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Is It Possible to Host a Zero-Waste Holiday Dinner?

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This Thanksgiving, can you host a family dinner that’s zero waste? It’s a fun challenge to liven up the holiday and also show your gratitude to Mother Nature. 


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Zero-waste parties are hot. All across YouTube, we’re seeing YouTubers prove their capacity to live life without filling more than a mason jar with trash. As you’re making your Thanksgiving plans, are you up to the challenge of hosting a dinner with zero (or barely any) waste? Dr. Jenney Hall is here to help!

Jenney Hall Ph.D. is a professor at California State University Dominguez Hills and with an expertise in Climate Change, Environmental Justice and Anthropocene…. In short, she’s an expert on the environment and is very helpful in teaching people how to live more environmentally-friendly lifestyles. I was so excited to sit down with her to learn techniques for hosting a zero-waste Thanksgiving dinner!

For those of us new to “zero-waste,” what’s this lifestyle and how can it be applied to hosting parties?

The philosophy of a zero-waste lifestyle mimics natural cycles where resources are used in a continuous loop and nothing is discarded. For example, when a cow eats grass it’s nourished and defecates any material not utilized by the body. That manure acts as fertilizer for more grass to grow. When you think about it, we’re all made of borrowed atoms that belong to us for only a short time period before they’re returned to the earth and become something else. The Bible describes this in Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Ashes-to-ashes and dust-to-dust describes the natural cycling of materials without any waste. In modern culture where consumerism drives economic growth, this is easier said than done. Single-use and limited-use disposable items make our lives more affordable and convenient, but they generate tremendous waste. When you go shopping, the majority of items are prepackaged in a container that’s meant to be used once and then discarded. A plastic razer or toothbrush may be used more than once, but ultimately, they’re also thrown away when no longer useful.  This disposable mindset is very new in terms of human history. In the early 1900’s the value of a product was measured in how long it would last. One hundred years later, products are designed not to last, piling up in landfills and polluting the planet.

The key is to bring your own bags and containers when shopping to eliminate packaging waste.

When hosting parties for any holiday, you have the opportunity to be a leader, providing your guests with an experience that aligns with your values. Thanksgiving is particularly about sharing gratitude for the Earth’s bounty and appreciating those we love. What better way to show that than to act as a steward of the earth and its inhabitants by demonstrating a zero-waste philosophy in your celebration?

What do I need to find in advance to tackle hosting a zero-waste holiday dinner?

How many people will you be hosting and what would you like to serve them? Estimate how much food they’re likely to eat to avoid preparing too much. The Natural Resources Defense Council developed the Guesti-mator to calculate how much food to prepare, preventing food waste. If you cook everything from scratch, that’ll go a long way in reducing packaging. That said, give yourself time in the days before Thanksgiving to prepare things like pumpkin puree for pumpkin pie so you’re not trying to make everything the day of. Make sure you have enough dishes, dinner plates, cutlery and cloth napkins so that you won’t have to use anything disposable. Decorations should be natural, compostable items like flowers, wreaths and pinecones or reusable items that you will use again next year.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes! We've made a few tweaks to the look of the site as part of our summer makeover. 💅 In addition to updating the Guest-imator to reflect a ~summer vibe~ we updated some of the imagery on our recipes. We're adamant about debunking myths about "imperfect" food, and yet so often all we see are pictures of pristine fruit and veg. Images are powerful, and so we've updated the site to reflect the idea that imperfect produce is still good to eat. Wrinkled apples, brown bananas, strawberry tops, and more are all still incredibly delicious, and we shouldn't let these go to waste. Check it all out at SaveTheFood.com today! #SaveTheFood #Food #FoodWaste #EndFoodWaste #ZeroWaste #RescueFood #Reclaim

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How should I approach buying the food?

Use fresh ingredients as much as possible. For some people it’s difficult to buy a freshly slaughtered turkey, so a plastic wrapped frozen one will have to do. Although, cooking something other than turkey is also an option. The key is to bring your own bags and containers when shopping to eliminate packaging waste. Utilize the produce department, bakery and deli sections of a grocery store as much as possible.

I actually recently teamed up with YouTuber Scotty Sire as part of AT&T’s The Bright Fight. We worked together to plan a zero-waste party for his YouTuber friends. Check out this video to see Scotty and I in action at the grocery store as we worked to tackle this same question:

What type of packaging should I look for?

Butcher paper, cardboard and brown paper are all composable, but using your own container is best. Also, be sure to remove any plastic stickers or tape before composting. Do your best to avoid single-use containers, but if you do, be sure to recycle them.

How can I create a feeling of positivity around my zero-waste Thanksgiving without inducing feelings of guilt?

As a host, be sensitive towards your guests, allowing them to express their own level of interest in your efforts to create a zero-waste feast. A home-cooked meal made with care, enjoyed by friends and family speaks for itself as a surefire way to inspire positive feelings from almost anyone. The focus is all about sharing love and gratitude for one another and our earth that provides for us.

Reducing waste is pretty overwhelming. How can I reduce my carbon footprint without feeling overwhelmed?

It’s a process, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Do what you can, some days will be better than others. Try not to focus on changing your behavior, but on changing your mindset. Develop your core values to incorporate a zero-waste philosophy, making small changes over time to align your behavior.