How to Have a Stylish, Green Thanksgiving with Little Waste

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EDITOR’S NOTE: I originally published this post last year. Because many of my tips are still the same, here it is again, with some edits and important additions.

Photo by CarbonNYC

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. Cook from scratch

At least at my house, the holidays lend themselves to lots of great home cooking. There is still packaging from individual ingredients, but we try to be careful to choose ingredients and cans and glass jars and bottles, which are infinitely recyclable, rather than plastic, which can be recycled only a limited number of times, if at all. But as a general rule, overpackaging tends to be a product of ready-to-eat foods rather than ingredients for homemade dishes.

2. Eat local foods

Shop your local farmer’s market for fresh, often organic produce. Of course, how much you are able to do this will depend entirely on your menu, but  staples like squash, potatoes, squash, herbs and pumpkin shouldn’t be difficult to find with 100 miles of where you live. If you must shop at the grocery store, opt for organic produce when available, and buy fresh veggies and fruits rather than the canned or frozen variety. If you use reusable produce bags, you can come home with no waste at all!

3. Go with cloth napkins

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? Cut an old tablecloth or fabric scraps into 18″ x 18″ squares that you and your guests can use as napkins. Plus, you can always head to your nearest thrift store, where you’re bound to find perfectly usable napkins or other linens that could be converted to napkins. If you cut them with pinking shears, you don’t even have to hem them.

If you do prefer to buy, consider 100% linen or organic cotton napkins like the ones from Bambeco or Amenity. They are not Thanksgiving or even fall specific, so you could use them all year long. I’m also a big fan of the hemp blend napkins shown above by Etsy seller Jennifer Joy Creative. Honestly, any cloth napkins, no matter what they’re made of, are better than paper ones you’d just throw away.

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 or wrap them in ribbon or twine. You could use costume jewelry rings as napkin rings or brooches to hold them in a beautiful folded shape. The possibilities really are endless.

4. Use your “good” dishes


Photo by Adam Baker

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.

This also applies to cooking and serving dishes. Opt for glass or metal baking pans rather than disposable aluminum ones. Serve your food in beautiful bowls or glass dishes rather than disposable pieces. If you need a few extras, head to the thrift store.

5. Compost as much food as you can

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. First, of course, don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach. Take — or serve — only as much as you can actually eat. But if there is food left on your plate (or your guests’ plates), don’t just toss all that uneaten food in the trash. Compost as much of it as you can. 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.

Understand that you can’t compost everything, so prevention is the best option here (ie. take what you can actually eat). You know your compost bin better than anyone, so you’ll know if you compost only veggies and egg shells, or whether you have a worm bin that can handle some cooked food scraps.

6. Think green for your centerpiece

Photo by Lee Brimelow
Most people 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 is that you can 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 already own to the table to make the centerpiece more personal. You can use fresh flowers, wine corks arranged artfully, or even a pumpkin surrounded by flowers or a bowl of fresh fruit. You are limited only by your imagination.

If you plan to buy any pieces to use on your table, remember that you don’t want to clutter the table with too much stuff. Opt for items made of materials like bamboo, recycled glass, reclaimed wood, or organic matter like fruit, veggies or even paper. At the very least, your centerpiece should be something you can reuse or dispose of conscientiously (ie. in the recycling bin or compost pile).

7. 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.

8. 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 :)

9. Remember what you’re celebrating

Even if you’re having a bunch of guests over, you don’t have to provide a gourmet meal with dozens of side dishes or 5 varieties of wine and spirits. The whole point of the holiday is to be thankful for your blessings. Spending quality time with family is one of those blessings. The simpler you make your plans, the less energy you’ll use (both in terms of electricity and your own energy) and the more time you’ll have to enjoy the day.

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

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1 comment… add one

  • Samantha Cobos November 23, 2010, 4:00 pm

    Great ideas Jennae! LOVE those Hemp Little Bird napkins – I’m really liking Etsy lately. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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