How Sustainable is Your Holiday Table?

From responsibly sourcing meats to reducing food waste, these four strategies can help you celebrate guilt-free holiday traditions

Eating local
Eating local, seasonal produce is an easy way to make your holiday feast more sustainable.Rosie De La Cruz, Unsplash

The holidays are a wonderful time to partake in our most beloved food-centric celebrations—many of us spend more time cooking this time of year than any other. And when we sit down with our families to share a holiday meal, we’re also sharing our values and our cultural traditions. For those who practice sustainable living, considering the environmental impact of our daily consumption, the holidays present an important opportunity to think about what we’re eating and where it’s from. But contrary to popular belief, eating sustainably—especially around the holidays—doesn’t have to be about making sacrifices. With small tweaks to our traditions, such as eating seasonal produce, or sourcing ingredients from a local farmer, our old traditions can transform into reflections of our modern food values.

Know Your Meat's Impact

Meat consumption is a given for many holiday meals, and while eating meat can have a high carbon footprint and substantial environmental consequences, it's important to acknowledge the resilience and importance of those traditions. Instead of asking if we have to cut out meat entirely, let's start by asking what kind of meat we're eating. How was it raised? Where is it from? Is it organic, or from a farm that practices regenerative agriculture? The latter is different from simply "organic"—regenerative agriculture is a concept based on raising animals and growing food in system that is in harmony with nature, as opposed to one that degrades the natural environment. Through the practices of rotating crops, prioritizing soil health, and grazing animals in rotation to mimic the natural wild movement of animals in the past, farmers can regenerate the land, leaving it more diverse and resilient. This type of farming allows us to consider meat sourcing that doesn't just lower our impact, but could actually be environmentally beneficial. Erica Helms of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture emphasizes the importance of buying meat from this type of farming system, which they institute on their farm in the lower Hudson Valley of New York: "Actively managing the land with animals can help to encourage biodiversity and reduce land degradation. This system can actually pull carbon out of the air—where it's contributing to climate change—and sequester it in the soil." By supporting farmers working with these types of ecologically-conscious practices, you are making an important contribution to the health of soil and in combating climate change.

Sheep and cattle graze
Sheep and cattle graze at the farm at Stone BarnsMolly M. Peterson

So how can you make sure that the meat you're buying is from a farmer that prioritizes ecological stewardship? Labels like "grass-fed" don't tell you enough. The best way to ensure the meat you're buying is part of a regenerative agricultural system is to ask questions and do your homework—local butchers interested in sustainability make this easy when you have access to them. You can inquire about what farm the meat came from, and what types of practices the farmer engages in. If you don't have access to a local butcher, Helms suggests that you order your meat online from a reputable company that actively shares information about the eco-friendly farms they source from. Purveyors you can trust include Walden Local Meats (New York and New England), Carman Ranch (Pacific Northwest), White Oak Pastures (Southeast) Hickory Nut Gap Meats (The Carolinas) and 4P Foods (Greater D.C. area). Having this meat shipped to you will be well worth the investment in sustainable agriculture, and will give you a chance to vote with your wallet, creating demand for meat aligned with your values.

Rethink Your Menu

Of course, even if you are able to source your meat as responsibly as possible, reducing meat consumption overall will make your holiday dinner much more eco-friendly. Even the most sustainably-raised meat can't be sustainable for everyone in large quantities, and we should all consider simply eating less of it.

How you build your menu during the holidays can make a big impact. Does meat have to be the largest or only main dish? Can there be multiple “mains,” some of which are plant-based? Make a point to include vegetable dishes as a focus, and meat as a secondary, or at most, equivalent, option. By re-framing the structure of how meat is incorporated into our meals, especially at special occasions, we can shift how much of a carbon footprint our meal has.

Stone Barns
The team at Stone Barns refers to their animals as a “flerd” (a combination of flock and herd, as their sheep and cattle graze together).Molly M. Peterson

Cut Down On Food Waste

After the meal is over, the food we end up tossing in the trash plays a substantial role in the staggering amount of food wasted in this country. The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that 40% of all food waste in the US happens at home. "It doesn't feel like a lot when you throw away a small amount of food," points out Andrea Spacht at the NRDC, "but combined, we are all really very much contributing to this global problem."

The first way to avoid pitching leftovers is to plan ahead. The NRDC has a new online tool for calculating what you will actually need for your holiday meal—you enter the number of guests and the dishes you plan to prepare (and even the number of leftover meals you want), and it will estimate how much food to buy. To avoid throwing away food scraps, make a point to incorporate recipes into your menu that will use multiple parts of an ingredient—carrot top pesto, for example, if you plan to use carrots, or pickled radish greens. With excess scraps that you do end up with, compost what you can, and avoid throwing it in the trash. The methane that comes from decomposing vegetables in landfills is actually just as much as that which comes from ruminants (like cattle and lamb), and has a substantial impact on climate change.

Pasture-raised ducks at Stone Barns
Pasture-raised ducks at Stone Barns. Their duck hut moves across the pasture every couple of days so the ducks can access fresh pasture while having plenty of room to roam (and being protected from predators).Molly M. Peterson

Do What Your Grandmothers Did

Not surprisingly, many of our oldest holiday traditions are actually rooted in waste reduction, thrift, and preservation. When buying a whole animal—like your holiday bird—consider how to make the most of it. Turkey or duck soup, for example, can be made from the bird’s carcass, and homemade gravy can be made from the animal’s giblets. Age-old recipes for stocks, soups, and sauces are often creative ways to re-use otherwise underutilized ingredients. Consider going to your local farmers’ market and asking the farmer directly for his or her “ugly” produce—it might be cheaper, and make for an awesome homemade jam or pie.

Make sure to consider what is in season, too. Many holiday recipes already call for in-season ingredients, like sweet potatoes, squash, kale, and brussel sprouts. Prioritize ones grown locally, as opposed to ingredients that had to travel long distances to get to your grocery store. Better yet, get to a local farmers market and take advantage of heirloom varieties, like blue potatoes or hubbard squash, swapping them out for mainstream grocery store produce.

Holidays are a time to consider how our habits fit in with our values, and how we can engage past foodways with the future of our food system. Dusting off old recipes for preserves and stocks can help us reduce food waste, source locally, and ultimately, celebrate traditions. By mixing cultural foodways with modern sensibilities, we can feel good about having a sustainable holiday feast.

This article was edited and adapted from an article originally published on the FoodFutureCo’s Harvest Blog.