The holiday season is upon us, and no matter where you live or what you celebrate, you’re likely to be invited to a party or host one yourself. What you choose to serve or eat has an impact on the planet, but there are easy ways to enjoy favorite seasonal foods while being sustainable.

In this Q&A, WRI food expert Brian Lipinski gives his tips for how to have a more sustainable holiday season.

Jillian Holzer (JH): Brian, let’s start with why food is a big environmental issue?

Brian Lipinski (BL): Food is a massive environmental issue. Every time you eat a meal, there’s a huge amount of natural resources that were consumed to get that food to your plate—for example, around a third of the world’s land is used for agriculture, and about 70 percent of the freshwater withdrawn from rivers and lakes is for agricultural use. There’s no way to eliminate that impact entirely, but given that the average U.S. diet is nearly twice as land- and greenhouse-gas intensive as the average world diet, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Brian Lipinski is an associate in WRI's Food Program.
Brian Lipinski is an associate in WRI's Food Program.

JH: Why is the holiday season an especially good time to think about food’s planetary impact?

BL: Because celebrations and food go hand in hand – and that’s true for a lot of places around the world. Just about every major holiday involves a large meal at the center.

But since the holidays are so focused on food, we tend to amplify some of the environmentally costly mistakes we make in our everyday diet. Primarily, those are eating too much meat (especially beef and lamb) and wasting too much. In fact, 83 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the average American’s diet are generated by animal products, and beef and lamb are the largest contributors to that.

When it comes to waste, about 40 percent of the food in the United States never gets eaten. And we don’t let up on the holidays. When you add it all up, Americans wasted about 6 million turkeys during Thanksgiving last year, and that doesn’t even include all the other leftovers that didn’t get used. But because food is so central during the holidays, that also makes it a good time to start thinking about what we can do differently.

JH: What have you done to be a more sustainable eater?

BL: I’ve tried to work a number of small changes into my everyday life to make vegetables and legumes a bigger share of my diet and cut my waste. The first is to cut way down on the amount of red meat I eat. My personal rule of thumb is to only have beef or lamb once a month, and I’ve noticed since doing this that the times when I do eat red meat, I enjoy it a lot more! I also try to seek out satisfying vegetarian options that are just as delicious as a carnivorous alternative— dishes high in legumes and nuts often have just as much protein as a meat-centered option. Meat doesn’t need to be the default option for a meal.

When it comes to food waste, I’ve also made a number of small changes. The first is to make more frequent, shorter trips to the grocery store, to avoid stockpiling food that I forget about and end up having to throw out. Another is to save leftover pieces of food (both veggie and meat) to make my own stock that’s much more flavorful than what you can find in a store. I also try to more actively match my meals with my hunger level, especially when eating out. Huge portion sizes are a large contributor to food waste. These are small shifts that reduce my waste and save me money.

JH: How can people bring their families—who may be more focused on the big football game after the holiday dinner—into this issue?

BL: The tough thing about bringing up food as a topic at the holidays is that food means a lot to people. Suggesting a radical shift in how your family or friends celebrate the holidays probably won’t be very well-received. But bringing a number of tasty vegetarian options to the table without necessarily highlighting the lack of meat can reduce everyone’s environmental impact without depriving anyone of their turkey, and you might just start a new tradition.

When it comes to food waste, the main problem at the holidays is that we prepare too much. So try to plan for the amount of guests you’ll have, and send them home with leftovers so that you’re not trying to eat your way through everything alone.

JH: It’s almost a given that at the holidays, leftovers are going to happen. What should people do with them?

BL: The old saying “reduce, reuse, recycle” still applies. First, you want to avoid having extra food by reducing the amount you prepare. But of course, at the holidays we always have leftover food. So at that point, it’s time to get creative. Add fresh ingredients or spices to your leftovers to avoid falling into a rut. For example, toss your leftover veggies and mashed potatoes into a breakfast quiche, or make a turkey hash with an egg on top. if you’ve got leftover canned goods or other non-perishable items, consider donating them to a local food bank.

Finally, if you really have to dispose of food, composting is your best option, followed by the garbage disposal. The garbage can should be your last choice, since once food waste is in a landfill, it generates methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.