Q. Dear Umbra,

The only thing better than Thanksgiving dinner: Thanksgiving leftovers all weekend. I’m going to my sister’s for the holiday this year. What’s the safest way to pack up all that extra turkey and stuffing? She usually uses paper plates and plastic wrap, but I don’t want to worry about plastics leaching chemicals all over the pumpkin pie.

Beth H.
Chicago, IL

A. Dearest Beth,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Mmm, leftovers. I’m with you — as much as I enjoy a good holiday feast, there’s something even more satisfying about slapping together a turkey-stuffing-and-cranberry-sauce sandwich for lunch on Friday. Perhaps it’s because this time around, the food doesn’t come with a side of Uncle Merle’s political views or Great Aunt Ethel’s probing questions about when I’m going to settle down already and start raising a brood of mini-Umbras. There’s much to be said for family togetherness, and also much to be said for dining alone in one’s PJs the next day.

But how to transport the bounty back to your place for that peaceful second round? First, a word in praise of your sister and all the other Thanksgiving hosts out there: They are juggling place settings, house cleanings, and the finely calibrated art of warming up 18 side dishes at the same time, all for the enjoyment and comfort of us guests. The last thing they need is for us to get all judgy about how they choose to wrap up the gift of leftovers. Luckily, there is a diplomatic way to handle this: Bring your own containers.

Lest you worry this is a presumptuous move: My guess is that most hosts would love the gesture. They don’t have to worry about packing the food for you, nor must they offer up their own containers (or badger you to return them). You, in turn, make sure your mashed potatoes come home in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Win, win, win! But if you feel odd about it, call ahead of time and run it by the host: I’d be happy to take some leftovers off your hands if you’d like, dear sister. Would it be helpful for me to bring my own containers?

Naturally, reusable options top my list of food totes: Have you any glass or stainless steel containers, Beth? Both are sturdy, long-lasting, and don’t leach any types of troublesome chemicals (which is why I also love these materials for water bottles). If you don’t, well, I’ve started your holiday list for you.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Next down the list are plastic, Tupperware-style tubs. Yes, they’re plastic, a petroleum product, but they’re usually made from #4 (low-density polyethylene) or #5 (polypropylene) plastics — both considered safer plastics. Research suggests that all plastics pose the risk of leaching small amounts of estrogenic chemicals, however, so keep that in mind (again, see Glass and Steel, my love for). Still, reusable is better than throwaway — just don’t microwave them.

But Umbra, you might be thinking. Today is Thanksgiving, and I am reading this in the bathroom at my sister’s/parents’/aunt’s/friend’s house right now. I didn’t bring any reusable cartons with me. Must I miss out on that glorious second-day stuffing? To all of you, I say: Of course not. Wrapping leftovers with a more traditional, disposable method (such as paper plates, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and zip-top baggies) is still better than wasting food.

Of those options, the lesser evils are aluminum foil and zip-top baggies. Foil doesn’t have any issues with leaching estrogens, and it’s recyclable as long as it’s clean (and reusable too, if you’re creative). Zip-tops can be washed out and reused at least a few times, and can often be recycled with other plastic films. Paper plates can be OK, too: They will likely end up food-soiled and therefore unrecyclable, but if they’re the type without the waxy coating, you can pop them in your compost bin. Plastic wrap is my least favorite option — not because it contains BPA (the main brands, at least, do not), but because it’s so clingy, sticky, and difficult to reuse, and also usually can’t be recycled.

At least one of these options should carry your weekend leftovers safely to your fridge, Beth. May you relish my favorite Thanksgiving tradition — pumpkin pie for breakfast — in zero-waste good health.


Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.