November 17, 2018

A Sustainable and Humane Thanksgiving Meal Plan

by Densie Webb Ph.d., R.d.  

As you gear up for Thanksgiving, you may not have any dietary restrictions that would make you need to change the basics of a traditional holiday menu. But maybe you are concerned about where your food comes from and how it’s grown or raised. If that’s you, then you’ll want to make “sustainability” and “humaneness” the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving table. Depending on how closely you want to adhere to these principles, you don’t necessarily need to exclude any specific foods but rather just need to choose them more selectively.

Here are some tips so that you and your family and friends (and the planet) can continue to be thankful for decades to come.

  • If you want a Thanksgiving turkey to grace your table, opt for heritage turkeys, breeds that are being reintroduced into the genetic pool. They’ll cost more, but the birds are often raised more humanely (check the producer’s website).
  • You can also find out where to buy more humanely raised turkey at the website of Certified Humane. Other seals that ensure varying levels of humaneness in production of meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs are Animal Welfare Approved and American Humane Certified. Keep in mind that the terms “organic” and “free-range” are not “humane” labels per se and that the slaughtering of any turkey (and all animals) inflicts unnecessary harm no matter how “humanely” it’s done.
  • Better yet, consider going meatless and prioritizing plant foods at the Thanksgiving table, one of the best ways to cut your carbon footprint and show compassion for animals. Compared to growing plant foods, meat and poultry production uses far more resources and produces far more carbon emissions. In fact, in a traditional turkey dinner, food production and processing are responsible for three-quarters of the carbon footprint of the meal, and, according to research from the University of Manchester, the largest proportion (60 percent) of that carbon footprint of a turkey dinner with all the trimmings is related to the life cycle of the turkey.
  • Opt, if you can, for organic fruits and vegetables, which have less adverse impact on the environment than conventionally grown ones.
  • You can also make a trip to a farmers’ market, where you can get to know your local farmers and see what’s actually in season (as opposed to what’s shipped in, often from overseas, to conventional supermarkets). In many regions of the country, what’s in season in November includes parsnips, turnips, winter squash, cranberries, potatoes, pears, pumpkins, apples, leeks and onions, and other traditional Thanksgiving produce. Though it’s questionable if buying locally always saves energy (that depends where the food comes from, the type of transport used, and other complex factors), farm-fresh fruits and vegetables typically taste better than produce that is packaged and shipped thousands of miles. Also, buying from farmers’ markets helps support the local community and protect farmland.
  • Go paperless at the table. Stick with reusable (real) forks, knives, spoons, plates, and glasses, as well as cloth napkins and tablecloths.
  • Save the leftovers. Rather than throwing them out, freeze and recycle them for future meals. Americans discard 30 to 40 percent of the food produced, according to the USDA.
  • For more tips on how to shop and cook sustainably, check out