global problem. About 30% of all food produced for human consumption is wasted, according to the World Food Programme. In the US, the Department of Agriculture estimates that number could be up to 40%. Nearly half of US food waste is generated by households, which makes reducing it both powerful — saving families money while slowing greenhouse gas emissions — and as straightforward as learning to love your leftovers.

“Thanksgiving to me — there’s such irony because the whole history of the holiday is celebrating people having enough food to make it through the winter,” says Dana Gunders, executive director of nonprofit ReFED, which is focused on food waste and developed the Thanksgiving estimates. “We’re so grateful and thankful” for all this food, she says, “and then we throw it out three days later.”

Global attention to food waste is on rise, says Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. That’s in part because of its impact on the planet — from the water, land and energy that goes into growing food and raising livestock to the emissions generated when it’s trashed.

“When we throw food away, it’s sitting in a landfill and emitting methane,” Broad Leib says. “Methane in the short term is 80 times more potent than carbon in the atmosphere.”

A staggering 58% of methane emissions escaping from US landfills come from food waste, according to an October report from the Environmental Protection Agency. And while landfill-related emissions are declining overall, methane emissions from food waste are on the rise. In 2020, about 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions were released into the atmosphere from decomposing food in landfills, the EPA found — roughly equivalent to the combined annual emissions of 15 coal-fired power plants.

The USDA and EPA aim to halve food waste in the US by 2030 compared to 2016 levels, which requires working with governments, companies and schools. At home, one of the biggest ways to guard against waste is also one of the simplest: Make the most of the food you have. Especially on Thanksgiving, when there will be leftovers.

“Love your leftovers,” says Gunders. “As the host, your responsibility is to prepare to send leftovers home with people, and you can do that by having leftover containers on hand or by asking your guests to bring containers.”

The importance of leftovers cannot be overstated. Over the summer, researchers at Gallup and the MITRE Corporation surveyed the food-waste habits of more than 9,000 US households for one week. Among their findings: Households more willing to eat leftovers produced just 3.5 cups of waste per week, compared with about 6 cups on average, says Laura Leets, MITRE’s innovation lead involved in the study. Households where people explicitly said they were less likely to eat leftovers produced a whopping 12 cups of waste, or about 6 pounds (2.8 kilograms).

The researchers also identified widespread confusion about food date labels, with many people interpreting them as strict indicators of food safety instead of, at least sometimes, guidance on freshness. The report found that people who “often or always” throw away food that has passed its date label wasted 8.9 cups of food per week, over twice as much as those who “never or rarely” throw away past-date food (where the average was 4 cups per week).

Gunders has one more reminder for reducing food waste: Use your freezer. “Freezers are kind of the magic pause button for your food,” she says. “As much as we may love leftovers on day one, by day three we’re kind of over them. That’s okay. Pop them in the freezer and in a couple of weeks, you’ll be very excited to have them.”

According to the USDA, Thanksgiving leftovers are safe in the fridge for up to four days, and safe in the freezer “indefinitely, but will keep the best quality for two to six months.”

Of course, you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving dinner is served to think about reducing waste — Gunders emphasizes paying attention to how much food you’re making in the first place. One tip is to cook slightly smaller dishes than usual because there are likely to be more appetizers, sides and desserts than with other meals.

“Be thoughtful about how much you prepare and lean towards actually less servings for the number of people you have for each dish,” Gunders says. She points to an online tool called the Guest-imator that helps people estimate how much of each Thanksgiving dish they should make depending on who’s coming and how many dishes will be served.

“Thanksgiving is the holiday of leftovers,” says Broad Leib. “I can’t think of any other meal where we so purposefully over-prepare food.”

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