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How to make your Christmas dinner sustainable

You don't have to give up anything (or everything) to make climate-conscious food choices.

christmas dinner

(Credit: picjumbo.com/Pexels)

There’s a lot to love about Christmas, like exchanging presents, decorating the tree, and watching the EastEnders special. But, the one thing that almost all of us look forward to most is the Christmas dinner, with all the trimmings. 

Eating a delicious roast turkey (or a nut roast), with gravy, stuffing, roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips, Brussel sprouts, and pigs-in-blankets is undoubtedly a highlight of the festive season, but it can also have a significant impact on your environmental footprint.

Approximately 10 million turkeys are eaten in the UK every year for Christmas, with the majority of them reared and sold in the British Isles as well. This reduces the environmental footprint as the distance they need to travel is much less than if the turkeys came from Europe or further afield. 

But all forms of rearing meat are widely considered to be a major contributor to carbon emissions. According to the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organisation based in the US, the equivalent of 10.9 kg of carbon emissions is produced per kilogram of turkey across it’s life, meaning an average Christmas turkey of 6kg has a carbon footprint the equivalent of 65.4 kg of emissions, the same as driving 162 miles.

Then there are the vegetables and other additions, like cranberry sauce, which can be flown in from across the world – not to mention the packaging that many of these items will come in.

Luckily, it is possible to have a more sustainable Christmas dinner than in years past, it just might take a little bit of extra effort. But it may be worth it in the long run for the climate and to ensure Christmas dinners won’t become a thing of the past.

Here’s how to make your Christmas dinner sustainable.

Plan ahead

Planning ahead is one of the best ways of keeping your Christmas dinner sustainable. If you’re someone who likes a spreadsheet, make sure you have listed every ingredient you need and take a few days in advance to look for local suppliers and businesses.

Additionally, if you can get everything delivered in one go, you will significantly reduce any travel-related carbon emissions this year. You can also arrange to share a car with a friend or neighbour, use public transport, or walk to your local supermarket and shops instead.

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Go meatless 

The absolute best way of reducing your carbon footprint is by leaving meat off your plates completely, and there are many vegan alternatives available. But, many people will feel like it’s not Christmas without a turkey and some pigs-in-blankets.

There are other options though, if the thought of missing out on turkey makes you want to cry, such as buying a smaller turkey than you would have in the past, reducing the carbon emissions it would have taken to rear the bird and also ensuring less food waste this Christmas.

Buying organic, free-range, and sustainable meat where possible will also minimise your carbon footprint – but be sure to check that what you’re buying is as green as it claims to be!

Meat is a major contributor to carbon emissions. (Credit: Alison Marras/Unsplash)

Buy local and buy loose

Although the farming of vegetables has a much lower carbon footprint than animal farming, it’s important to be mindful of what you’re buying and where it comes from. 

Choosing veggies grown in the UK, especially if it’s from a farm shop near to you, will mean fewer food miles and artificial ripening methods.

Parsnips, sprouts, potatoes and strawed carrots are all in season in the winter months, meaning you are likely to find a local place to buy these items. 

Buying your veg locally will reduce your footprint. (Credit: Jonathan Pielmayer/Unsplash)

If there are no farms or farm shops near you, make sure you check where the vegetables are produced in your local Tesco or Aldi so you can choose those grown here rather than imported from abroad. Many farmer’s markets and supermarkets now sell loose vegtables rather than packing them together using plastic, which is beneficial as it means you can buy only what you need (ie. three carrots instead of six) and they can be put in a reusable bag. 

Local butcher shops and farms will usually sell turkeys in a cardboard box, which is recyclable, rather than wrapping them up in plastic like you’d see in Tesco. 

If there is a sustainable refill shop in your area, you can also bring containers and bags to get flour, sugar, salt, grains, and whatever else you might need for Christmas.

But, if you cannot avoid packaging whatsoever, try to buy products in cardboard or glass packaging as they can then be recycled when you’re finished – plastic can’t sadly.

Check the recycling symbols

Everyday items like aluminium foil, baking parchment, roasting bags, and paper cases can be recycled, if they have the right symbols on their box. When you’re buying some, double check to ensure that you’re being more sustainable.

Additionally, you can invest in reusable tin liners and wax wraps so you’re not wasting metres of foil and cling film this year.

How can we reduce food waste at Christmas?

At least 66 per cent of Britons admit to buying too much Christmas food and putting it in the bin every year, with around seven million tonnes of it going to waste – which is equivalent to two million turkeys, five million Christmas puddings, and 74 million mince pies. 

Not only are we living through a cost of living crisis where approximately 4.2 million people are living in food poverty, but the majority of food waste goes to a landfill and rots, producing greenhouse gases and causing further harm to the environment.

It is a waste of money to throw so much food away and it puts a strain on the planet’s resources. 

This is why you should plan ahead and make sure everyone in attendance at Christmas has a stomach as big as their eyes, only serve things you know will get eaten, and buy no more fresh food than is necessary.

Buying frozen, tinned, or long-life foods that can be stored is a great way of reducing the amount of food you waste each year.

What can I do with excess food at Christmas?

The best way of not having excess food is by making sure you buy only what you need. But, even then, there may be some food left over afterwards and there’s no reason to throw it out.

One great way of reducing your food waste is by turning vegetable peelings and turkey bones into stock or broth that can then be frozen or kept in the fridge for lunches and dinners.

You can also take whatever is leftover from Christmas dinner and store it to make innovative dinners like soup, pizza, sandwiches, or bubble and squeak – use your imagination!

However, if your imagination is failing you, there are plenty of recipe sites that can help with some Christmas leftover ideas.

Are sustainable dinners possible year-round?

Overall, Christmas dinners are not the only time you and your family can reduce your carbon footprint. 

Buying locally and keeping sustainability in mind when cooking can be done all year round as long as you make the conscious effort to do so. 

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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