This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

DECEMBER 2009 (links updated 2013): Make your holiday gathering sustainable—and beautiful—with this green game plan.

Holiday Entertaining for a Small Planet

How to reduce the footprint of your feast

One thing is certain: you don't want to stint on food. It's a party after all.

But you do want the food to be sustainable and the quantity to be appropriate for the number of guests you plan to have.

No need to stint on decorations either. They underline the holiday theme and set a festive tone. Just choose decorations that are reusable and, in the case of lighting, energy-efficient.

Avoid disposable plates. If that's not possible, buy a green brand. Ditto for cutlery and glasses.

Send electronic invitations and let any computer-averse guests know about the fete by phone.

Say "no gifts, please!" (except, perhaps, for the children). Or suggest a type of gift-giving that will keep the waste down.

Those are the general guidelines. Now for specifics.

Portions. Nip the excess leftover problem in the bud by preparing the right amount of food for the company, taking into account the proportion of men, women and children. Keep in mind that the more dishes you serve, the more people will tend to eat overall. The length of time prior to the meal will affect the quantity of snacks and hors d'oeuvres required.

Menu. Build your menu around local and seasonal foods. Granted, there isn't that much available in December in colder areas, but see what you can get—if not from the immediate vicinity then from the region. It will be easier if you shop at a farmers' market than the grocery store. New York City's farmers' markets typically have the following fruits and vegetables in December: apples, pears, shell beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, collard greens, leeks, onions, parsnips, potatoes, winter squash and turnips. The list sounds rather like the makings of a traditional holiday meal, doesn't it?

As to meat and other animal products (including milk, cheese and eggs), the less you serve the better. I know that doesn't sound very traditional, and may even seem inconceivable to some, but consider the idea if you care about the environment. Our nation's meat-centric way of eating is unsustainable for a variety of reasons, which I've discussed here and here.

How do you cut back on animal products at a holiday meal? Instead of a roast, which encourages heavy meat consumption, make a dish that mixes meat with plant foods, such as a stew with carrots, turnips and leeks or stuffed cabbage. Tempt the company with an elegant vegetarian entree, such as a goat cheese, beet and walnut tart.

Include some vegan preparations on the menu and use plant-based ingredients wherever possible, even in meat dishes. For example, substitute vegetable broth for chicken or meat broth and vegetable oil for butter. You never know—the result may be even better than the original recipe. One Hanukah, when I had a mixed-food crowd for dinner (vegan, vegetarian and meat-eating), I made two batches of latkes (potato pancakes). In one, I used oatmeal as the binder, which I'd never tried before, and in the other, the usual eggs. The vegan latkes turned out much crisper and everyone preferred them.

As always, organic food is better than non, unless it comes from the ends of the earth. Use your judgment.

Wine and Spirits. As with food, so with drink: go local. Wine is made in all 50 states. Really! If you don't like what your own state has to offer, expand your horizons without leaving the country. You need not import from Europe (or even California) to get fine wine. Locally brewed spirits are also increasingly available (in at least 40 states according to the American Distilleries Institute's Directory of Craft Distillers). Local wines and spirits that are also organic or natural are best of all.

Leftovers. There are three things you can do with leftovers: keep them and eat them later, send them home with your guests or, if the quantity is truly large, give them to a food bank. Don't assume food banks will be happy with anything you bring. Contact them in advance to see if they accept leftover foods and what requirements they have. If you're going to want to give food to guests, get some non-disposable containers in advance to pack the food in.

Plates, Glasses and Cutlery. Use the real thing, and resign yourself to washing up afterwards—perhaps with help from your guests. If you don't have enough settings, borrow. When I was growing up, my mother would supplement her silverware with my grandmother's for big holiday dinners. You can also buy what you need at a discount store. A very inexpensive option is Preserve Everyday reusable plastic tableware (BPA- and phthalate-free), made from 100 percent recycled plastic. If you must have disposables, get products made of recycled plastic, such as Preserve's On the Go line, biodegradable bioplastics (made from plant ingredients instead of petroleum), bamboo or palm leaves.

Ritual Objects and Decorations. If your celebration calls for candles, get ones made from beeswax or soy oil. If it calls for a tree, buy a real, cut tree rather than a synthetic one—and recycle it afterwards so it can be chopped up and turned into mulch. Even better, get a living, potted tree and plant it in your yard when the season is over—or donate it to your local park, school or church. (Call first to see if the gift will be welcome.) Instead of buying, folks in the Portland and San Diego areas can rent living, potted trees. For lights, use energy-efficient LED bulbs. For ornaments, bake your own or make them from natural objects, such as pine cones, cranberries, cinnamon sticks.

Have a beautiful party, a happy holiday and a healthy new year.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

Sustainable holiday food



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Best-kept Wine Secrets Best-kept Wine Secrets
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Mindfulness over Matter Mindfulness over Matter
Meaningful holiday giving

On This Topic

(Get a printable version and share your vegan and vegetarian holiday recipes on my blog.)

Serves 8-10

8 lg baking potatoes
2 med onions
1 c cooked oatmeal
1/2 c matzoh meal or flour
Salt and pepper
Olive oil for frying

Coarsely grate the potatoes and onions and put in a colander. Gently squeeze a handful at a time to rid of some of the excess liquid and put in a large bowl. (Do not squeeze too hard.)

Heat a couple of tbsp of olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-high heat while you finish preparing the potatoes. You want the oil nice and hot (but not burnt) when you are ready to fry.

Stir the potatoes and onions to mix. Add half the matzoh meal or flour and stir. If liquid is pooling in the bowl, add more. Then add half the oatmeal, season with salt and pepper and stir again. If the mixture isn't holding together well enough to make patties, add more oatmeal.

To check if the oil is hot enough, drop a tiny bit of the potato mixture in the oil and see if it sizzles. If not, wait a couple of minutes and check again.

Shape the mixture into patties any size you like and drop in the pan. Do not crowd. Fry until crisp and golden-brown on both sides.

Before frying your next batch, add more oil to the pan and check to see if your potato mixture is too liquidy. If so, stir in more matzoh meal or flour.

Drain the latkes briefly on a couple of layers of old kitchen towels that you don't mind getting stained with oil—or on paper towels made with recycled paper. Serve immediately on a platter warmed in the oven. If serving later, reheat in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

Serve with apple sauce and/or vegan sour cream—either homemade or store-bought.

Christmas tree with pine cone ornament REAL TREES ARE BEST. If possible, get a living, potted tree and replant it afterwards or donate it to a park or church for planting. Otherwise, get a real, cut tree and recycle it afterwards. Decorate with energy-efficient LED lights and natural ornaments.

Send Free Electronic Invitations
Estimating Food Quantities for a Party

What's Fresh Near You?

Planet Green
50 Ways to Never Waste Food Again
Reusable Food Containers

Feeding America
Food Bank Locator

All American Wineries
Winery Locator by State

4 Ways to Have the Greenest Christmas Tree

More to Do

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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