We celebrate Thanksgiving with a bountiful feast, an expression of gratitude shared among family and friends. It’s a time when our values take center stage (or center table, as it were). As we carve the turkey and scoop out the yams, it’s worth considering how we can adapt our customs to be more sustainable.
Thanksgiving feasts typically include more options, larger portions and richer foods. The environmental footprint of a holiday feast can be much larger than a weekday dinners’. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are several factors that determine the impact of your meal, like whether it contains meat, where it was grown, and how much water was used in production.
A recent report from the World Resources Institute argues that Americans can slash their carbon footprints significantly by cutting down on meat and dairy. Animal products, especially beef, require far more land, water and other resources to produce than plant-based foods.
The good news is that turkey is a relatively climate-friendly option, compared to other animal products. At Thanksgiving, turkey typically gets the top billing, as the time-honored homage to the Pilgrim’s famous first winter. About 88 percent of American households serve turkeys using old family recipes, inspiration from foodie blogs or the Butterball hotline. In fact, one-fifth of all of the turkeys sold year-round, are cooked for Thanksgiving.
Even if you’re eating turkey, and not lamb or beef, you can still make Thanksgiving more sustainable. Try, for example, choosing a Heritage Breed turkey instead of the usual Butterball Broad Breasted White. Consumer preferences lead growers to raise a small number of species. A lack of biodiversity means we have a smaller gene pool, which will not be as resilient to climate change as a richer, more varied one.
Many environmentalists are calling for turkey-free Thanksgivings. Some will be eschewing actual turkey in favor Tofurkey, a tofu-based alternative. Others will opt for nontraditional dishes like pasta carbonara.
An estimated 10 percent of Americans will dine out or order full take-out meals, according to the National Restaurant Association. At restaurants you can choose from a wide-range of options and combinations, which range from carbon-intensive burgers to simple, low-carbon salads. After all, as the lyrics of Arlo Guthrie’s Thanksgiving anthem go: “you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.”
It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without side dishes. After all, butter-slathered greens, mashed potatoes, butternut squash and cornbread are as important as the main course. Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to try new foods or discover new ways to enjoy old favorites. Fall is the best time to enjoy seasonal produce like brussels sprouts, onions, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, apples and pears.
America is also a melting pot of different cultures and the Thanksgiving table is no exception. Many families whip up dishes from their ancestors’ native countries to complement or enhance the turkey-based feast. These range from egg-roll stuffed turkey to Italian spinach stuffing to Cuban-style pumpkin flan. Incorporating flavors and styles from around the world can make vegetables and other climate-friendly options more enticing.
Making the most out of Thanksgiving means working with what you have, staying on budget and coming up with creative solutions. When it comes to shrinking your carbon footprint, the same skills apply.
Buy hearty, field-grown vegetables instead of those grown in heated greenhouses. These require less energy to produce and spoil less easily. Try organic produce instead of conventional produce. Organic produce is grown without synthetic fertilizers. This improves soil fertility and structure, helping farmland sequester extra carbon.
Shop at local businesses and buy locally sourced ingredients to cut down on gas mileage. Farmers markets are also an excellent place to start. Hand out reusable plates and silverware instead of plasticware. This will help help cut down on waste.
Putting together a holiday meal for an entire family is no easy task, as any host can attest. Yet so many people, even people who rarely cook otherwise, decide it’s worth the effort to prepare a turkey, chop vegetables, bake pies and set the table.
That effort doesn’t even represent a fraction of the elbow grease that goes into your meal. From the fields, farms, forests and oceans, food has a long way to go before it gets to you. It must be grown, harvested, processed, packaged, transported, sold, stored and cooked before it’s ready to serve. Food and agriculture accounts for 10 percent of U.S. employment.
Consider also the energy used to make your meal. Thanksgiving is one big day, but the American food system runs all year. Understanding how it works is a first step to reducing your impact on the planet.
The Pilgrims lived by wisdom like “waste not, want not.” While this is often hailed as an all-American trait, it sometimes gets forgotten in the land of plenty. The USDA estimates that up to 40 percent of the food supply ends up in landfills. Landfills are America’s largest source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
So save your food! Make a sandwich from your leftover turkey and cranberry sauce. Invite friends over on Friday for a post-Thanksgiving meal. As for the food you can’t bear to look at again, try composting it. Turn your unwanted bread crust into plant-nurturing soil.
Food brings people together. While some Americans fear politically charged debates after our long and bitter election season, Thanksgiving is a time to embrace shared values and traditions. Don’t be afraid to talk about climate change in these terms. It’s patriotic to take care of our land and waters. After all, we’re all in this together.
Laura A. Shepard writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her at @LAShepard221.