The Environmental Impact of an Average Christmas Dinner
Want to know the environmental impact of Christmas dinner? Here's the carbon footprint of the meal and how to make it more sustainable.
Like Thanksgiving, Christmas dinners are elaborate and filled with all your favorite homemade holiday recipes. From traditional roast beef to sweet pecan pie recipes, it's likely your family is going all out this holiday season!
Around 85% of Americans celebrate Christmas, making it one of the most popular holidays in the country. Celebrating Christmas means traveling to see your loved ones, decorating the tree, and giving thoughtful gifts to those around you. However, Christmas traditions often come with an increase in carbon emissions and overall waste—Christmas dinner, included.
To get a better understanding of the environmental impact of Christmas dinner, we calculated the average carbon footprint of traditional holiday dishes. We also have some simple ways to make your Christmas celebration more eco-friendly.
How Eco-Friendly Is Christmas Dinner?
Each Christmas dinner looks different. Some may opt for ham as the main course and others may prefer roast beef. Some families also choose roasted turkey, similar to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
For our research, we've chosen to calculate the average carbon footprint of roast beef, which is one of the most popular dishes in a traditional American Christmas dinner. According to a recent survey, about 66% of surveyed Americans prefer roast beef.
We also calculated the footprints of popular side dishes and one of America's most beloved holiday desserts. Similar to our research on the carbon footprint of Thanksgiving dinner, we multiplied the carbon emissions of each serving by 12 to account for the average holiday dinner size of 12 people at the table. We also factored in the carbon emissions associated with cooking time.
The Average Carbon Footprint of a Christmas Dinner
1. Roast Beef
Total Emissions: 163 pounds of CO2
While the Whos in Whoville carve a roast beast for Christmas, you and your family may be carving a roast beef this year. A roast beef (or roasted turkey or honey-glazed ham) might be traditionally associated with Christmas, but meat and animal-based products come with an increased carbon and water footprint.
Beef is one of the least eco-friendly meat options. One kilogram of beef emits about 59.6 pounds (27.0 kilograms) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent gases, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). To feed 12 people, you'll likely need about 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms) of beef, leaving no leftovers. Your roast beef can generate about 160.9 pounds (73.0 kilograms) of CO2.
Next, we have to factor in the cooking time for your roast beef. Most recipes recommend cooking the beef for 20 minutes per pound, so if your roast is six pounds, you'll likely leave it in the oven for roughly two hours. Each oven consumes energy differently, but if you're using an electric oven for two hours, you can generate about 1.8 pounds (0.8 kilograms) of CO2.
In total, roast beef that's fit to feed 12 guests is associated with approximately 162.7 pounds (73.8 kilograms) of CO2.
2. Roasted Potatoes
Total Emissions: 18 pounds of CO2
Roasted potatoes are one of the most popular Christmas dishes, with roughly 76% of surveyed Americans choosing it as their favorite dish. While mashed potatoes require butter and milk, roasted potatoes only require some vegetable oil, garlic or rosemary, salt, and pepper.
One kilogram of potatoes, which is a little over 2 pounds, emits about 6.4 pounds (2.9 kilograms) of CO2. Most recipes recommend half a pound of potatoes per person, so if you're feeding 12, you'll need about six pounds of potatoes. With that, your roasted potatoes come with 17.4 pounds (7.9 kilograms) of CO2.
Luckily, it only takes about 30 minutes to cook your potatoes in the oven. Running an electric oven for 30 minutes emits roughly 0.9 pounds (0.4 kilograms) of CO2.
If we add the potatoes' emissions to the oven's emissions, your Christmas roasted potatoes emit a total of 18.3 pounds (8.3 kilograms) of CO2.
3. Cranberry Sauce
Total Emissions: 2 pounds of CO2
Believe it or not, cranberry sauce isn't just a Thanksgiving favorite. It's a Christmas favorite, too! According to our research, cranberry sauce is the most popular dish in multiple states during the holiday season. And the good news is cranberries are relatively planet-friendly.
A single serving of cranberry sauce creates as little as 0.2 pounds (0.1 kilograms) of CO2. To feed 12, your cranberry sauce only emits approximately 2.4 pounds (1.1 kilograms) of CO2.
4. Green Beans
Total Emissions: 2 pounds of CO2
Your dinner spread most likely includes at least one green vegetable. Green beans, perhaps? Because green beans are a vegetable, they come with a lower carbon and water footprint than meat and dairy. One kilogram of green beans only produces about 0.9 pounds (0.4 kilograms) of CO2.
To make oven-roasted green beans that feed 12, you'll need about two pounds of green beans. Your green bean dish may only emit an estimate of 0.8 pounds (0.4 kilograms) of CO2.
Green beans only take eight minutes to cook, so running your electric oven for that time produces about 0.7 pounds (0.3 kilograms) of CO2. In total, your green bean side emits roughly 1.5 pounds (0.7 kilograms) of CO2.
Keep in mind that making a green bean casserole will increase the total carbon footprint because most recipes require milk, butter, and cream of mushroom soup, which all contain dairy. Opt for non-dairy ingredients to make the dish more eco-friendly.
5. Pecan Pie
Total Emissions: 13 pounds of CO2
According to our research on which holiday dishes are the most popular across the U.S., pecan pie is one of the top desserts.
A simple homemade pecan pie recipe calls for maple syrup (0.2 kilograms of CO2), 3 eggs (1.6 kilograms of CO2), butter (0.1 kilograms of CO2), pie crust, and of course, chopped pecans (0.7 kilograms of CO2). Some recipes also call for brown sugar and vanilla extract to make the pie sweeter.
You'll likely need two pies to feed 12 people, leaving a few slices leftover. The total carbon emissions of all the ingredients for a pecan pie, doubled, comes out to 11.5 pounds (5.2 kilograms).
Baking your pies will take about one hour, and running your electric oven for an hour generates roughly 1.1 pounds (0.5 kilograms) of CO2. Overall, your two pecan pies may release approximately 12.6 pounds (5.7 kilograms) of CO2.
Total Emissions for the Entire Christmas Dinner
Total Emissions: 198 pounds of CO2
Christmas dinners are unique to each family celebrating. But the average 12-person holiday meal consisting of roast beef, roasted potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, and pecan pie creates approximately 198 pounds (90 kilograms) of carbon dioxide.
The good news is there are plenty of ways you can make your Christmas dinner more eco-friendly to decrease your carbon footprint over the holidays. Here are some of our top tips.
5 Ways to Make Your Christmas Dinner More Eco-Friendly
Instead of eliminating your favorite holiday recipes, make swaps that make the foods you love better for the planet. Use the tips below to give your dishes a planet-friendly upgrade.
An eco-friendly holiday also extends beyond the food on your table. Giving sustainable gifts (like DIY options!), choosing eco-friendly holiday travel methods, rethinking your wrapping paper, and choosing a sustainable Christmas tree all make a difference.
1. Incorporate More Vegetables
When in doubt, it's always a good idea to add more veggies to your holiday spread. Vegetables and other plant-based foods have an overall lower carbon footprint than animal-derived products. Check out some of our favorite meatless recipes. Vegan Thanksgiving recipes could also work for your Christmas dinner!
2. Decrease Dairy
Dairy products—such as milk, cream, and cheese—come from animals, so they have a higher carbon footprint. When possible, use dairy alternatives. Decreasing the amount of dairy you use in your recipes is a simple way to lower your carbon footprint, and most grocery stores are stocked up on items like vegan butter and dairy-free milk.
3. Substitute the Roast Beef
The roast beef is definitely the most carbon-intensive item on the table. Beef is one of the most unsustainable meat options. So if you're willing to let it go, opt for a more sustainable meat choice such as chicken or turkey.
If you want to take things a step further, try vegan meat alternatives like tofu or tempeh. These plant-based alternatives have a much lower carbon footprint than any type of meat.
If you do opt for roast beef or another type of meat, choose labels that say "Certified Humane" or "Animal Welfare Approved" to ensure the meat was as ethically and sustainably sourced as possible.
4. Use Reusable Napkins
If you're not sure how to alter your favorite recipes, there are other ways to make your holiday celebration more sustainable. One simple way to cut back on waste is to use reusable napkins instead of paper products.
Eliminating single-use napkins not only keeps waste out of the landfill, but also adds some character to your dinner spread. Check local thrift stores for cloth holiday napkins, or ask your friends and family if they have any they no longer use. When the holidays are over, all you need to do is throw the cloth napkins into the washing machine.
5. Use Natural Candles
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