Tips for a Greener Thanksgiving

By DONNA DeFORBES/ecoRI News contributor

Giving thanks for a successful harvest was an ancient tradition among many cultures. Solemn days of thanksgiving and prayer occurred regularly among the Puritans of New England, and Native Americans such as the Wampanoag regularly offered thanks to the Creator for their food. While the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving of 1621 was certainly not the first harvest feast in America — perhaps due to its records and its good story — it’s recognized as the birth of the American holiday.

The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed by the Continental Congress in 1777 as a solemn event. President Lincoln is often credited with declaring it a national holiday in 1863. However, Thanksgiving didn’t become a fixed annual event until 1941, when Congress permanently marked it as the fourth Thursday in November.

At its heart, Thanksgiving is a day of gratitude for food and family. Here are some ideas for making your celebration a little greener:

DECORATION
Use non-toxic cleaners for your pre-holiday house cleaning. You’ll find that many products from your kitchen can double as household cleaners, saving you money and eliminating nasty chemical odors. The best cleaners don’t use much more than vinegar, baking soda and essential oils for a disinfecting and pleasant smelling clean.

Set the table with natural fabrics, reusable dinnerware and dripless beeswax candles. Cloth napkins can be made from scraps of fabric, old sheets or clothing, and can even be personalized for family members.

Instead of buying plastic centerpieces, make a cornucopia of nuts, apples and colorful gourds in a natural wicker basket or a seasonal decoration of leaves, pinecones, acorns and dried herbs. Kids can make place cards from recycled construction paper or try something unique like writing guests’ name on collected shells and rocks.

TRAVEL
Thanksgiving is the most traveled weekend of the year. If you’re leaving town, consider buying carbon offsets, which are a way of alleviating guilt and supporting carbon-reducing projects. Find out more at sites like CarbonFund.org or TerraPass.com.

Choose the train or bus before a car or airplane. They create fewer carbon emissions per passenger, and they’ll keep you away from crowds and long lines — only about 3 percent of Americans travel by bus or train over Thanksgiving.

If you do fly, consider the greenness of an airline. Does it support sustainable food options, recycling or fuel-conservation programs? A little online research can tell you which airlines are currently ranked as the most eco-friendly.

FOOD & DRINK
Skip the force-fed, “flavor”-injected Butterball turkey and seek out local birds or heritage breeds from places such as Heritage Food USA or The American Livestock Breed Conservancy. Heritage turkeys breed naturally and live a drug-free outdoor life. Visit localharvest.org to find a turkey farm near you.

Eat local like the Pilgrims did. Their menu wasn’t centered around turkey — they also ate readily available swan, duck, goose, deer, lobster and shellfish — and they had no potatoes, so don’t feel you’re bucking tradition by choosing something different. Thanksgiving feasts vary according to region — people incorporate crab and sauerkraut in Maryland, chiles in New Mexico, persimmon puddings in Indiana and sweet potatoes in the South.

Keep food waste to a minimum. Do you really need four different pies? Traditionally, a main dish, four sides and one dessert is a good rule of thumb for the Thanksgiving meal. Have a plan for leftover food. If you can’t stomach turkey leftovers for the next five days, be sure to send some home with guests. Store leftovers in BPA-free reusable containers rather than using Saran wrap or aluminum foil.

Compost leftover vegetable and fruit scraps. Egg shells, coffee grinds and tea leaves can also be composted.

Be energy efficient by cooking multiple dishes in the oven at the same time. On the stovetop, use the smallest pot necessary for cooking an item, and cover it to reduce evaporation.

ACTIVITIES
Trade in an hour of television for playing football or some other sport in the backyard. It’s interactive, connecting and a great way to work off some of that dinner. Alternatively, attend a local high-school football game.

Not a fan of football? Go for a neighborhood walk and listen to the leaves crunch. Take the kids to the playground. Doing something outdoors, even for a short time.

Board games are great holiday fun. In a large gathering, you can have several games going at once, and then rotate groups. Make it part of the holiday tradition by introducing a different game every year. This doesn’t mean you have to buy it new. I’ve found many a complete game at yard sales and thrift shops.

Are there several family and friends who live near each other? Make a progressive party of Thanksgiving instead of leaving one person with the bulk of the work. A progressive party means guests gather at one house for the first course and walk from house to house for other courses (and activities) throughout the evening.

Donna DeForbes is the founder of Eco-Mothering.com, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is a contributor to Earth911, The Green Mama, MammaBaby and author of the e-book “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.”