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Celebrating the Holidays Sensibly

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Among the long list of my mother's famous and infamous concoctions, the Christmas dinners of my childhood featured a majestically displayed rack of lamb (complete with chop frills) as the main course. As a child I loved this meal, served in our rarely used dining room with a fire in the fireplace, candles, and antique china that I proudly set on the table. As I got older the meals seemed to become increasingly grand and my feelings of excitement turned stale: elaborate preparations, overeating, and excess just weren't fun anymore.

Two important reports released last week on the ecological impact of our contemporary food choices got me thinking again about those chop frills and overfull stomachs. And they made me reaffirm a decision I made 20-something years ago to leave the lamb -- and meat altogether -- off my holiday table.

The first report by Food and Water Watch details how industrial animal agriculture has continued to tighten its stranglehold on America, replacing more sustainable and humane farms with massive factory farms that endanger public health. The average size of U.S. hog factory farms, for example, increased by 42 percent between 1997 and 2007, and the number of cows on factory farm dairies nearly doubled over the same period. Farm Forward, an organization that opposes factory farming and works with traditional farmers to create alternatives to it, has determined that 99 percent of all animals raised in the U.S. now live their lives on factory farms.

The result? According to a second report by Environment America, "pollution from agribusiness is responsible for some of America's most intractable water quality problems -- including the 'dead zones' in the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie, and the pollution of countless streams and lakes." Factory farms are also major contributors to the increasing risk of forborne illness in the U.S. (poultry has been and remains the number one culprit), they fuel the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and causes unthinkable suffering for animals.

Most of us eat to excess, especially during the holidays. Today I'm all about simplicity -- less food, less stress, less waste -- all year round. When I removed meat from my holiday table back in the 1980s, I also removed it from my daily diet. No single dietary change I've made has had a more positive impact on my health. This Christmas I'm preparing homemade pasta with truffles or risotto with mushrooms and lots and lots of salads.

It's never too late to make sensible changes to our holiday traditions and when we change the holiday table, it can have a surprising ripple effect. My new holiday traditions are healthier, less wasteful, and less expensive. They contribute to my well being and are better for the planet. Isn't that what the holidays are all about?

Some of my favorite resources, with links to recipes:

Whole Living Magazine
Martha Rose Shulman
Saveur
Bon Appetit
And of course,
Martha Stewart