It’s that time of year when we start diligently planning our Holiday celebrations… Or, at least planning to start planning them by creating a holiday Pinterest board…
Holiday meal prep can be terrifying, exhausting, and a little bit exhilarating all at the same time. While just about every mom spends the time leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner battling grocery store crowds, I find myself making the rounds at farmers markets, straining nut milk, and navigating the bulk foods section like a woman on a mission. I also get the added bonus of desperately wanting to prevent unnecessary food waste and trash going to the landfill. This gives me a unique form of OCD that can end with one dreadful eye twitch if I’m not careful. Fortunately, I’ve had some time Zero-wasting to test out a few strategies and put them into play.
Whether you are hosting a cozy gathering of family and friends or attending a bash and bringing the pumpkin pie, it’s likely that you won’t be able to escape at least a little prep work for the feast. Either way, this can feel a little daunting if you are already trying to fit your family’s trash into a mason jar (no, we haven’t had success yet).
So, if the idea of unnecessary waste haunts you I have a plan to help avoid a mid-day meltdown.
Below, you will see a pretty detailed timeline that I try to follow for every dinner celebration to ensure the following:
1. Everything is served hot and on time (within reason).
2. Our carbon footprint is minimized.
3. We enjoy our time together.
Now, let’s get off on the right foot…
Plan! A simple and obvious statement yet seems to be forgotten every year. You must plan ahead of time. I mean not just a few days or even a week. If you can, give yourself a month to source package-free or local ingredients, someone accommodating to make dishes for you, or even time to prepare things like broth and pumpkin puree in advance. Now in a perfect world, I would have grown all the food that I plan to serve at our feast. Let’s get real, I live in the desert and I can’t grow anything here. And I’m willing to bet that most modern mamas won’t be harvesting the fields before dinner time. So, if you feel like you have already arrived late to the party, all hope is not lost.
I gotcha covered.
A few things that I like to start early are:
• Plan a menu ahead of time. I follow the same process as you would for planning any meal, keeping in mind the number of guests, dietary needs, and any restrictions. This also helps so I know what to buy and from where. For example, I might be able to get all ingredients in bulk, but not from the same store. This will avoid needing to make last-minute stops for one thing from the bulk store, or even buying it in packaging because no bulk stores are open on Christmas day.
• Avoid disposable plates and utensils. Making sure that you have enough for everyone attending or hit up a local thrift store, asking to borrow from a friend, or even requesting that your guests BYO.
• Try to find local meat. If you plan to have it. And, ask if you can have it package free.
• I like to ask ahead of time what will be in season at the farmers market so I know what I can get there vs. at the grocery store.
• I try to find ingredients to each dish and decide on which I can make at home or should buy. This might mean making almond milk for mashed potatoes, making cornbread for stuffing, saving veggie scraps to make broth, or roasting our Jack-o-lantern for pumpkin puree. Seriously, we do that on November 1st, read it about it here. You can also make your own butter by pouring heavy cream into a glass jar and vigorously shaking forever and a day. Well, like for a really, really long time.
• Being realistic about what I am willing to actually make at home. Let’s be honest here, not everything is easy to make at home or maybe you don’t have access to the things you need. For me, that means buying bread for stuffing from my local bakery in a pillowcase instead of baking bread from scratch. It’s just as much of a zero-waste win as if I had baked it, and it saves my sanity.
• Make a schedule if you are hosting a large dinner. This usually begins days prior to the holiday all the way through serving the meal and helps to keep things rolling along at a nice and steady pace.
• Know how many guests you need to feed. This handy chart helps you know how much to buy so that you can feed everyone and avoid food waste.
• Utilize your dishwasher. If you are cooking a big meal on top of the already never-ending dishes from zero-wasting + mommin’, then it’s no surprise that your dishwasher will be the silent hero. Have a plan in place so that you can empty the dishwasher before eating the big meal. And, don’t forget about optimizing that first load by cooking some of your sides in a mason jar inside the dishwasher. Seriously, check out how here.
• Allow others to bring dishes. Letting others help when they offer is a great way to ease your workload and to bring people together. I must remind myself that I can only control the trash that I make when someone is helping. This may mean that I end up with food wrappers or other trash that we don’t typically generate, and that’s ok. This doesn’t happen every day and I won’t save the planet by being a martyr and slaving over every dish.
• Lastly, if you are executing multiple dishes in one day, you need an action plan for how and when they will be cooked. Only have one oven? Bear this in mind when selecting your dishes.
TIPS FOR EVERY DISH
Fall soups are a great way to use seasonal ingredients and veggie scraps. The best part about choosing a soup as a starter for your holiday meal is that it can be made a week or so ahead. Try making a big batch and freeze it. Take it out of the freezer the morning of and it’s ready to be reheated on the stove just before serving.
There are a ton of gravy recipes that don’t require you to actually use turkey. I really love mushroom and onion gravy. If the plan is to make turkey gravy, then you can buy giblets, turkey necks and wings at most butcher shops in your own jars or wrapped with paper so that you can make gravy and freeze it 1-2 weeks before. You can always add parts from the turkey if you choose to for an added flavor boost by whipping up the gravy two days ahead and refrigerating it. Then you can reheat in a saucepan until hot so it’s ready for pouring.
As I said before, if you plan on serving turkey (or any meat) then it’s best to look for it early to try and find it package free and local. And if your skipping meat this year, then you are making an amazing sustainable choice.
Now, keep in mind that a 20-pound turkey can take up to five days to thaw in the fridge. One day for every 4 pounds seems to be the average time. Roasting an unstuffed bird can take 2 to 4 hours depending on the size but check out this cheat sheet for help. Don’t forget to save the turkey bones and other parts for making broth later.
Store-bought stuffing mix is over packaged, processed and unnecessary. Stuffing is really one of the easiest things on the dinner table to make. Making bread a week before or buying it package free from a baker will help cut down on waste. Cube the bread and set it out to stale two days ahead, or bake cornbread and leave it on the counter for cornbread stuffing. If you’ll be serving stuffing on the side, assemble it a day ahead and refrigerate until you’re ready to bake alongside the turkey. In-turkey stuffing must be prepped first thing on the big day, then stuffed into the turkey cavity and cooked together.
What is with the demands for green bean casserole?! It has never been my cup of tea but nonetheless, it somehow makes its way onto my dinner table every year. I let my mom bring this dish since it is one of her favorites. If time permits, try making cream of mushroom soup early and freezing until ready. Look for fresh package-free green beans, and you can always make your own crunchy onions with this recipe. If all else fails, take comfort in knowing that cans can be recycled many times and that supports a circular economy.
For sweet potato casserole or scalloped potatoes, try buying the potatoes in your own reusable bag as opposed to pre-bagged, buying spices in bulk or glass jars, and if you’re up for it… you can even make your own marshmallows with this recipe.
If you are the one prepping the casserole, know that these dishes can be prepped and assembled two days before. Make sure to cover with a beeswax wrap and refrigerate them. Then remove the cover and stick the dish in the hot oven to warm. They’ll be golden and bubbly just in time to eat.
SALADS & COLD SIDES
If you only have one oven then no-bake dishes are your best friend. Wash and prep lettuce and vegetables for salads two days ahead for easy assembly on the morning of. But, wait to dress it until serving to avoid a soggy mess. While you’re at it, chop up all the herbs you’ll need for garnishes and other recipes too.
Throw together a quick cranberry sauce or relish two days ahead and refrigerate it until dinnertime! I like this easy recipe because you can also substitute dried for fresh cranberries if you can only find those package-free.
If you’re really on top of your game, regular and sweet potatoes can be peeled the day before and stored, covered in cold water, in the fridge. Then all you’ll need to do it boil and mash them on the stovetop. Or better yet, try my favorite crockpot mashed potatoes here. I like to substitute the sour cream for homemade cashew cream, the milk for almond milk, and the butter for coconut oil and ¼ tsp nutritional yeast.
Make things easier on yourself and avoid buying pre-made and packaged pie dough by making it a week before, then portion it into disks and freeze. Two days before, move the dough to the fridge to defrost so you can bake up a storm on the eve. Custard and pumpkin pies can be refrigerated overnight, while pecan and apple pies do best when kept at room temperature. Anything that needs reheating can get popped in the oven.
Don’t forget about one of the most important parts of the meal—the wine! Stick bottles that need to be chilled in the fridge the night before or, if you live somewhere cold, put them in the garage or back porch to save on space. I always love having chilled apple cider mimosas while preparing the meal. Find my recipe here.
Did I miss anything? Let me know if you have any suggestions that can help eliminate trash and food waste during the holidays.