How to Eat Real this Thanksgiving

Below is an article I wrote for the November/December issue of the digital publication, Real Food and Health.

The best Thanksgiving turkey I ever had was the one I killed myself. Having long felt disconnected from both the source and process of real food, I slit the throat of a twenty- five pound free-range organic turkey at the Young Farmers Conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in the most humane manner possible. It was still one of the hardest things I've ever done, but having worked on food issues for several years, I wanted to learn what it took to slaughter poultry. That year, giving thanks took on a whole new meaning, as I contemplated the bird who sacrificed its life for my nourishment.

Thanksgiving inspires us be mindful and savor our food, and the seasonal nature of its traditional dishes present us with the opportunity to visit a local farmer and connect with the root of our nourishment. Why should you buy food that is locally grown? One of the reasons local food (grown by sustainable practices) is more nutritious is because it hasn’t traveled as far from farm to fork. Buying food from local farmers strengthens your local economy and supports those farmers working with nature, not against it. With this socially responsible action in mind, the following is my guide to a crowd-pleasing, sustainable Thanksgiving:

Before the meal (find real food):

Farmers' markets lend themselves to a more communal and open shopping experience. The atmosphere encourages dialog about growing practices and especially at Thanksgiving, it provides access to the bounty of real food. Seek out your local farmers' market by searching the USDA Farmers' Market Directory. A little extra time spent picking out fresh vegetables will pay off when your guests taste your delicious dishes. The proof will be in the pudding!

And it’s easy to find other local, sustainable food producers through the Eat Well Guide (full disclosure: the project I oversee in New York City), a free online directory of 25,000 listings of locally grown, sustainably produced food across the US and Canada. Use Eat Well Guide to find a local farm or store in your area. You'll be able to locate farmers who raise free-range or heritage turkeys. Heritage turkeys are pricey, but for good reason, as these farmers are committed to preserving disappearing breeds, a noble and necessary venture for biodiversity.

The meal (prepare real food):

Keep the meal simple and manageable. Fresh, real food speaks for itself and simple dishes allow seasonal delights like Butternut squash to shine. I would suggest splitting up the meal among your family and eager guests. The old adage about too many cooks in the kitchen doesn’t hold in my house –we always have many boisterous, helpful hands in the kitchen. Put one person in charge of roasting the turkey, and make sure they are mindful of vegetarians and cook the stuffing separately. You can split the side dishes among the remaining guests.

Ask a guest to prepare a seasonal dessert. Pumpkin pie is a good option as it’s easy to use the whole fruit so there’s hardly any waste. Starting from scratch with a fresh pumpkin is easier than it sounds and it allows you the freedom to add any spices you want – from nutmeg to cinnamon to allspice to grated ginger, the possibilities are endless! Simply roast the flesh of a fresh pumpkin and the seeds for a healthy snack, use what you need for the pie and freeze any extra. You can use the frozen pumpkin as a healthy substitute for butter or oil in baking.

After the meal (digest real food):

After dinner, I reach for fresh ginger tea to help me digest. A friend recently suggested I try fermented foods, such as sauerkraut. Those probiotic bacteria will help you digest all those delicious dishes. If you have time, you can ferment your own sauerkraut. Refer to Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, which lays out how simple the process truly is!

If your household is anything like mine, you're bound to have leftovers. Send your guests home with to-go containers or create new dishes with the leftovers. I prepare turkey salad for day-after sandwiches, and I spend the afternoon making stock with the turkey carcass. If you still have food scraps, check your local market’s website to see if they have a community compost drop-off.

Support your local farmer this Thanksgiving and share the joy of finding, preparing and connecting over real food with your loved ones.