How to Have a More Sustainable Holiday Season

By Abby K. Cannon, JD, RD, CDN

What better place to show your gratitude for the planet than at the Thanksgiving table? Trouble is, it can be difficult to put even the best intentions into practice, especially when you’re already stressed to the max, making a meal to feed your entire extended family. Plus, plenty of people truly don’t know where to start.

The good news? Every effort counts, and even small tweaks can up the eco-friendly factor a ton. The proof is in these tips:  

Shop at a local farmer’s market

Relying on specialty, out-of-season ingredients that travel a long way to get to your supermarket contributes to excess carbon emissions, so taking advantage of local markets to source the ingredients for your Thanksgiving menu is a great way to have a more sustainable meal. And hey, it makes for a more exciting dinner! Buying local also supports your local community—so everyone wins.

Prepare for leftovers

Having guests bring their own containers for leftovers is one of the best ways to prevent food waste. It’s estimated that we waste over 200 million pounds of turkey and over 150 million pounds of vegetable sides on Thanksgiving, per the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. That’s a lot of wasted food and resources (land use, water, labor, transportation, storage, and so on).

RELATED: 8 Hacks to Green Your Travel Routine

Why not make the leftover-allocating process easier and more sustainable by having guests bring glass or stainless steel containers? By doing so, you avoid (a) storing food in plastic and (b) having to return containers to the host after eating the leftovers. The bonus? Seeing food in glass containers makes the food look more appealing, which means you’re more likely to eat it. 

And if, as the host, you’re left with too many leftovers that you’re not going to eat, freeze it! You can freeze in stainless steel or glass containers (just make sure to leave room in the glass container or else the glass can explode). 

Compost, compost, compost

As the host, commit to composting and recruit an eager guest to help. Food scraps that end up in landfills contribute to greenhouse gas emissions even though they’re technically biodegradable. Because so much waste ends up in landfills, the biodegradable waste lacks access to oxygen to break down aerobically. Instead, it breaks down anaerobically, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

To compost, collect all leftover organic materials (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, eggshells) in a container or bucket. These leftovers can come from the cooking process itself (stems and stalks) or from guests’ plates. At the end of the night, the person in charge of composting will dispose of the bucket’s contents in the larger compost bin.

Finding where to place the compost might be the trickiest part, but it’s doable. Either take it to your home compost or, if traveling, look up composting spots in your area.

Note: Don’t compost animal-based foods, including leftover meat and dairy products.

Reduce the impact of your travels

Millions of families travel for Thanksgiving each year. Estimates show that the average car ride is 588 miles and the average flight is 500 miles, contributing 10.8 billion pounds and 800 million pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, respectively.

Instead of RSVPing “no” to your Thanksgiving meal, consider offsetting your travels here or donating to an organization like The Carbon Underground, which is dedicated to regenerative agriculture that removes carbon from the atmosphere and returns it to the ground.

Avoid disposable plates and silverware

It can be tempting to opt for disposable plates, forks, cups, and napkins to minimize clean up, but this practice takes a hefty toll on the environment. These items end up in landfills and oceans, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, wildlife endangerment, and water pollution. 

And don’t be fooled by paper options or ones claiming to be biodegradable or compostable. Compostable items only work if you actually compost them and most require commercial composting facilities, which few people have access to. Using disposable paper goods supports deforestation, biodiversity loss, and increased carbon emissions. Plus, legit dishes offer a finer dining experience! Cheers to that.

About Abby K. Cannon, JD, RD, CDN
Abby is the founder of Abby's Food Court, a private nutrition practice focused on women's health and eco-friendly lifestyles.

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