How to Lay Waste to Thanksgiving Leftovers

by Megan Saynisch


Some food waste facts to consider as we come upon the holiday season:

  • Americans throw away more than 20 lbs of food each month.
  • If we wasted just 5 percent less food, it would be enough to feed 4 million Americans; 20 percent less waste could feed 25 million Americans annually.

Pretty sobering figures — but the Worldwatch Institute says that we waste up to three times more food during the holidays than we do other times of the year. (That’s a lot of good food going into our landfills.)

We’ve compiled this handy guide to help you reduce your holiday food waste, plus a couple of fun recipes for your leftover turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pie.

1. Plan, Plan, Plan

Really good meal planning can help you save money and reduce food waste. (Warning! This may require math!) Calculate exactly how much you’ll need for each recipe per person instead of winging it. (Add a couple of people to your calculations if you want leftovers.) You’ll likely save some money grocery shopping, and you’ll end up with far less food wasted. For the turkey, I usually calculate 1.5 pounds per person (this includes room for some leftovers). Here’s a genius tip from Martha Stewart: the smaller the bird (12 pounds or less), the lower the meat-to-bone ratio, so you’ll need more like 2 pounds per person.

2. Do it Buffet Style

Encouraging self-service for the meal (i.e., buffet style) ensures that your guests take only what they think they’ll eat (give or take an extra scoop of mashed potatoes). This virtually guarantees that less food will get scraped off their plate and into the garbage at the end of the meal.

3. Compost Fruit and Vegetable Scraps

Cooking a large meal like Thanksgiving dinner can generate a lot of fruit and vegetable scraps. Consider starting a compost collection in your kitchen. I use a stainless steel container and keep food scraps on the counter (just for a day or two or until my husband complains), but you can freeze them, too. Here’s a handy home compost guide if you have the room for a bin (we have a super small, NYC-sized rotating bin in our teeny backyard that makes awesome compost in five weeks).

If backyard composting isn’t your bag, many municipalities have food scrap drop off programs — Google “compost drop off [your city]” or “food waste drop-off [your city]” for locations. Also check out our composting page for more resources.

4. Freeze It

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the USDA says that you should only keep leftovers in the fridge for three or four days, or frozen for three to four months. Here is their guide to leftovers and food safety.

Freezing your Thanksgiving day leftovers is probably the easiest way to avoid food waste. Lots of components of the traditional Thanksgiving meal can be frozen.

  • Store meat and gravy together to keep the meat from drying out.
  • To freeze gravy: whiz in food processor blender first to keep it from separating when you thaw it. (More excellent gravy-storage tips here.)
  • Freeze stuffing in plastic freezer bags. Sprinkle with a little broth or water before reheating to avoid the dry-out factor.
  • Freeze cranberry sauce. (Then make fancy grilled cheeses by spreading a little thawed cranberry sauce on crusty bread before adding your cheese of choice and grilling.)
  • I’ve successfully frozen whole pumpkin pies: wrap the entire pie tightly in plastic wrap, then foil. Freeze. To thaw, leave in the fridge for a day until entirely thawed out. (Don’t thaw on the counter or the USDA will hunt me down.)

5.  Lots of Leftovers? Get Creative!

Pretend you’re on Top Chef and you’ve been given a challenge to use up your leftovers. You can also check out our Cooking Sustainably page for tons of ideas on how to use up specific components of your meal, like wine, potatoes, bread and much more. Lastly, check out a few of our recipes at the bottom of this post.

Here are some fun ways to get Top Chef-y with your leftovers:



I usually think potato pancakes are the way to go, for both leftover raw potatoes and mashed, but these mashed potato biscuits look awesome, and would be killer with the turkey hash (above) topped with a poached egg.


Here’s my favorite cornbread recipe that includes fresh corn — just substitute equal amounts of the already-cooked corn you have on hand for the kernels called for in the recipe. Or just toss leftover corn kernels into the turkey pot pie that I know you’re going to whip up.

Leftover Bread

Croutons! Or whiz leftover bread in the food processor to make fresh breadcrumbs. Use to coat all sorts of delicious things, like chicken cutlets or potato croquettes (bonus: these use mashed potatoes).


I dig the idea of hash. Here’s another hash recipe: Stuffing Hash with Eggs and Arugula. Another great idea I saw somewhere: use stuffing as the crust for a quiche. And we’ve got a recipe for Stuffin’ Muffins (yes, you heard that right) at the bottom of this post.


  • Use as a chutney alongside hard cheeses like cheddar.
  • Add a teaspoon of cranberry sauce to pancakes as they’re cooking — check out our recipe, below.
  • For leftover fresh cranberries, make cranberry pie.


I love to mince fresh herbs and toss them in everything and anything: eggs, biscuit dough, soup — you name it. Or another of my favorites: make herb butter and freeze it (thyme and sage are stars).

For more creative leftover ideas, check out Mark Bittman’s guide from a few years back. It has lots more fun ideas to use up your Thanksgiving leftovers.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Thanksgiving Leftover Recipes:

Turkey Bone Broth

I promise you that if you make this turkey broth from your leftover bird, you won’t be disappointed. Use it to make soups, turkey pot pies and much more. This recipe is adapted from Sherri Brooks Vinton’s master Bone Broth recipe, found here.


At least two pounds of bones from a leftover, cooked turkey
Enough water to cover the bones
Vegetables such as onion, carrot, celery or garlic peels, ends and skins (optional)


  1. Add enough cold water to the pot to cover the bones by two inches.
  2. Slowly bring to a simmer, skimming any scum that forms in the first hour. Continue to simmer very gently for at least 2 and up to 24 hours.
  3. Add any vegetables that you’d like in the last two hours of cooking (vegetables cooked for more than two hours will turn bitter).
  4. Scoop out the bones or strain the broth through a colander into a large heatproof bowl. Strain again through a fine mesh sieve into a large heatproof bowl or container.
  5. Refrigerate for at least four and up to 24 hours, then ladle the fat off of the top of the chilled broth and reserve for another use.

Store the stock:

Refrigerate for up to five days. Freeze for up to six months. Pressure can and the stock will be shelf-stable for up to one year.

Stuffin’ Muffins

Got leftover stuffing? Got a muffin tin? Then you’ve got stuffin’ muffins! This recipe makes six stuffin’ muffins, but can easily be doubled. Serve with poached eggs and a salad and you’ve got the perfect Thanksgiving-inspired breakfast or an easy lunch.

A few notes: because stuffing textures differ so greatly from family recipe to family recipe, I’ve included a few optional ingredients, below. If your stuffing mixture is fairly dry, the addition of extra stock is a good idea, to moisten the mix before it goes into the muffin tins. Similarly, I’ve included chopped bacon in this recipe, because bacon is delicious but also because it’s perfect for breakfast stuffin’ muffins. Some stuffing recipes already include bacon or sausage; if yours does, feel free to omit the bacon called for below. I’ve also included a chopped jalapeño for extra spicy goodness; feel free to omit this, too, if you don’t like the spice.

For a vegetarian version of this recipe, omit the bacon and substitute vegetable stock for the turkey stock or chicken broth.


1 tablespoon melted butter, or cooking oil spray
6 cups leftover stuffing (see note above)
1/4 – 1/3 cup homemade turkey stock or organic chicken or vegetable broth (optional)
2 slices cooked bacon, chopped (optional)
1 small jalapeño pepper, de-seeded and chopped fine
Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
  2. Grease a 6-cup muffin tin with the melted butter (or spray with cooking oil spray).
  3. In a large bowl, break up the leftover stuffing slightly with your hands. If the mixture is dry, add stock until it is of a moist consistency. (See note above about this.) Add bacon and jalapeño, if using, and combine well with your hands. Add salt and pepper to taste, keeping in mind that the leftover stuffing is already seasoned.
  4. Pack the wells of the muffin with the stuffing mixture, being sure to pack fairly tightly so the muffins hold together. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the stuffin’ muffins are golden and fragrant.
  5. Remove from oven and cool slightly. Run a thin, flexible paring knife around the muffins to unmold. Serve immediately.

Cranberry-Buttermilk Pancakes

Makes about one dozen 5-inch pancakes.

I don’t know about you, but we always — always — have cranberry sauce left! If you’re like me, then this recipe is for you. This recipe works with whole-berry cranberry sauces — jellied sauce won’t cut it here. To make life even easier, you can skip the stirring-the-cranberry-sauce-into-the-batter step and just spoon a few tablespoons of sauce right on top of your short stack. Easy peasy.


1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
Pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup whole milk
4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup (or more to taste) leftover cranberry sauce


  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar.
  2. In a second, smaller bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, buttermilk and milk. Slowly whisk in the melted butter. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir just to combine.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk the egg whites until just frothy. Gently fold into the batter mixture until combined. Fold in the cranberry sauce.
  4. Let the mixture sit for 10-15 minutes before making your pancakes. For each pancake, pour about 1/4 cup of the mixture onto a preheated, greased griddle or large non-stick pan. Cook until the edges start to look slightly dry and small bubbles appear all over the surface of the pancake. Flip and continue to cook until golden brown on both sides. Serve immediately with warm maple syrup and butter.

(Boozy) Pie Milkshake

Just in case you didn’t get enough calories during the Thanksgiving meal, we present to you: the pie milkshake. What’s so great about a pie milkshake, you say? Well, it’s a milkshake — with a slice of pie blended into it. Plus, bourbon. Need we say more?

What’s even better is that you can use any kind of leftover pie you might happen to have on hand. I prefer vanilla ice cream as a vehicle for the favor of the pie and the (optional) bourbon. This recipe makes two milkshakes, but can easily be doubled, depending on the capacity of your blender.


1 pint vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
2 slices leftover pie (think pumpkin, apple, mincemeat)
1/4 cup whole milk
2 shots bourbon (optional)


  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender.
  2. Blend until fairly smooth, but with some chunks of pie still remaining.
  3. Pour into two tall glasses and serve immediately.


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