Sustainability is a big part of the traditional Thanksgiving meal: family and friends gather to enjoy home-cooked, seasonal food from local farms, and eat leftovers for many days afterward. More importantly, getting together is an opportunity to show gratitude for all that sustains us.
While the theory of Thanksgiving evokes peace and sustainability, the practice can be stressful, especially if you set strict and inflexible environmental standards for yourself or your host. It is true that a vegan meal is more sustainable by some measures, but in a broader context, many ways to celebrate can be sustainable, including serving a traditional turkey to guests.
The key to practicing sustainability well is to give yourself time to make thoughtful choices. As my friend Brett Thompson would say, if you panic early enough it looks like you planned ahead.
Planning a Thanksgiving meal is an opportunity to think through many steps along several pathways to sustainability. The food that you will eat is your most obvious choice, but the energy you use to prepare the meal, the materials you use to set your table, and the water and cleaning chemicals you’ll use to clean up afterwards are also part of the sustainability calculus.
In terms of food, many guests appreciate having a greater amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and grains to go along with turkey and other animal-based servings.
Vegans choose to eat only plant-based food, eschewing turkey, eggs, butter, and milk. With a blender and a little more prep time, you can prepare a nut-based substitute for butter or sour cream to add to potatoes and squash. In general, a sustainable approach to meal planning any time of the year, but especially during the holidays, is to prepare a balanced meal with vegan ingredients, and then add dairy, egg, and meat dishes for those who indulge in those diets.
When choosing animal-based ingredients, know that fruits and vegetables are the most sustainable choices, but fish and fowl are much more sustainable than mammals. Per acre of land and acre-foot of water, we can produce many more pounds of chicken and turkey meat
than pork or beef.
Plant-based meat substitutes are becoming more palatable as well, as companies learn how to coax yeast and other microorganisms to produce an amazing array of flavors, colors, and textures in edible ingredients. In many ways, just like bread makers and beer brewers have discovered how to use microorganisms in their crafts, gustatory pioneers are exploring how to select and breed microorganisms for new culinary creations.
For beverages, nothing beats tap water for sustainability. But fall in North America is also a sustainable time to enjoy apple cider. Pressing your own cider is a fun activity that brings family and friends together and creates lasting memories.
If you are able to prepare a meal at home, you can even improve on the traditional wood stove with a more sustainable modern electric induction range and oven. In our family, after we upgraded to an electric convection oven we were surprised to discover that our turkey cooked in half the time. Furthermore, sunny fall days increase the productivity of our solar panels: cool weather helps them become more efficient, offsetting the lower angle of the sun in the sky.
Cooking with electricity, and producing the electricity from sunshine, saves wood for colder, darker times of the year.
Heating water with an electric heat pump, which can also be powered by solar panels, eliminates confusion about dishes and napkins. If you are not burning fossil fuel to heat water, it’s a clear win for sustainability to set the table with dishes, utensils, and napkins that you can wash, using dish soap and detergent that are biodegradable and free of unnecessary dyes and fragrances. If, on the other hand, you burn oil or gas to heat your water, then the calculation may tip toward using paper cups and napkins, which you can compost.
However you celebrate the holidays, I hope these ideas for sustainability help you take steps that bring peace and well being to you and your loved ones!
Fred Horch is principal adviser for Sustainable Practice. To receive expert action guides to help your household and organizations become superbly sustainable, visit SustainablePractice.Life and subscribe to “One Step This Week.”