Host a Stylish, Zero-Waste Thanksgiving

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turkeyday1Photo by johncorney

I hate to say it, but I’ve never been big on decorating for Thanksgiving. After I have spent all day in the kitchen over a hot oven and stove, the last thing I want to think about is how to make our place settings look nice or about lighting candles for ambience. This year, however, I have vowed to make our table a sight to behold, even if my husband, daughter and I will be the only ones who get to enjoy it. So here are some tips for making your Thanksgiving table sustainable:

1. Go with cloth napkins

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We all know that Thanksgiving meals can be messy, even if you choose not to have a traditional turkey dinner. Having a large number of family members sitting at one table doesn’t have to mean a lot of waste. Don’t have a bunch of cloth napkins on hand? I plan to cut an old red tablecloth that we never use into smaller squares to use as napkins. And you can always head to your nearest thrift store, where your bound to find perfectly usable napkins or other linens that could be converted to napkins. And if you cut them with pinking shears, you don’t even have to hem them. If you do prefer to buy, opt for 100% linen or organic cotton napkins like the ones from Bambeco or Amenity, shown above. They are not Thanksgiving or even fall specific, so you could use them all year long.

Bonus: Reusable napkins, in addition to reducing lots of waste, also give you endless opportunities to make your table look fabulous. Display them like a fan inside your wine glasses, wrap them in ribbon or twine or any number of other creative ideas.

2. Use your “good” dishes

turkeyday4Photo by Rick Scully

It can be tempting to reach for the disposables when you’ll have a lot of family members around, but with a little careful planning, you can use your best dinnerware without a hassle. At my house, we try to keep the dishwasher empty before we start the meal. The we just ask everyone to put their empty dishes inside the dishwasher when they’re finished with their meal. It means less cleanup for us, and it isn’t asking much of your guests if they would have been taking their dishes to the sink anyway. If you generally have one or two people clear the table (kids, anyone?) after a large family meal, keeping the dishwasher empty will make their jobs a whole lot easier as well.

3. Compost all that food

Whether we intend to or not, Thanksgiving tends to be synonymous with overeating. This usually means that some people won’t be able to completely empty their plates. Instead of tossing all that uneaten food in the trash, compost it. To avoid opening the compost bin every time someone needs to dump their plate, you can keep a medium sized covered bowl (a decorative bowl would be great too) on the counter to contain all the food until you’re ready to take it to the main bin. I confess that we still haven’t found a composter that works for our apartment lifestyle yet, but we’re working on it :)

UPDATE: Reader “N” of GreenPreferred.com made a great point about composting in the comments:

You can’t just simply clear your plate into a compost pile. Any compost pile that contains fats or oils and meat will not only go rancid but will attract unwanted bugs and critters. The only things that will be compostable from your holiday meals or from any meal for that matter are “organics”. That would be any vegetable or fruit trimmings or peelings, egg shells, paper, coffee grounds, etc.

I’m not sure if the same is true if you use worms in your compost. Maybe someone who composts with worms this can answer that question. I’d love to hear from someone who does!

4. Make your centerpiece from stuff you already have

Most people always keep a few candles around the house, hopefully made from soy or beeswax. They don’t have to match, and you don’t have to light them, particularly if they have a potent fragrance. But a bunch of candles in varying heights and colors grouped together makes for a great centerpiece. Lay a piece of rough natural twine around the grouping like a lasso to finish off the look.

Depending on where you live, fall foliage should be easy to come by. While I wouldn’t recommend using a pile of fallen leaves as your centerpiece, pinecones are free and easy to come by. And if you’re a parent, you can send the kids outside to find them while you’re cooking.  I prefer the look of pinecones as is, but feel free to decorate them to your liking. You could arrange them in a beautiful glass or ceramic bowl with a small branch from an evergreen tree tucked in the center.

The idea here to be creative with items you already have laying around the house. We have a family full of Js, so I plan to bring a couple of decorative Js we have in our office to the table to make the centerpiece more personal. I also love fresh flowers, so I’ve been saving up a pretty wine bottle to use as a vase for a few blooms for the occasion.

5. Have fun with your place settings

turkeyday3Photos from Young House Love

One of my all time favorite ideas for place cards comes from Sherry and John over at Young House Love. If you collect corks, all you have to do is make a small slit across one end of the cork. Then use index cards or any card stock you have around the house to write (or print) the names of your guests and stick them in the slot, standing the cork on it’s other end. You could also lay the cork in your guests’ plate. It’s free, and really easy to do.

Other ideas? Cut two slits on either end of your place card horizontally. Weave a length of ribbon through the two slots behind the card (so you don’t cover up the name) and wrap the length of the ribbon around a rolled or folded napkin. If you are really aiming for simplicity, just stick your place cards in between the prongs of your guests’ dinner fork. They won’t be able to miss them, and they cost you nothing.

6. Recycle, recycle, recycle!

And of course, it wouldn’t be a green Thanksgiving if you didn’t encourage your guests to recycle. If you follow all the tips above, you shouldn’t be left with much waste, but you’ve got to do something with all those empty cider and/or wine bottles, so make sure you have a bin nearby so no one is tempted to throw those recyclables in the trash. I know at my house, all my family members know me well enough to ask if something can be recycled before they throw it away :)

What are your ideas for keeping Turkey Day green but still creating a gorgeous table? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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5 comments… add one

  • N November 23, 2009, 12:47 pm

    You have some good tips here but people need to be careful about what they’re composting. You can’t just simply clear your plate into a compost pile. Any compost pile that contains fats or oils and meat will not only go rancid but will attract unwanted bugs and critters. The only things that will be compostable from your holiday meals or from any meal for that matter are “organics”. That would be any vegetable or fruit trimmings or peelings, egg shells, paper, coffee grounds, etc. I think you should make sure to point that fact out to your readers.

    Otherwise the tips to lessen the holiday impact is great. Keep up the good work by spreading the Green way of thinking!

  • jennae November 23, 2009, 12:56 pm

    @N Thank you so much for making that clarification! Like I said, composting is something I’m still learning about myself, so I’m glad to have readers who know more about it than I do. I’ll be sure to add the information you have provided so my readers understand the distinction :)

  • Caroline November 23, 2009, 7:40 pm

    Instead of composting turkey leftovers, you can create a big, beautiful pot of turkey stock with the carcass, water and aromatic vegetables.

  • Scuppasteve November 25, 2009, 5:42 pm

    I have a very large worm composting bin and we do compost meat. Just not large amounts. It you leave it to the small amounts left on the bones and other scraps we have had no problem with it. Can you throw the remaining turkey carcass in there. No.

  • Mrs Green December 8, 2009, 12:25 am

    Wonderful post and I hope you had a great time! Another way to deal with meat waste is a bokashi bin – these sit on your work top and ‘ferment’ your scraps (including cooked, meat, dairy, fish and small bones) which you then add to a regular compost heap or wormery. You can get rid of complete carcasses in a Green Cone or Green Johanna; but you need space to site one outdoors.

    HTH!

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