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8 Unique Ideas for the Best Socially-Distanced (and Sustainable) Holiday Ever

There are many reputable sources urging us the break tradition for the sake of the world’s health and rethink Thanksgiving this year (ref 1, 2, 3). This is HARD to do. During these times of “social distancing” what I want more than anything is a huge social gathering around a table of delicious food with the people I most love! That’s just not a good idea this year. But – Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be a sad day of gloom. We are intelligent species (most of the time), and so let’s get creative. To help us all look forward to this year’s shift in traditions for Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, here’s a few ideas I’m thinking about – feel free to add your own!

1. Be Thankful - First and foremost, remember what this holiday is actually about …. Being Thankful. Thanksgiving is both my Mom’s and my FAVORITE holiday because it has remained focused on the things we love the most … family, friends and food! And – I love that it’s one that we can ALL share, regardless of religious affiliation. I don’t think that anyone can disagree that taking a day to pause and be thankful is a good idea, regardless of the times. Cutting through the chaos of the news feeds and stress of the pandemic to take a moment to simply be thankful for friends, family and food on our table is important and grounding.

2. Cross-generational virtual cooking lesson – Think of that one traditional family dish that you are most craving (and sad to be missing, perhaps) this year. We’re all feeling that pain. Do you know how to make it? If not, this year may be the perfect opportunity to reach out to that family member who always brings it and plan a virtual cooking lesson. They can send you the ingredients and supply list ahead of time and you can “cook” together. I’ve done these virtual cooking classes via zoom and they are actually very fun. There’s always laughter – often some cooking “flub” but a great way to connect. Bonus points – now you can enjoy that dish at your own, smaller Thanksgiving table AND – in future years, you’ll now know how to make it! This is a stellar way to connect millennials and generation-Z’s to their grandparents, aunts and uncles this year.

3. Virtual Dinners with Breakout Rooms. Now – how do we connect to those whom we most enjoy being with THIS year? Be thankful that this pandemic is happening now, when we have the technology to connect by voice and face virtually to those we love, regardless of where we are. Kudos to Zoom for lifting their time restrictions for unpaid users for Thanksgiving Day so that families can hang out virtually for as long as they would like. AND, this allows us to include EVERYONE at our table – even those who may not have been able to join us even if there weren’t a pandemic! For very large groups, have fun with it and think about implementing “Breakout Rooms”. These are kind of like “the kids table”. Let the young ones hang out in their own space for a bit, or put all the college-age relatives together. You know your family best and so likely can dream up how to best break up these gatherings into smaller conversations that will be fun … siblings? cousins? moms? dads? These smaller conversations spaces can allow the quieter members of the family to have a chance to actually talk (which is difficult even in our family’s in-person Italian gatherings!).

4. Care packages! It’s not too late to ship some love to those who won’t be physically joining you at the table. One of my favorite care-package items is granola, which ships so well – toss in a bit of pumpkin pie spice before baking and throw in some craisins and pumpkin seed to fit the Thanksgiving theme. I just stuck a package in the mail to my daughter who won’t be able to join us this year. I didn’t have the time to lovingly bake pumpkin muffins as I would have liked to do and so I just swung by our local bakery (thanks, Stick Boy!) with shipping box in hand mailed her a loaf of cranberry/pumpkin seed bread. I also added some goofy (non-sustainable) add-ins like canned chicken, an envelope of turkey gravy mix and instant mased potatoes with chives. Yea, yea, I know this is all completely against the “whole food” message I typically encourage on this site, but remember… shifting to more sustainable food habits is not about perfection – sometimes the Thanksgiving care package just needs …. well …. a bit of packaging .

5. Try new, “Earth-friendlier” Thanksgiving food options! This year’s smaller guest lists ease the cooking stress and allow us to think “out of the box” about what we’re going to cook this year. This New York Times article points out that “Cooking the same dishes for Thanksgiving each year … leads to mass production of ingredients like turkey and cranberries, which puts undue stress on food systems.” Maybe this year will be the beginning of a new “traditional” Thanksgiving side dish which is kinder to the environment. This Mother Earth News Article has lots of good ideas!

6. Skip the cans, reduce the packaging …. Contrary to point # 4 above :), I do try to minimize packaging and purchase whole, unprocessed food. If you’re planning pumpkin pie (and who isn’t?), try starting from a small, fresh pie pumpkin rather than the canned alternative. If you have an Instant Pot, turning that unpackaged, fresh pumpkin into puree is crazy easy! Maybe that decorative pumpkin you’ve enjoyed all season can be transformed into your pie. This is also true for green beans, mashed potatoes, yams, ….

7. Buy local! This year’s smaller grocery list makes it easier to buy more of those items locally. There are tons of benefits to supporting your local food system… Support your local farmers (many who have lost their steady restaurant sales this year), minimize packaging, slash transportation energy, encourage biodiversity, eliminate all the concerns that “big ag” bring to our table. Farmers Markets will be overflowing with options this weekend OR check out other local purchasing options such as Food Hubs. This site helps you find these local buying options in your area.

8. Connect by Virtual Gratefulness …. Our family meal traditions sometimes include taking turns to each briefly say something they’re thankful for. You can do this during your virtual zoom meeting this year OR consider making a sharable Google doc for your family to contribute their thankful thoughts. This is better for some as no one is put “on the spot” and can allow everyone to read over this list whenever they need a “lift” – even after Thanksgiving! This can also take the form of a collaboratively written pre-meal blessing, if that’s a tradition around your table. Someone start the blessing (again via Google docs or similar) and let others contribute. This can be read at each family’s smaller gatherings, uniting you on a sweet, meaningful level. I’ll bet this will result in the best blessing script you’ve ever had – maybe even one you’ll use for years to come, when we are actually gathered together again.

I hope these ideas can help you connect to those you love while at the same time keeping this pandemic under control for the sake of others. It’s not too late to shift your plans how – those plans were likely made weeks ago and COVID infection rates are much worse today than they were then.

While we’re in the middle of this virus, it’s sometimes hard to have the long-range perspective that is necessary. This is a holiday season that will be discussed for years to come. In 30 years, I imagine 2ndgraders will be assigned a homework project to interview a family member who was around during the COVID-19 Thanksgiving to understand how they celebrated. Similar to how our kids were asked to interview family members about the great depression or other world-altering times. What story will you share?

This is a call for us all to be creative for the safety of those people who should be around our table, and of whom we are most thankful!

Photo Credits:

Pumpkin pie: Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Farmers Market Pumpkins: Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

Other Cartoon Images:


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