Visions of Sugarplums: Sweet Excess During the Holidays

by Kim   |   December 8, 2008

Over Thanksgiving, I read An Abundance of Food, Wasted, a New York Times editorial by Jonathan Bloom, who is a journalist and a blogger on the excellent Wasted Food blog.  His remarks about the amount of food wasted in America, more than 100 billion pounds a year, were not only timely because of the holidays. When you convert the pounds to dollars, Bloom estimates that "In these lean times, the savings gleaned from reducing food waste could help pay for another stimulus package." 

Put in those terms, our country can't afford to keep wasting food, nor can it handle the waste and methane generated by all that organic matter.

Since restaurants waste a lot of food (Bloom quotes anthropologist Timothy Jones as estimating it to be 6,000 tons a year) one of the solutions is "food rescue" or redirecting still-useful food to places like soup kitchens. Coming from New York City, I have seen their City Harvest in action, and I can say that it is amazingly efficient. A friend who helped run one of the meal programs receiving their food told me that City Harvest had food pickups so well-timed that even dishes with a very short shelf-life, like leftover sushi, were whisked from the restaurant to the soup kitchen in time to be safely enjoyed by their patrons.

As far as household waste and the holidays go, Bloom praises Thanksgiving as one of the few holidays that make people look forward to leftovers. Besides reducing waste by planning ahead and buying only what you think you'll need, he also recommends that the host "serve reasonable portions, knowing family or guests can always take seconds." I happened to notice that several commenters on the article mention leaving food on the plate as a form of waste. That's where the whole discussion of food waste becomes more complicated to me.

The holidays wouldn't be holidays without people gathering for festive meals together. In fact, this season  may be the only time we break bread with certain acquaintances. How do you say no to offers of food prepared and shared with the spirit of the season? Indulging in delicacies may lead the average person to put on a little extra weight at this time, but what about people with food allergies, diabetes, or any kind of strict diet? For those of us who need to be careful about food for any reason, the holidays can be an obstacle course if not a stumbling-block.

"The holidays are here, and with their arrival comes a virtual onslaught of sugary-, high-calorie temptation," writes Debra Manzella, RN to diabetics. Among her tips for surviving the holidays with one's glucose level in check is an honest depiction of the role guilt and affection have to play in holiday eating. 

On the one hand,  Cecilia Sauter, MS, RD, CDE, and director of the University of Michigan Health System Diabetes Education Program includes in her tips to celebrating diabetics the reminder to let someone at any gathering know about their condition. Yet simply knowing that someone has a dietary restriction doesn't always make for healthy expectations on the part of the host or healthy behaviors in the patient.  

Manzella recommends distracting the overzealous host from their repeated offer of sweets, or taking one, walking away, and handing the treat to someone else—showing that sometimes diversion and subterfuge are required in the face of a little too much holiday spirit.

To me, the argument that one should clean the plate to avoid waste is problematic because often, too much food gets on the plate to begin with. From there whether it's better to be a good guest and finish everything at the risk of your health, or leave some food on your plate, destined for the landfill, is anyone's guess. Our culture of excess that wastes all those tons of food every year is the same culture that promotes an unhealthy relationship to food, one in which guilt and pressure too often get mixed in the recipe.

Simplifying Your Holidays is about focusing on what really matters, which means food should never come before people. You don't need an excess of food or fancy ingredients to have a good time. And dieters (as well as teetotalers) needn't feel excluded from that good time. So when we're sharing our holiday treats or a cup of cheer, let's all pledge to share gently and not take any refusals personally. We'll waste less food and maybe save someone's diet in the process.