1. Who’s the star of the show?
Turkey does not have to be front and center on your Thanksgiving menu! Although serving turkey has become a holiday tradition for many, others choose ham, chicken, lamb, or wild game. In fact, it is possible that even the very first Thanksgiving celebration did not include turkey. There was definitely venison, and perhaps goose, duck, or passenger pigeons. The Wampanoag and the colonists probably also served lobster, mussels, and clams as well. Whichever meat you decide to serve this year, choose pasture-raised or organic if at all possible. If you can’t find sustainably-raised turkey, consider serving an alternate meat or fish, as conventionally-raised turkeys are loaded up with antibiotics and 77% are contaminated with resistant bacterial strains. If you must buy a conventional bird, avoid ones labeled pre-marinated, self-basting, deep basted, or enhanced, because these are usually injected with fillers and chemicals.
2. Hold the cranberry sauce, please!
Canned cranberry sauce may be one of the most toxic items on the menu. Most cans are lined with BPA, a carcinogenic endocrine-disrupting chemical that leaches into the food contained within — especially acidic foods like cranberry sauce. Most cranberry sauces are also loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, likely from genetically-modified corn. What’s worse, studies on conventionally-grown cranberries have found them to contain up to 12 different pesticide residues, including several organophosphates, which are highly toxic even in small amounts. To avoid toxic pesticides, GMO-laden HFCS, and any additives or artificial colors, make your own cranberry sauce from scratch using organic cranberries. It’s easier than you think, requiring only water, cranberries, and the natural sweetener of your choice.
3. Cook in cast iron or stainless steel
Nonstick cookware contains a coating made of polytetrafluoroetheylene (“Teflon”), which breaks apart when heated to emit toxic fumes. These fumes can cause flu-like symptoms and are toxic enough to kill pet birds. It only takes between 2-5 minutes on a stovetop for your pot or pan to become hot enough to emit fumes. The Environmental Working Group recommends using cast iron or stainless steel instead. If you don’t have time to buy a new set of cookware, at least make sure to keep the oven temperature below 500°F, avoid preheating empty pans, and turn on the exhaust fan over your stove.
4. Skip disposable paper products
Sure, it’s nice to have fewer dishes to do at the end of the day, but most guests will be happy to help with the clean-up. Nice plates and glasses, your best silverware, and cloth napkins will make the table look more inviting anyway. Serve bite-size appetizers that don’t require a plate to avoid the need to wash dishes while you’re still preparing dinner. If you use disposable aluminum pans, consider cleaning them out to reuse a few times. If you must use disposable plates and forks, choose ones that are compostable, and make sure they don’t wind up in with your regular trash. Ask your guests to bring their own containers to take home leftovers.
5. Read the labels
While it’s healthiest to cook everything from scratch, a few packaged foods may make the feast preparation a bit easier on you. Avoid anything containing MSG — which may be listed as monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed or textured proteins, calcium and sodium caseinate, autolyzed yeast or yeast extract. Some people have serious reactions to MSG, including headaches, rapid heart rate, and breathing difficulties. Be on the lookout for GMOs, often hidden in corn, soy, or sugar ingredients. Nix high fructose corn syrup, which can appear even in savory prepared and packaged foods. Check the label for artificial colors, flavors, and additives. A good rule of thumb: If an ingredient is unfamiliar or hard to pronounce, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
6. Buy local
Local produce is usually fresher and healthier. Buying animal products from a local farm allows you to see the conditions under which the animals are raised. Shopping local saves fossil fuels, since the foods do not need to be transported far to reach you. Small local farms are more likely to embrace environmentally-friendly practices. Plus, buying from local co-ops, farmers, markets, and grocery stands keeps money in your local community, and out of factory farms.
7. Focus on the friends and family
It seems like Thanksgiving is a holiday that revolves completely around food — but it doesn’t have to be! Don’t spend hours preparing the meal if you don’t enjoy cooking. Ask your guests to bring a dish to share, or stick with a simple meal. Thanksgiving was meant to be a time to be grateful for what we have, not for what we could have. Take some time to just enjoy your family’s presence. Turn off the TV and sit around the table together. Tell stories and play games. Work together on some kind of expression of gratitude. Studies have shown that being thankful is good not only for our spirits, but also for our overall health and wellness. Each year when we sit down for our Thanksgiving dinner, we go around the table and one by one, share something we are thankful for. We also started a special tradition with my son a few years ago. Every Thanksgiving morning, we go for a hike in the woods. Along the way we collect sticks and leaves and we stop in the middle of the woods to build our “Thanksgiving Tree” — a large stick pushed into the dirt, with fallen leaves stuck onto the small branches. As we add each leaf, we say something we are grateful for. Then we sing a song or say a prayer of thanks before heading back to our car. It has become one of our favorite and most meaningful traditions.