May All Your Holidays be ORGANIC

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Come into my kitchen, and you’ll find an eclectic assortment of bumper stickers, photographs and magnets “decorating” one full side of my refrigerator. Tacky? Not really. These pictures and slogans serve a purpose: they start conversations and ignite inspiration. Take for example, one of my favorite messages: “Love People: Cook them Tasty ORGANIC Food.”

Okay, so I penned in the word “organic.” But that’s only because I believe feeding people delicious, safe, clean food is an important way to show them we care. To me, organic food is both a gift, and a critical investment in our children’s future.

Enter the holidays. The weeks ahead are supposed to focus on family, friends, food and fun. But sometimes the food gets in the way of the fun. Like when you and your conventional Uncle Phil enter a heated debate over the virtues of organic farming. Or when you’re faced with a holiday buffet of unknown and suspect ingredients. Then there are food allergies, gluten intolerance, and any number of dietary preferences to factor in when party planning. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and underprepared.

The good news: below you’ll find my personal arsenal of seven survival strategies guaranteed to help you navigate holiday feasts and family gatherings--without being labeled a snob or the food police – and still enjoy lots of organic fun:

1. Eat before you enter. Never go to parties hungry, or you’ll be tempted to pull a chair up to the buffet table. Instead, eat a light but nourishing snack before going out. Examples: a cup of hot cocoa made with creamy organic milk and fairly traded organic chocolate, and a crisp apple with organic cheese or spoonful of peanut butter.  

2. Help your host. Bring a delicious organic dish and beverage you can enjoy, worry free. Your hostess will love you for reducing her stress and helping to round out the holiday table.

3. Gently educate. Make a decorative label and recipe card to accompany your dish on the buffet table. Include the list of organic ingredients. You’ll subtly promote organic food, and help your allergic friends and family members know which foods are ‘safe’ to eat. If you know the farmer who grew or raised a component of your dish, put the farmer’s name, and farm location on your recipe card; you’ll help eaters think about where their food comes from, and promote relationships with farmers.

4. Think like an artist. Because we eat with our eyes first, focus your attention on presentation. Fresh organic food tastes and looks good naturally, and needs minimal preparation. For example, impress your guests with a decorative platter of roasted, colorful organic winter vegetables. Simply cut beets, butternut squash, carrots, red onions and sweet potatoes into chunks; toss with olive oil and garlic and bake in a hot – 425 degree oven – for about an hour or until fork tender. Toss occasionally to prevent burning, then sprinkle lightly with sea salt and a drizzle of maple syrup just before serving. Fill an attractive basket with hot crusty bread, and serve with organic butter blended with fresh herbs, and assorted organic cheese wedges.

5. Persuade through the palate. Years ago I had a memorable conversation with farmer and poet Wendell Berry. When I asked Berry how I could help people care about their food, he thought for a moment and then replied: “let them taste it.”

Of course! The way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. So in order to help people care about how their food is raised, grown and produced, it makes sense to win them over through their taste buds first. And this, dear readers is my number one strategy for starting a conversation about food.

Take the potluck I attended last week. I prepared a simple brownie recipe, using organic butter and eggs, organic pecans, fairly traded organic chocolate and organic whole wheat pastry flour. I decided to hang around and watch as people tasted the fast-disappearing brownies.

“Do you like these brownies?” I asked one happy eater.

“Oh they’re delicious,” he said.

With a big smile, I mentioned that I had baked them, and then added: “I find using organic ingredients improves taste and quality. Plus, I like using my food dollars to vote for organic farmers. You can eat these brownies knowing they’re good for you and the Earth.” We became fast friends over organic brownies.

6. Record family history. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests using holiday gatherings to record our family’s health history – a great idea because knowing our parents’ , siblings’ and grandparents’ illnesses can help identify our own genetic risks. But one of my many refrigerator magnets reminds me to collect a different kind of information from my elders. It says: “Try Organic Food...or as your grandparents called it, ‘Food.’”

Take a tape recorder or a pen and blank notebook to your upcoming reunions. Ask older friends and relatives to tell you their farm stories. Learn their secrets of successful farming before harmful chemicals came on the market. If we don’t collect our family’s agricultural history, we risk losing our elders’ organic wisdom.

7. Give the gift of organic food, and food for thought. Traditional holiday cookies come with the season. To make yours extra special, wrap them in an organic cotton dishtowel and include your recipe (listing organic ingredients) along with a favorite poem, quote, or book about organic food and agriculture. Some of my favorites include any title by Wendell Berry, “Diet for a Hot Planet,” by Anna Lappe; “This Organic Life,” and “Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables,” both by Joan Gussow, or “Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed,” a short collection of essays edited by Vandana Shiva.  Know that with each thoughtful organic act, you are planting seeds for a kinder, healthier future.

Happy Organic Holidays to all!

Up against the wall?

If organic naysayers gang up on you, go to the following sites for up-to-date research and fight myths with truth:

Navigating holidays with food allergies and gluten intolerance

  • If you’re the host: Ask guests in advance if they have any food allergies or ingredients they must avoid. Organic or not, the following eight foods account for over 90 percent of all food allergies: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, eggs, soy, fish and shellfish. Gluten is found in wheat, spelt, kamut, wheat germ, wheat starch, couscous, barley, rye, triticale, oats (due to contamination with wheat), malt and brewer’s yeast. Yes, that means beer is an offender.

  • If you’re the guest: Let your relatives and party hosts know which foods present a threat to your health. Food allergies are not about picky eating; they are a matter of life and death. Even trace amounts of offending foods present a danger. Bring safe dishes you can eat to share at the party. 

  • Avoid processed foods because of the opportunity for cross-contamination with offending ingredients. 

  • Recommended read: “Allergic Girl: adventures in living well with food allergies,” by Sloane Miller.

Have any organic holiday party success stories to share? Email us

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