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How to Have the Most Sustainable Thanksgiving Ever

Traditions and turkey don’t have to be incompatible with Earth-friendly practices

Holiday feasts can be celebratory but also sustainable with a few simple tweaks. (Tetra Images/Corbis)
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You’ve been trying to up your Thanksgiving game every year, adding essence of cardamom to your grandmother’s sweet potato casserole and latticing bacon across your bird. But have you thought about how to ensure that this annual meal is one Earth can keep providing for generations?

It’s the sort of topic some people love to think about, actually, honing in to improve each of the American meal’s iconic ingredients—including the turkey that 88 percent of Americans eat that day, according to a National Turkey Federation survey.

Before we even get to the Thanksgiving table, Jeremy Kranowitz, executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable America, encourages us to consider celebrating the meal closer to home (and tuning in for a Skype session with faraway family for dessert). An estimated 24.5 million Americans traveled by plane around the Thanksgiving holiday last year, according to industry group Airlines for America.

Travel to and from holiday gatherings consumes “a huge amount of energy and fuel,” especially if the food you eat there traveled cross-country as well, Kranowitz says.

Cranberries, potatoes and turkeys for the Thanksgiving table often travel 1,500 to 2,500 miles from the farm, according to the Worldwatch Institute, three times as far as the average American guest and 25 percent farther than they did two decades ago. These so-called “food miles” are one consideration when conserving the resources, namely fuel, that go into making a meal.

So, is a 100-mile Thanksgiving, with ingredients sourced from within 100 miles of your dinner table, still the hallmark of a sustainable meal? Not for all ingredients.

Cooking with a Spanish olive oil, for example, could still be better for the environment compared to using locally sourced animal fats, according to EWG’s Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health.

Still, “in our family, we make exceptions for holidays and do things we don’t do normally,” says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group and a mother of two.

Kranowitz agrees that he steps off his sustainability soapbox to enjoy Thanksgiving with his family each year, opting instead to incrementally improve the meal's footprint.

“There are folks that will put the sustainability of the meal above all else,” he says. But “even if they just did one extra sustainable thing this year that they didn’t do last year, it’s making the whole thing better across the country.”

To that end, let’s look at a few key ingredients to a more sustainable feast:

Turkey versus Tofurky

Yes, Kranowitz says, the higher you go on the food chain, like eating birds that eat grains rather than the grains themselves, the more resources you consume. Besides, the vegetarian at your table might like having a soybean-based option.

That said, “maybe Thanksgiving is a great time to have a turkey, and the rest of the year we could eat lower on the food chain,” says Kranowitz.

Deciding on turkey does not mean the main dish debacle is over. There is “a dizzying array of turkeys to choose from,” says Lunder: heirloom and heritage, organic and non-GMO-fed, local and pasture-raised.

Besides the EWG’s guide to decoding meat labels, Lunder notes that there can be misnomers: “grass-fed” does not apply to poultry, since birds don't graze, so be leery of such labels on turkeys.

“A lot of times small local producers are raising them in more humane conditions; just ask questions,” says Lunder.

The Humble Side Dish

Holidays are known for inciting economic splurges, but why waste resources on a “must have” dish that languishes at the end of the table? Rather than having two or three potato-based options, consider narrowing it down to one and investing in fewer, better quality tubers.

EWG’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists suggest that conventional versions of the nutrient-dense sweet potato often contain fewer pesticides than white potatoes and require fewer resources to grow.

Otherwise, Kranowitz says, let what’s available locally inspire your side dishes. Thanksgiving is seasonal by nature, so “autumnal foods should be celebrated, for sure,” he says.

For those who don’t live near a cranberry bog but can’t live without the sauce, Lunders suggests choosing organic options or even making it from scratch, to avoid using excess sugar.

Paper, Plastic or China?

Unlike the diaper debate, reusable dishes are almost always the best choice, says Lunder. And you might be glad to know that most modern dishwashers use fewer resources than hand-washing.

If you have to go disposable, choose biodegradable paper plates that can be composted at home, Kranowitz says.

Waste Not

Yes, Thanksgiving is about celebrating abundance, but “we can’t have a sustainable meal if we aren’t thinking about what happens with the leftovers,” says Kranowitz. Thanksgiving is ground zero for food waste and one of the first places you can apply the USDA and EPA’s new challenge to reduce the 35 billion tons of food that gets sent to U.S. landfills each year.

Consider making freezer stock from the turkey bones and breakfast hash with the extra stuffing. Store only the amount of leftovers you intend to eat and have guests bring Tupperware to take home some of the feast.

In summary? “Travel less, eat foods that can be raised closer to home and don’t buy too much,” says Kranowitz.

For more, check out Sustainable America’s guide to a 100-mile Thanksgiving and EWG’s guide to a healthier holiday

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