by Mary Mazzoni
It can be easy to forget being green in the midst of the menu-planning, grocery-buying and family networking that precedes most Thanksgiving celebrations. But with all the effort, time and money you put into this yearly tradition, why not make your Thanksgiving a little greener? We’ve compiled six ways to bring sustainability into your holiday – without skimping on the festive fun.
1. Go low-waste
On a day where copious amounts of food are as commonplace as football and family togetherness, reducing waste can seem next to impossible. But creating a low-waste Thanksgiving is easier than you think. We chatted with Emily Vaughn, associate program manager for Slow Food USA – a Brooklyn-based nonprofit on a mission to change the way America thinks about food – and came up with these four quick and easy tips to shrink holiday waste.
- Shop in your pantry: “Before you even start to make a menu, take stock of what you have,” suggests Vaughn. Using what you have on hand keeps prices down in the kitchen and reduces waste. Take inventory of what’s in your fridge, freezer and cupboards and build your shopping list around what you find.
- Use it up: One-third of food in America goes to waste, adding up to 15 percent of what’s in our landfills, according to Slow Food USA. Fight back against food waste by using every bit, like incorporating vegetable scraps and inner meats in stocks, gravies and sauces. Check out our library of reuse ideas for food scraps, and don’t forget to compost what’s left.
- Have a leftover plan: Sure, you could feed the family turkey and stuffing for five straight days. But why not incorporate your Thanksgiving leftovers into innovative recipes for added variety? Slow Food USA provides a library of day-after recipes in their Thanksgiving Guide to help you make the most of all your leftovers.
- Take a look at your energy use: “People tend to think more of physical waste on Thanksgiving, which is very valid,” Vaughn says. “Another thing you can think of is how energy efficient you’re being with your cooking.” If you have several dishes that need to be in the oven at the same temperature, put them in at the same time to reduce energy use (and prep time!). And start with some of your ingredients at room temperature, like butter, to reduce stove-top melting time.
2. All about the turkey
Turkey is the main component for many Thanksgiving meals. But have you thought about the impact your main course has on the planet? This year, 99.99 percent of Thanksgiving turkeys will be the same breed, the broad-breasted white, and most will be produced from industrialized farming, says Vaughn.
Farming practices for most industrially-bred turkeys can be harmful to the birds and surrounding environments, she explains. And drawing turkeys from a narrow gene pool can also pose a threat to American turkey production in the future, as close breeding increases the risk of pervasive diseases and pests on large-scale farms.
So, do I have to skip the turkey this year? No way. Just pick out a turkey with a conscience!
Vaughn suggests heritage turkeys as an alternative to mass-produced grocery store picks. Heritage turkeys, or breeds that have been kept consistent since the mid-20th Century, are typically cultivated by small farmers for generations. Rather than pumping turkeys full of artificial additives to increase hardiness and growth, heritage farmers carefully choose different breeds with the best traits and mate them together.
Over time, heritage farming practices produce turkeys that are naturally strong, self-sufficient and resistant to disease. These breeds are typically much tastier, too.
“The people who are taking time to do this work are doing so because they’re passionate about it and they believe that it’s the right thing,” Vaughn says. “But farmers can’t do this as a community service, they need our support. They need for people to be contentious about the way that they’re purchasing.”
Check out Slow Food USA’s heritage turkey directory to find a breeder near you. But keep in mind that heritage breeds are a little pricier than your standard Thanksgiving turkey. Most grocery store turkeys sell for about $1 per pound, while heritage turkeys can cost upwards of $5 per pound.
For a planet-friendly turkey that won’t break the bank, try other alternatives like organic, free-range or pastured turkeys instead, and buy from a local farmer whenever possible, suggests Vaughn. Not sure how to decode all those labels? Consult Slow Food USA’s quick guide below.
- Certified Organic/Certified Naturally-Grown: A turkey that has been fed organic feed for its whole life and has never been treated with antibiotics.
- Pastured: Turkeys that have been raised outdoors with ample space to move around.
- Free-Range: A turkey that was free of confinement for its whole life but may have been kept in a barn.
3. Vegetarian alternatives
If you or someone on your guest list is vegetarian or vegan, choosing a main course can seem difficult. Sure, you could bake up a “tofurkey.” But why not plan a mouth-watering main based around local ingredients instead?
“Some things you can look to are anything pumpkin-based,” suggests Vaughn.
Pumpkin, which can be found locally and in-season in most regions of the country, is rich, filling and hearty – as you’d want any Thanksgiving main course to be. The tasty fall gourd is also very diverse, with applications ranging from breads to stuffings to pastas. Check out some of our tips and tricks to treat the pumpkin right.
Not a pumpkin fan? Head to Slow Foods USA’s Thanksgiving Guide for other vegetarian options that will leave guests wanting more.
“Another thing that a lot of my vegetarian friends really miss is that savoriness [of Thanksgiving gravy],” Vaughn says. To create gravies that rival the savory flavor of their meat-rich counterparts, start with ingredients like mushrooms to cultivate a palate-pleasing bite.
4. Choose local
Most Thanksgiving staples, like sweet potatoes, onions and pumpkins, can be found locally and in-season in most parts of the country. But to bump up the volume of your all-local menu, seek out indigenous meat and vegetable breeds that may be at risk of extinction.
“[In many parts of the green scene], it’s all about reduce, reduce, reduce,” says Vaughn. “With food, especially with endangered foods, one of the best things to do is to eat them. If we don’t create a market for these foods, we’re going to lose them from our fields and plates.”
To maintain a market for endangered meat and produce picks, Slow Food USA started its U.S. Ark of Tasteprogram – which catalogs more than 200 at-risk foods from all regions of the country. Use the list or ask questions at your local farmers market to find choices that are native to your region for a menu that’s as surprising as it is sustainable.
5. Ease big-day stress
The kitchen is bound to get a little hectic on Thanksgiving. But getting prepped early can help you spend more time in the family room and less time in the kitchen this year.
“There are so many things that you can completely prepare in advance and keep in the freezer, fridge or kitchen counter,” Vaughn says. Prepare all your pies and desserts a day or two ahead of time, and keep them in the freezer or on your kitchen counter until the big day arrives.
Vaughn also suggests prepping veggies for casseroles and sides the night before. So, on Thanksgiving, all you’ll have to do is assemble your sides and pop them in the oven.
To keep your veggies from going brown, put them in a sealable container, cover them with water and squeeze in a little citrus juice. Citrus keeps cut produce from oxidizing, which causes discoloration and a less-than-fresh flavor.
And to silence the inevitable “is it ready yet?” queries, prepare some easy snacks ahead of time. “Do yourself a favor the night before, and have something set out for you and your guests to munch on while you’re cooking,” Vaughn says. “It will be a much more painless process.”
6. Eat on the cheap
As much as you love your family and friends, feeding the whole gang can get pricy. But luckily for you, Vaughn is full of suggestions to ease the burden on your wallet.
The myth that farmer’s markets are more expensive than grocery stores can keep some shoppers away from these neighborhood gems, Vaughn says. But in most cases, farmer’s markets are actually more affordable than large supermarket chains.
“If you’re a smart shopper and you shop seasonally and locally as much as possible, you will save money just by going to the famers market,” says Vaughn. Choosing items that are grown locally reduces the need for transportation, which shrinks the price (and footprint) of your meal.
Using vegetable scraps and the whole turkey, including inner meats, bones and fat, for stocks, sauces and gravies will also help you save a bundle of cash in the kitchen, as mass-produced picks can cost big bucks and homemade varieties are pretty much free.
Or try a potluck reduce money-related anxiety. “If you’re feeling like you can’t front the cost of the meal…invite everyone to bring one dish,” suggests Vaughn. “The cost isn’t borne by only one person, and you get to see a little bit about what everyone’s traditions are. It’s a great way to get to know your friends a little better.”