With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I wanted to reflect on what the traditional Thanksgiving meal can teach us about the right food choices for the environment, and for our health and happiness. Here are three tips:
Eat the foods that are in season. Think about traditional Thanksgiving deserts, such as apple pie and pumpkin pie. Ever stop to ask why strawberry shortcake isn’t typically on the menu? It’s because apples and pumpkins are in abundance in the fall, which is convenient when we are looking for jack-o’-lantern material.
Meanwhile, berries (which are summer fruits), aren’t typically around in November, unless they are flown from around the world. That’s an option that the pilgrims didn’t have at their disposal, and it’s best to follow their lead here, as transporting out-of-season produce to our grocery shelves comes with an enormous carbon footprint. In fact, studies show that the ingredients for the average American meal travel well over 1,000 miles to reach the dinner table, many times more if it includes out-of-season ingredients like strawberries in November.
Nevermind that out-of-season strawberries taste terrible. Since they are picked under-ripe to withstand long-distance shipping, they are pale, juiceless, and certainly not sweet. So stick with in-season ingredients – they taste better and do significantly less damage to the planet.
Eat your veggies (and few, if any, four-legged animals). Sure, there is a lot of food on the Thanksgiving table, and some of our most-loved side dishes and deserts may be laden with too much butter or salt. But the general balance of food groups on the Thanksgiving table follows what we know to be a blueprint for a healthy, balanced diet that contains a variety of colors, a large number of vegetables and grains, and a small amount of meat – none of it red.
This kind of balance is also healthiest for the planet. Poultry has a much lower footprint than beef, and vegetables much less than poultry.
Today, land clearing to making room for expansive ranches, and farms to grow feed for cattle, are a leading driver of climate change and forest destruction. In the Brazilian Amazon, cattle ranching now occupies 32 million acres of former rainforest, an area nearly the size of Germany.
If more of your diet comes from veggies, and little of it from meat (especially beef), you’ll make a big impact both on your health and the planet.
Homemade is best. The pilgrims didn’t have the option of ordering in, or opening cans or frozen packages to prepare their meal. While these things certainly are convenient, nothing quite compares to the flavor and comfort of home-cooked dishes. Starting with whole ingredients (especially those grown locally) means less energy has gone into processing, packaging, and transporting food to your table. And it means you will know what is in the dish you are eating, and how and when it was made.
If canned yams and green-bean casserole with frozen beans have become your Thanksgiving menu mainstays, think about swapping them out with raw and fresh alternatives. Although the washing, chopping, and other prep may take you a bit longer, your meal will retain more nutrients. Why not view cooking as an opportunity to create something with your family that you can all enjoy once it’s ready?
Post by: Sarene Marshall, climate change program director, The Nature Conservancy
(Photo: Wild turkey in Osage County of Oklahoma in United States, North America. Photo credit: © Harvey Payne.)
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