November 24, 2020
By Pamela Berns
Covid-19 has created disruptions in all aspects of our lives, challenging us to change our habits and lifestyles, only to have to change them yet again. “Pivot” and “shift” have become the buzzwords of 2020, and although it’s been exhausting, one might even say we’ve gotten enough practice to be become masters of behavior change. This holiday season is no different, unfolding like no other in memory, demanding that we revisit some of our most fundamental practices and revise our most cherished rituals. With social distancing and the unfortunate winter surge, more families are opting to go smaller at home. They are improvising strategies for virtual get togethers and seeking meaning in unfamiliar ways, hoping to compensate at least a little for lost hugs and after dinner walks.
If COVID-19 is calling on us to change the way we eat together, it also necessitates greater mindfulness in the way we plan and prepare and our meals. Smaller guest lists mean buying and cooking less, and ultimately wasting less. Many studies have shown that how we produce and consume food is one of the biggest drivers of our planet’s deteriorating health, wrote Brent Loken, Global Food Lead Scientist with the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) on October 8. “Our food systems have caused 70 percent of biodiversity loss on land and 50% in water; they’re responsible for around 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; and they’ve caused 80% of global deforestation.” In addition, the UN estimates that nearly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food that ends up in landfills.
With the global pandemic in play, the scenario has become even more dire. According to a September 29 CBS News report,“Farm and factory closures, labor shortages, restaurant and hotel closures, social distancing and other safety measures upended food production and distribution, creating a litany of new food waste issues” at the beginning of the pandemic. Food access remains an issue with one in three families with kids currently experiencing food insecurity.
There’s lots of discussion among economists and psychologists alike about how much of our newfound ways of living will stick once we come out the other side of the pandemic. With food at the center of traditions around the world, the 2020 holiday season presents us with an opportunity to adjust our culinary attitudes and our revise our gastronomic practices—for good.
Fewer visits to the market during lockdowns have already taught us to be more careful shoppers, as we’ve stocked up enough to get through to the next grocery run. We’ve become more attentive to using up the stuff that lingers in the fridge, in order to stretch the time between trips. But with fewer mouths to feed at the holiday table, buying in bulk probably won’t work as well, and it could easily lead to waste. One strategy is to buy only loose. Another is learn how to properly store food and freeze perishable items to extend their lifespans, so you can buy your preferred items in advance and/or use your holiday ingredients for future meals. All Recipes offers a guide to freezing fruits and vegetables. You can also use Save the Food’s interactive program to select the food item you want to store and get best practices for storing, refrigerating and freezing it, and maximizing its shelf life.
Before you even make your grocery list, be sure to take stock of your pantry. If you’ve already got enough apples for gramma’s pie recipe, resist the 10 for two dollars sale. Dig deep into the drawers and backs of the shelves of your fridge—those wilted celery stalks make great soup starters. NRDC offers tips on how to organize your fridge, and “revive food on its way out,” as well as other strategies for reducing food waste in your kitchen.
Do the Math
To account for your abbreviated guest list, you’ll also need to figure how to adjust your recipes to cut down on size and quantity, and the math can be a little tricky. If you want leftovers so you don’t have to cook again later in the week —and that should be a decision not a default—change the calculation to reflect the number of servings you want to preserve. Try using SavetheFood’s Guestimator,which not only helps you adjust the proportions of recipe ingredients, but enables you fine tune your planning down to the finest detail, from accounting for your individual guests’ appetites—small, average, and big—to the number of leftover portions you’ll have at the end.
As you begin your preheating your oven, don’t overlook those seemingly inedible items left behind in the sink. Food scraps and peels that find their way to landfills become contributors to greenhouse gases (rotting food releases methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2). With some careful calculation, your meal planning can include turning scraps into sauces — try carrot top pesto—or meat substitutes, such as banana peel enchiladas. If you’ve finally exhausted all culinary possibilities, and there’s still stuff left—compost, compost, compost.
Shop Close to Home
Buying local and seasonal reduces food miles, but can be harder to do in December in colder weather climates. You can still get some items at GrowNYC Greenmarkets, although they are generally from farmers’ storage, rather than freshly picked. GrowNYC offers a list of what’s available by month. You can also find out what’s in season in your area by entering your location and the month you want to shop, at seasonal food guide.org.
If you’re committed to staying local, you can change up your menu, replacing your usual green bean side with cauliflower. Or you can shop earlier while the fresh items you want are still available, and freeze them for cooking later. If your family’s cultural traditions call for ingredients that do have to travel far, go for fair trade items, which generally support local producers and fair wages.
According to NYU Assistant Professor Matthew Hayek, who models the potential impact of large-scale dietary changes on our climate, our biggest impact will come from two interlinked solutions: “eliminating food waste and introducing and normalizing plant-based diets.”WWF’s recent report, Bending the Curve: The Restorative Power of Planet-Based Diets, demonstrates that “planet-based” diets, those that “reduce over-consumption of animal-source foods, …are high on human health benefits and low on environmental impacts.” While Hayek firmly believes dietary patterns need to change at the institutional level, he urges New Yorkers to be part of the solution by creating plant-forward recipes at home.
Epicurious offers 71 recipes for mouthwatering meatless mains that can serve as the centerpiece of your holiday meal. Just one look at the photos and that turkey, goose or ham may become bits of nostalgia. But if that’s still a road too far for your carnivorous family members, try a side-main portion size swap, and be sure to select humanely and sustainably raised and organic meat and fish. The Environmental Defense Fund has a directory of “fish choices that are good for you and the oceans,” while Eatwild offers a comprehensive list of criteria for selecting meat and other items responsibly. If possible, in the sprit of buying local as well as healthy, buy meat direct from a nearby farm or neighborhood butcher.
Make Meaning by Feeding Those in Need
It may turn out that your son the foodie has decided to count calories instead of consuming them, and despite all your calculating you’ll end up with unintended leftovers. Or you may have decided in advance that you’ll make extra food for those in need. ReFed, a national nonprofit working to reduce food waste, has compiled a database of nonprofits and commercial entities that will take unused food and distribute it to food banks, pantries, meal programs and more.. The Environmental Protection Agency has an interactive map that finds potential industrial, commercial and institutional recipients of excess food. You can find your local food bank at Feeding America, or help even closer to home by preparing holiday dishes for elderly neighbors.
Joy to the World
“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor,” wrote Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. It’s possible that the pandemic has taught us to look more closely at ourselves when it comes to scarcity and abundance, and, with just a few more adjustments, we can turn this upside down holiday season into a time of healing, hope and happiness, for people and planet alike.