9 Items To Donate To Food Banks Around Thanksgiving & Christmas

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We often think of the holiday season as a harbinger of cold weather, good food, and lots of celebrations. But it's also a time to think about how you can support your community at large, so that every family is able to feel safe and eat a warm dinner. For that reason, you should consider donating items to a local food bank before Thanksgiving and Christmas — especially since a lot of the products food banks need might already be sitting in your pantry.

"Holiday celebrations are often centered around food, and for families that struggle to afford groceries, it can be a very difficult time," explains Zuani Villarreal, the Director of Communication at Feeding America, a nationwide network of over 200 food banks. "Canned foods including beans, chicken, fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, soup, stew and chili are always welcome."

Villarreal also makes a point to caution those who wish to donate against giving food banks anything with glass or cellophane packaging, or anything that has been broken or otherwise tampered with, or doesn't have a label.

When donating items to food banks, you should look for food that's preferably canned, has a long shelf life, and is healthy to eat. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Canned Fish & Meat
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Canned fish and meat are great donation options because they're high in protein and can last for years before expiring. Look for items that have low sodium, like canned tuna or chicken.

Canned Foods With Pop-Top Lids
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If you're getting canned food, whether it's veggies or tomato sauce or meat, try to find the cans with lids that just pop off. That way, it's as easy as possible for people to access the food without any extra tools like a can opener.

Peanut Butter
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Peanut butter is a great donation item, since it's high in protein and healthy fats, and also has a long shelf life. Similarly with canned meats, you should try to find the healthiest peanut butter possible, without many added ingredients or unnecessary sugar.

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It might not be the first thing you think of, but donating a collection of spices (all unopened, obviously) is a great way to give back to your local food bank. Second Harvest Food Bank suggests cinnamon, chili powder, cumin, and other salt-free spice blends — all of these spices will be able to add flavor to pretty much any meal that a family wants to make.

Unsalted Nuts & Dried Fruits
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Unsalted nuts and seeds, like almond or pumpkin seeds, are a great donation option because they can be easily added to a recipe and are high in protein. Nuts and granola bars are some of the food items in highest demand at food banks, Villarreal says.

"Instant" Holiday Meals
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"Instant" holiday meals like instant mashed potatoes are always in high demand at food banks during the holiday season. "Some of the most needed items at food banks during the holiday season are meals in a box, instant mashed potatoes, canned sweet potato [and more]," Villarreal explains. Just make sure that you're looking for the healthiest possible instant option.

Shelf-Stable Milk
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Shelf-stable milk, i.e. the kind of milk that can be stored in room temperature conditions without expiring for years. If you're not sure what type of milk is actually shelf-stable, you can read this explainer on different types of milk. You'll also notice that shelf-stable milk doesn't have to be refrigerated, so if you find it in a non-refrigerated aisle of a grocery store, it's likely shelf-stable.

Canned Or Dry Beans
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Canned or dry beans are another high-protein, low maintenance canned food that can contribute to many different types of recipes. Other types of canned vegetables are a great idea too, though you definitely want to double check what the ingredients in the preserved veggies or beans are. For example, some canned foods have added levels of preservatives, sugar, or salt you want to avoid.

Whole Grain Pasta
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Pasta is an amazing type of food to donate because it can last for a long time before expiring, and it's super easy to make: all you do is boil it in water for a few minutes, and throw some sauce or butter on top if you want. If possible, try to donate whole grain pasta, which has more nutritional benefits than white pasta.

Of course, giving canned goods or food items isn't the only way you can give back. You can always donate directly to your local food bank, so they are able to use the funds toward buying food more inexpensively in bulk. And if you have a desire to volunteer during the holidays, Villarreal urges you to contact your food bank first.

"We encourage people to call their food banks ahead of time and find out if they have volunteer slots available," she says. "If they have enough volunteers for that day, there are several other ways to help during the holidays." You can read about some more ideas for helping during the holidays here.

Experts: Zuani Villarreal, the Director of Communication at Feeding America