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Green Thanksgiving Food Ideas on a Budget – Types of Turkeys

By Emily Guy Birken

green thanksgivingI remember learning about factory-farmed turkeys for the first time several years ago. I was just out of college and living on a very tight budget. It was eye-opening to discover how farms raise and treat the typical Broad-breasted White turkey – the bird that is on nearly 99% of Thanksgiving plates each November.

Birds in factory farms have their upper beaks snipped off shortly after hatching so they can be more easily force-fed an antibiotic-laced corn diet instead of hunting and pecking for the seeds, grasses, insects, nuts, and fruits that constitute their natural diet. In addition, these turkeys are kept awake as much as possible through the use of 24-hour lighting, so as to disrupt their natural sleeping, roosting, and mating rhythms. This is done to ensure that they eat almost nonstop and fatten up.

In addition to the inhumane treatment of the birds, conventional turkey farms are environmentally damaging. Factory farmed animals produce millions of tons of waste each year which can (and has) polluted rivers and groundwater. And since these animals ingest a steady diet of antibiotics, they are implicated in the growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics.

The way the typical Thanksgiving turkey is brought to our table is neither sustainable nor ethical, and it became clear to me that I did not want to support this process.

turkey farmThat same year, however, I priced a couple of organic turkeys and quickly learned that eating a sustainable Thanksgiving dinner menu was far beyond my budget. While a frozen conventional turkey from my local supermarket cost $0.99 per pound, an organic turkey would have set me back as much as $4.99 per pound. Since I simply couldn’t afford to eat according to my beliefs (and I knew I couldn’t bear Thanksgiving without a turkey), I decided to “forget” what I knew about factory-farmed turkeys that year.

But when it comes to something you care about, you can only hide your head in the sand for so long. Yes, it costs more to buy a humanely raised and environmentally friendly turkey, but it’s not impossible to budget for this expense. There are ways to save money on Thanksgiving dinner – you can make your Thanksgiving green without breaking your bank account. But first, you need to know your options when selecting a turkey you can feel good about.

“Green” Turkey Varieties

When it comes to “green” turkeys, there are three options available: heritage, organic, and sustainable. All three are an improvement over the factory-farmed gobbler. However, each type differs somewhat, particularly when it comes to cost.

Heritage Turkeys

Of the three options, heritage turkeys will be the most expensive birds available. These species are older varieties, such as Narragansett and Bourbon Red, and used to be regularly raised by farmers until about 50 years ago when factory farming became commonplace. They are raised outdoors to roam freely and eat a natural diet, and they are also genetically diverse, which allows them to be raised without antibiotics. For these reasons, heritage turkeys are considered the tastiest birds you can buy.

But unfortunately, heritage turkeys are not cheap. While investigating my options, I found one source that listed them at $6.58 per pound for a minimum eight-pound turkey. Since farmers tend to take pre-orders for these birds and they are quite popular, do not wait to order one. The greenest option is to find a heritage turkey farmer in your area. That way, you will reduce the amount of energy required to bring it to your table. However, if you don’t have a farm nearby, many heritage farmers sell their birds on the Internet at sites like Heritage Foods USA and Local Harvest.

Organic Turkeys

Organic turkeys are more likely to be from the Broad-breasted White family, which distinguishes them from heritage turkeys. But they are farmed according to USDA organic food standards, which means they are raised without antibiotics or growth enhancers and are given organic feed. They are also offered “year-round access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight,” according to the USDA code.

The least expensive organic turkeys I found are $3.49 per pound, and they are usually available at most local organic grocery stores, and sometimes even at the large supermarket down the street.

Sustainable Turkeys

Sustainable turkeys are raised by farmers who claim to follow guidelines similar to, and sometimes stricter than, the USDA’s definition of organic. But they are not certified organic. I was surprised to discover that the USDA’s certification process for organic farming can be an onerous one, especially for small farmers. A substantial fee and a great deal of paperwork are required to receive and maintain this certification. The result is that many independent and family farms don’t become certified organic in spite of growing their crops and raising livestock according to those standards.

This label typically describes a farmer who treats livestock humanely, preserves the land, treats workers fairly, and supports the local community. But because legal guidelines in this area are nonexistent, it’s important to communicate with any farmer calling himself sustainable to determine if he really is.

Ask the following questions:

  • What are your birds fed?
  • How are they raised – on pasture, indoors, or in cages?
  • How much time do your birds spend outside every day?
  • Are your birds given antibiotics?

Prices on sustainable turkeys can vary widely, depending on your area and the farmer’s practices. To find a local sustainable turkey farmer, check out the search engine on Eat Well Guide. Simply enter your zip code and what you are looking for. The site will provide you with farms, restaurants, stores, and markets within 200 miles.

As with heritage turkeys, do yourself and the earth a favor by getting your turkey from a local source. That way, you’ll save the cost to ship and decrease your carbon footprint at the same time.

bourbon red turkey

What About “Free Range”?

The terms “heritage,” “organic,” and “sustainable” all might describe something similar to your mental picture of the term “free range.” But it’s important to recognize how misleading “free range” really is – it does not mean the same thing as organic or sustainable.

Legally, birds labeled “free range” are only required to have access to the outside; the law does not specify a duration of time or describe the type of outdoor access required. Because regulations are loose, a bird that was allowed only a few minutes outside in a shadeless dirt lot could be labeled “free range.” Moreover, free range animals are not governed by the same strict requirements that keep organic birds antibiotic-free.

So when you shop for an eco-friendly turkey at the store, make certain you choose “organic” over “free-range.” Otherwise, buy a heritage turkey or a sustainable turkey from a farmer you trust.

How to Afford a “Green” Turkey

Even the cheapest “green” turkey can set you back more than the conventional variety. But you can still have your sustainably raised turkey and eat it too. Here are eight ways to save money and help the environment:

1. Buy a Smaller Turkey
I blame the famous Norman Rockwell painting for this; we often seem to think it’s not Thanksgiving unless we have a turkey large enough to feed a battalion. So this year, just get a smaller, sustainably raised bird. It will be easier to cook, tastier, and you won’t have to contend with leftover fatigue. If you’re used to buying an oversized bird, a small sustainable one might not be much more expensive.

2. Host a Potluck
If you’re used to doing all the grocery shopping and cooking, spread out the work and expense by hosting a potluck dinner. Volunteer to be the turkey chef and you can buy whatever bird you want. Plus, you’ll have more money to do it with since you won’t be providing any other dishes.

3. Ask for Help
Everyone in the family will benefit from a tastier, ethically raised, and healthier turkey. Why not explain to your guests that you want to do something special, but your budget is strained? If everyone chips in a few dollars toward the turkey, you can still host Thanksgiving without spending any more than you normally would.

4. Pare Down Dinner to a Few Essential Dishes
This may be a blasphemous suggestion, but why can’t Thanksgiving be a small meal with a turkey as the centerpiece? Reduce your sides to two or three of your favorites and make a sumptuous “green” turkey. Then, you can also give thanks for not busting out of your pants at the end of the meal.

5. Cut Other Costs
This is about prioritizing. If it’s important to you to make sustainable and ethical choices, find other areas to cut back on so you can better afford a “green” turkey. You might sacrifice the extra-special champagne for New Year’s Eve, or you could give up the annual tradition of eating out the night before Thanksgiving. If you have the will, you’ll find a way. Plus, it’s just a good idea to regularly check in with your priorities and make sure you’re living accordingly – especially during the holidays when massive consumerism is rampant.

6. Have a Garage Sale
Have a garage sale to better afford a “green” turkey and simultaneously clear out unwanted items. Along this same theme, if you only have one or two big-ticket items to sell, list them on Craigslist or eBay. Chances are, the money you make will be more than enough to offset the difference between a conventional and eco-friendly turkey.

7. Go Meat-Free for the Rest of November
Buying meat is likely one of the biggest expenses at the grocery store. Save the money you’d usually spend on your weekly meat meals and put it toward the most important meal of the month instead.

8. Don’t Eat Out in the Month of November
The difference between a few meals eaten out and eating healthy at home quickly adds up to more than enough money to afford a sustainable turkey. Also, by avoiding restaurant meals, which are often packed with calories and fat, you can feel better about indulging freely over the holidays.

thanksgiving dinner

Other Ways to Green Your Thanksgiving

If you still can’t afford a heritage, organic, or sustainable turkey – or, if you just want to green your meal further – you have options. First off, if you do buy a conventional turkey, don’t purchase more than you need. Use up all the bird by making leftover sandwiches, turkey potpie, turkey hash, and soup. This will ensure that your Thanksgiving is as sustainable as possible given your budget. And until you’re able to afford a “green” turkey, you can feel good about your choices.

Here are 10 more options to have an eco-friendly Thanksgiving:

1. Buy Local or Organic Vegetables
Organic vegetables put less of a burden on the environment and your body because they are grown without harmful chemicals or pesticides. Buying them locally also reduces the fossil fuels required to transport them long distances. Local produce is fresher and often more tasty because it is allowed to ripen on the vine unlike most produce shipped to your grocery store.

Plus, if you sign up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which delivers fresh, local produce to your door, you can usually save money as well. This is a great way to make your Thanksgiving sustainable and support local and organic farmers at the same time.

2. Buy Organic Dairy Products
Most dairy products on store shelves come from cows that are painfully over-milked and relegated to dirt lots that lack the fresh grass their ancestors grazed on. These cows are often sickly and treated with hormones and antibiotics that are not healthy for humans to consume. Organic cows, however, are pasture-raised and eat the food nature intended them to. Plus they have a lifespan much nearer their natural 20 years, unlike conventional dairy cows who are typically slaughtered before their fifth year.

Buying organic dairy will cost a few dollars more, but you can feel good about supporting the kind of farmers and farming that your grandparents grew up with. Plus, you’ll be serving products more similar to those that graced their table back in the day.

3. Go Vegetarian
Other than the turkey, nearly all the traditional Thanksgiving foods can easily be made vegetarian. By focusing your food budget on available local and organic vegetables, you will be capturing the spirit of the original Thanksgiving. Plus, you’ll make a tastier spread than you would using chemical-filled, pre-packaged goods. Even the most diehard meat-eater can usually find something to like in a well-cooked vegetarian meal.

4. Bake From Scratch
Baking from scratch saves money and is healthier for your family. The ingredients necessary to bake a loaf of bread, pies, cookies, or other baked goods cost a fraction of what you’d pay for the same things pre-made. In addition, home-baked goods only have what you put in them, so you do not need to worry about chemicals, high-fructose corn syrup, or other additives. And by controlling the ingredients in your baked goods, you can be sure to choose environmentally friendly sources.

5. Compost Your Scraps
Even the most waste-averse cook creates scraps that will not get eaten. That’s why it’s important to compost your kitchen waste. It takes thousands of years for the earth to build good soil, but composted kitchen waste can reestablish the needed balance of beneficial organisms in soil within 5 to 10 years. Composting also ensures that you do not add unnecessary waste to landfills.

If you’ve never kept a compost bin, start this Thanksgiving by giving your kitchen waste back to the Earth. You can also learn about the benefits of vermicomposting as an option.

6. Let Your Table Be Mismatched
Thanksgiving may be the one night of the year you set the table with your finest dishes and silverware. Or it might be the one night of the year you want to serve everyone on disposable plates. But think twice before you spend good money on new dishes, glasses, disposable plates, or centerpieces.

Yes, it may feel odd to see your guests drinking from your son’s Smurf plasticware or eating off of plates with chips in them, but are you doing your wallet or the planet any favors by having everything match? Food and family are the most important things on Thanksgiving – not having a perfectly set table.

7. Grow a Garden
This requires advanced planning, but if you grow your own veggies, such as winter squash, potatoes, lettuces, dark greens, and herbs, you can seriously green your table and save money at the same time – especially if you typically buy organic from the store.

Learn what you can store from your home vegetable garden and what will be in season in your area during late November and plant accordingly. Unless you have a particularly green thumb or prior experience gardening, choose hardy, easy-to-grow vegetables like swiss chard, kale, and winter squash.

8. Offer “Green” Drinks
There’s no need for everyone to have an individual canned or bottled beverage. Instead, make your own sangria so you can avoid packaged drinks. Also, you could buy locally brewed or organic beer, or wine made with organic grapes. If you need a nonalcoholic beverage, offer pitchers of lemon or cucumber water, or iced tea or lemonade.

9. Bake Multiple Things at Once
No need to have your oven going all day long. Stash your pumpkin pie in with the turkey. When it’s done, the rolls can go in next. Save energy and time by making sure the oven is at least doing double-duty throughout the day.

10. Stay Close to Home
The single greenest action you can take on Thanksgiving is to just say “no” to traveling. This four-day weekend is one of the busiest travel times of the year, with millions of Americans taking to the road and the sky.

Stay home and instantly decrease your carbon footprint. If you have to travel, consider taking a bus or a train rather than driving or flying, as those have the worst environmental impact. Track your carbon footprint this Thanksgiving to know how much of an impact your travel choices make.

save room for pumpkin pie

Final Word

There are a variety of reasons to green your Thanksgiving, including conserving our planet’s resources, protecting your health, living ethically, supporting small farmers, eating tastier food, showing your children a good example, and having a traditional Thanksgiving with foods more like those your grandparents served.

But whatever your reason, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to do it. Give thanks this holiday by making choices that sustain your little corner of the world. And if you can, resolve to continue making sustainable choices for the Christmas holiday and into the new year.

What are your suggestions for having a “green” holiday? Have you tried serving a heritage, organic, or sustainable turkey?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Emily Guy Birken
Emily Guy Birken is a writer, recovering English teacher, and stay-at-home-mom. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana, with her mechanical engineer husband and toddler son. Her musings on life and parenting can be found at The SAHMnambulist.

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  • Ragidandy

    This is a confusion of the term “green.” Green usually refers to minimal energy use, minimal pollution/waste, and maximum sustainability. Unfortunately, with the significant exception of antibiotic use, factory farmed turkeys (or almost any other food) is far more green than any other method short of hunting wild animals or growing the food at home.
    Factory farms use far less energy and produce less waste (per turkey) than any other method, and currently are the only method we have capable of feeding people on a global scale.

    For now, I’m afraid, meat eaters have to choose between minimal environmental/energy cost and the humane treatment of food animals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000222932720 Emily Guy Birken

    @Ragidandy, thanks for the clarification. I am wondering about a couple of aspects of factory farming in terms of sustainability. What about the energy necessary to bring a factory farmed turkey to our tables? And the sustainability of the land and animal species? When I wrote the article, I did my research based on the assumption that organic, Heritage and so-called sustainable turkeys were better for the environment–although the humane treatment of the birds is enough for me to go the non-factory farmed route. But what about the impact of the farming of corn necessary for feeding these birds? I think it would be interesting to do a cost-benefit analysis of energy consumption of all four types of gobblers.

    Thanks for writing in!

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