Building a Better Thanksgiving

by Alexina Cather, MPH
By Jeremy Kranowitz

Building a Better Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has the ingredients to make it one of the best holidays of the year: spending time with loved ones, giving thanks for good things, and of course, eating delicious food. However, many of us are subconsciously setting a table that is not as satisfying or sustainable as it can be. With a few small changes, Thanksgiving can be restored to the holiday it was intended to be, and it starts with a story about Aunt Beverly’s Hungarian Stewed Prunes.

For many years, my wife and I would spend Thanksgiving with her Aunt Judy in Tenafly, New Jersey, where an ever-growing multi-generational family would gather every year. The giant table with extra leaves would groan under the weight of the giant turkey and dozens of additional dishes, some more traditional American like the classic turkey and stuffing, others decidedly Jewish, including a decadent noodle kugel. And then there were a few small orphan dishes, including the dreaded stewed prunes.

Serving Dishes that No One Wants

Lots of Thanksgiving tables have one or more of these dishes that no one wants. Some are family recipes passed down over generations, others are regional oddities. On your table maybe it’s creamed onions, or something made with Jell-O. Making these dishes may bring a smile – or friendly groan — and recall a story about a loved one, yet at the end of the meal no one is ever surprised that the dish is mostly untouched. We need to reexamine the idea of what should and should not be consumed at the Thanksgiving meal. Just because we always have put a dish out there, doesn’t mean we still should. Let’s ensure that every dish is a delight, and that those around the table can consume all (or at least most) of it.

Showing Too Much Generosity

While there is satisfaction in making sure that there is more than enough food for everyone, the end result is often that far more food is cooked and presented than will ever be consumed, even if it’s delicious! According to research at the Worldwatch Institute, three times more food waste than normal occurs between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. While many people (including yours truly) love eating leftovers from Thanksgiving even more than the original meal, it is also true that invariably there is a lot of waste. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the average American family wastes $2,200 in uneaten food each year. On a weekly basis, we may not notice each pack of strawberries that goes moldy, or each potato that sprouts eyes, but it quickly adds up. And on Thanksgiving that average goes way up, because we prepare so much food that we all know, deep in our hearts, will never get eaten at the primary meal, or the next day in a sandwich. We are not being miserly when we prepare the right amount of food – we are being mindful of the world around us. Because so many of us enjoy leftovers, let’s think about buying some storage containers for each guest, and letting them take what they will truly enjoy when they get back home. Don’t force guests to take home leftovers that they will just throw away – all that is doing is spreading the food waste around. Instead, let’s envision and plan for a Thanksgiving dinner with just enough leftovers that also will be safely enjoyed by our guests, and not one ounce more.

Cooking with Ingredients That Traveled Too Far

Corn, beans and squash are sometimes referred to as the “three sisters,” grown by Native Americans in a technique called companion planting, with the corn providing scaffolding for the beans to climb, the beans providing nitrogen to the soil, and the squash providing ground cover that suppresses weeds. This perfect trio formed the basis of the first Thanksgiving, locally appropriate here in the Northeast. Those local veggies were combined with local game, likely including wild turkey, venison, and fish. However, exotic ingredients from distant parts of the world should not be loaded onto the Thanksgiving table.

A closer look at Aunt Beverly’s infamous stewed prunes reveals why this is wasteful on so many levels. Those prunes started life as plums, most likely grown in California where 99 percent of dried plums are grown in this country. Conventionally-grown plums require irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and lots of labor to pick the fruit by hand. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 19 percent of fruit becomes “unavailable” between the farm and retail – usually left unpicked and uneaten for aesthetic reasons. Energy was expended to dry the plums, to package them, and to drive them across the country by truck to our local grocery store, and again when we cooked them. According to a study at the University of Texas about 10 percent of all energy that we use in this country every day is related to growing, shipping, refrigerating and cooking our food. When most of that dish is uneaten, it is tossed into the trash where it continues to have an environmental footprint. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, over 97 percent of food waste is destined for the landfill, which for New Yorkers means a trip of up to 600 miles away by a garbage truck getting less than five miles per gallon. Once in the landfill, those prunes decompose into methane, a potent greenhouse gas over 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. And what was the point? No one wanted them, no one ate them, and the result was a waste of money, labor, water and energy, resulting in environmental harm. Perhaps this year, we can just share a story about how it was funny that we used to make stewed prunes in the old days, and thank God we don’t do that anymore.

Filling Our Souls Along with Our Stomachs

As a fan of parades, professional football and of buying gifts for loved ones, I think all can be a wonderful aspect of a long Thanksgiving weekend. However, the real purpose of the holiday is lost when we forget the reason for celebrating. The Pilgrims were decimated by disease and hunger, and there was much to be thankful for as they celebrated their first harvest. Today, with many of us worried about gaining too much weight over the holidays, we should remember that one in eight Americans suffer from food insecurity, meaning they do not have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Hunger is particularly acute among seniors, veterans and the disabled, and is critically important to address for children, as proper nutrition is essential for a child’s development. Many houses of worship and community centers have food drives during this time of year. Making a contribution can make a difference, especially shelf-stable, nutritious items you enjoy on your table. Even better would be to volunteer at a local pantry to appreciate the scope of the problem in every community, and to help those in need.

Let’s make a better Thanksgiving this year. Make the dishes that will bring joy, in the right amount, made with seasonal and regionally appropriate ingredients. And let’s also find ways to help those in need in our communities.

Jeremy Kranowitz is an Affiliate with the Keystone Policy Center, building a national coalition of industry, government, and nonprofit organizations to work together to reduce food loss and waste in the United States. He is the past-president of Sustainable America, a nonprofit organization working nationwide to raise consumer awareness about sustainable food and fuel issues.

Prior to working for Sustainable America, Jeremy worked for 10 years at the Keystone Policy Center as a senior associate on energy and environmental issues, and director of education programs. Jeremy has also worked for several other nonprofit organizations, including the Izaak Walton League and Forest Trends. He started his career working as an environmental consultant at McKinsey & Co. Jeremy has a Masters of Environmental Science and Bachelors in Social Sciences from Johns Hopkins University, and a Masters in Public Administration from New York University.

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