Cooking is often an expression of ourselves—our values, our lifestyles, and our cultural traditions. The holidays present an opportunity to express these values as we attempt to weave them into our daily lives, including conscious eating and sustainable living. It is a time to reevaluate our traditions, and take a stand on practices that don’t contribute to a robust, healthy food system. It is also a time to reinforce and celebrate traditions that we can feel good about, from sourcing our food in an ecologically responsible way, to making recipes that repurpose food waste into soups, stocks, and preserves. By being aware of what we (literally) bring to the table at the holidays, we can conscientiously share our ethics with family and friends.
Eating our values, so to speak, is a powerful way to consider our environmental and social impact, while also setting the tone for a longer-term cultural shift in how Americans view what we consume. One holiday meal can highlight the larger issues in our food system, as well as the solutions and movements we should be supporting. There are startups and companies across the country working to develop new and easier ways for us to all participate responsibly in our food system—from connecting us to farmers to reducing our food waste. Having a sustainable holiday is not about making sacrifices, so much as putting into practice the habits we can get excited about, and actively contributing to the larger food movement.
Not Necessarily Meatless
Meat consumption is a given for many holiday meals, and it behooves us to acknowledge the resilience and importance of those traditions. Instead of focusing the meat vs vegan debate, we should start by asking what kind of meat we’re comparing a meatless option to: How was it raised? Where is it from? Is it organic, or from a farm that practices regenerative agriculture? Those questions are critical to understanding the environmental and social impact of your consumption.
Regenerative agriculture in particular helps us to turn this discussion in a new direction, and allows us to consider meat sourcing that doesn’t just lower our impact, but can actually be environmentally beneficial. These holistic agricultural practices aim to raise and grow food in harmony with nature, as opposed to in competition with it, and place a considerable priority on soil health. By 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. Erica Helms of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture emphasizes the potential for regenerative ag, 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. When you have a diverse grass mix (as opposed to a monoculture), you have the development of better root systems, better water retention capacity, and a really healthy biotic community in the soil. What is even more exciting is that this system can actually pull carbon out of the air—where it's contributing to climate change—and sequester it in the soil.” So while we are used to hearing about meat’s carbon footprint (which, for most types of meat production in this country, is a very real concern), these regenerative types of farming practices turn that on its head. 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.
So how can you make sure that the meat you are buying is from a farmer that considers ecological stewardship a priority? Labels like ”grass-fed” aren’t rigorous enough to use alone. 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 available. 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 eco-friendly farms from which they source. Purveyors you can trust include Walden Local Meats (NY/New England), Carman Ranch (Pacific NW), White Oak Pastures (southeast) and Hickory Nut Gap Meats (Carolinas). Crowd Cow is also a start-up attempting to tackle this market, with extensive artisanal meat offerings, an optional subscription service, and a digital recipe platform. 4P Foods also offers a sustainably-sourced meat delivery service for those in the 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 and to create demand for meat aligned with your values.
Of course, even if you are able to source your meat as responsibly as possible, reducing meat consumption overall has to be considered in tandem. There is still a question of whether even the most sustainably-raised meat can satiate growing levels of meat consumption. We should all consider simply eating less meat. Flexitarianism will likely be the way of the future (and businesses and startups are already planning on it.)
The way we build our menus at the holidays can help introduce subtle, but significant, shifts in thinking for our guests. Does meat have to be the largest or only main dish? Can there be multiple “mains,” some of which are entirely 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 constructively add to attitudes about the role of meat in our consumption habits.
Focus on Waste Reduction
To be clear, food waste is not just an issue of household waste—more than half of all wasted food happens ”upstream” in the harvest and storage phase, and the rest occurs in processing, distribution and consumption, only the very end of which happens at your own table. But technology has brought tremendous improvements to the beginning and middle of the food chain, like BluWrap, which keeps fresh food from spoiling in transit, and BT9 Xsense, which monitors perishable food throughout the food supply chain. The reality in industrialized countries is that consumer behavior actually does play a large role in food waste. 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.”
Especially when considering a larger dinner or holiday gathering, individuals can have a substantial impact on the reduction of cooking and consumption waste. Start-ups like Imperfect (west coast) and Hungry Harvest (east coast) offer produce subscription services that let you intentionally source imperfect or “ugly” produce that would otherwise go to waste. (Note, however, that there has been an argument against Silicon Valley food waste startups, which could claim a decreasing market share for more traditional and community-focused CSAs.) Also, they are only operational in a handful of cities on the coasts right now. So for the rest of us, consider asking your farmer directly for his or her “ugly” produce. You can also chat with your farmer about seasonally-available ingredients that you could incorporate into your menu. Many holiday recipes already call for in-season ingredients, and you can take advantage of heirloom varieties, swapping them out for mainstream grocery store produce. New apps designed to connect farmers to individual buyers digitally can help you get in touch with the farmers in your area without the necessity of physically going to the market.
Planning ahead is also key. The NRDC has a new online tool for calculating what you will actually need for your holiday meal—you enter the number of guests, as well as types of dishes you plan to prepare (and even the number of leftover meals you want), and it will estimate how much food to buy. Next, you can use new tools to keep the food you already have fresh for longer. Investigate new spoilage-prevention products on the market, like BluApple, which absorbs ethylene gas in your refrigerator, keeping food fresh for longer.
If you do end up with too much, there are several startups working to prevent food from ending up in the trash. Olio is a London-based start-up and app which helps individuals easily connect with others to share unwanted food items, and it’s likely that we’ll see more peer-to-peer food sharing apps in the US. 412FoodRescue, a well-known Pittsburgh-based organization (of recent interest for its ambitions to take its tech national), has just launched an app to connect individuals with non-profits and institutions who can use your unwanted food. Unsung has developed a similar platform with a broader reach—now operating in six US cities—focusing exclusively on food donations to those in need.
When buying a whole animal—looking at you turkey—consider all of the ways to use it. Turkey 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 representative of important concepts of waste-reduction, thrift, and conservation. Stuffing is, at its core, a way to repurpose stale bread that might otherwise go to waste. We can find some excellent solutions to modern concerns in our oldest traditions.
Holidays are a time to consider how our habits can contribute to the resilience of our food system. We can determine what traditions to upload, and when we will make changes or approximations that add meaningful change. By mixing traditional foodways with modern sensibilities and even tech-powered tools, we can evolve our holidays with integrity.