How to Host a Sustainable Holiday Party
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and your calendar is probably filling up with holiday parties and festive gatherings. While a time for enjoying food and sharing gifts with loved ones, the holidays are also a disproportionately wasteful time; between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, it’s estimated that Americans produce 25% more waste than any other time of the year.
No matter what the occasion, here’s how to throw a holiday party that’s both festive and better for the planet.
Instead of buying plasticized snack and dessert trays from the grocery store on unrecyclable platters – or pre-made meals and main dishes from the frozen section – make as much party food as you’re able.
The processing, packaging, and transportation of food all use energy and contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. Consider a pre-made vegetable platter sold at a grocery store: the vegetables are prepared and assembled, the dish is packaged in plastic, transported by truck or plane, and then kept refrigerated until it’s sold. According to FoodPrint, about two billion pounds of food are wasted during the processing/manufacturing stage alone, usually in the form of edible portions of food being trimmed off and not reused for animal feed or otherwise repurposed. By making the same vegetable platter yourself, you create no extra waste from packaging, have the option to choose local and sustainable ingredients, and can use those ingredients as efficiently as possible. Prepping food at home also gives you liberty to utilize ingredients you might already have on hand, rather than shopping for entirely new things. Not to mention, ultra-processed foods are generally much less nutritious than fresh, homemade dishes.
Of course, you might not be able to make absolutely everything for a party – potato chips, crackers, and bread might not be up your alley – but think about what you can make. Instead of jarred salsa or packaged cookies, try your hand at making them yourself, or ask guests to contribute a homemade dish. Main dishes and appetizers are a good place to focus your energy.
Buying local ingredients not only cuts down on energy and waste, but also supports local economies. If you don’t have the time or capacity to make everything from scratch, look for local places that make main dishes or other sides, like nearby bakeries that bake fresh bread and desserts. If you’re preparing dishes yourself, buy the ingredients from local producers, whether that’s vegetables, fruits, grains, or dairy products. Because buying local might limit your options to what’s in season, make sure to plan your menu around what’s available (for example, you might not be able to get fresh, local tomatoes in the middle of the winter).
What about local drinks too? Head to a local brewery and ask if they can fill up a keg or growler for a large holiday party (or, buy their drinks in recyclable cans). Make your own wintery cocktails too by using fresh or dried herbs, seasonal fruits, and other liquid ingredients bought in bulk, or using whatever liquor you already have around.
A quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture – and in wealthy countries, the majority of this comes from livestock. Reducing our consumption of animal products would both reduce emissions and open up land currently used for grazing, which has the capability to sequester carbon and slow global warming.
For your holiday spread this year, choose dishes with no meat or dairy. Try some easy swaps: use vegetable stock instead of meat-based broths; instead of a ham or a turkey at the center of the table, try a Tofurkey or a Field Roast product (which are very flavorful!); try vegan butter products in mashed potatoes or other dishes, many of which melt just as well and have a similar taste. Or, use alternative products in place of meat to make your favorite traditional dishes. Try Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Quorn, or your favorite meatless alternatives, or lean into other ingredients to mimic the taste and texture of meat like tofu, jackfruit, eggplant, and chickpeas to make more creative dishes.
Remember that plant-based eating doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing – any reduction is helpful!
Think about the gifts you’ve given or received throughout your life. How many were only given out of a sense of obligation or without much thought? How many gifts have you received that you didn’t particularly want, or didn’t have a use for? It’s estimated that $9.5 billion is spent every year on unwanted gifts: a huge waste of money and resources. But, there are other ways to give gifts or show appreciation for someone; you can keep the sentiment while ditching the wastefulness of the practice.
Take a different approach to holiday gift-giving parties this year. Instead of buying a gift for everyone at the party, consider hosting a Secret Santa (or a non-Christmas version) where single gifts are purchased for everyone. Instead of objects, ask guests to give experiences or regifted/homemade items instead. Or, try a round of White Elephant: participants find
neutral items from a thrift store of their own home (dishware, frames, books, etc.) and swap them throughout the course of the game.
Consider gift wrapping too. Set up a wrapping station for guests to use when they arrive, supplied with sustainable wrapping supplies: reused wrapping paper, collected brown paper or boxes from mailed packages, newspaper, scrap paper from magazines or catalogs, or Furoshiki – traditional Japanese wrapping cloth. Invest in a set of Furoshiki fabrics for future use, or use small pieces of fabric you already have, including scarves or scraps from textile projects.
Go Green With Decorations
Instead of heading off to the party supply store for new decorations, spruce up your home with natural decor instead. Look in your backyard for pine cones, holly, or fallen pine boughs (or, get them from a Christmas tree shop that has leftover clippings), and use festive fruits like dried oranges and cranberries to make festive garlands for a Christmas tree, banister, or mantle. Set the mood with non-toxic candles that can be enjoyed all year round. If you can’t find just what you’re looking for in your box of ornaments, visit a local thrift store to look for “new” decorations.
Aim for Zero Waste
When cleaning up after a good holiday party, it’s likely that a lot of waste goes into the trash bin. To reduce single-use items sent to landfills, cook dishes in reusable glassware instead of aluminum trays (which can’t be recycled unless they’re completely clean of food and oil, which necessitates the same amount of clean-up as a glass tray anyway). Instead of setting out disposable plates and cutlery for guests, use reusable kitchenware instead. This inevitably will result in more clean-up for the hosts, so plan ahead to have most dishes done before guests arrive to prevent accumulation (and remember that a dishwasher uses less water than washing each dish by hand). If you don’t have enough dishes on hand to accommodate the crowd, ask a few guests if they can bring some extra plates and silverware too.
Think about drinks too. Plastic water bottles and other plastic-packaged drinks might be a simpler option, but they create huge amounts of waste. 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute worldwide, and, in the US in 2021, only 5% of plastic generated was recycled, so it’s safe to say that most of these bottles end up in landfills or polluting waterways. Instead, set out pitchers of water and reusable cups – even disposable plastic cups, most of which can be washed and reused at your next party. Use removable stickers so guests can label their cups without permanently marking them.