What Will the Holidays Look Like during a Pandemic?

For most of us in the United States, we know the holidays are coming right after Halloween ends when candy prices are marked down, mainstream radio begins to play Christmas tunes, and people deck their halls and homes with holiday lights. However, this year might look a little bit different this holiday season because of a number of reasons: people may have already returned home to be with their families when the pandemic hit and large family gatherings may be limited due to travel restrictions and concerns for loved ones who are immunocompromised, just to name a few examples.

As a native New Yorker, a majority of my family members already live in NYC, so I don’t feel like much will change this holiday season for me, but I wanted to ask someone who shares a different perspective. I asked Commit to Green’s founder Shien-ru Tsao about her experiences during the holidays and how she anticipates celebrating this year.

Shien-ru, what do you look forward to the most when the holiday season rolls around?

I definitely look forward to home-cooked meals and spending time with my family, lounging around watching movies, and snacking on whatever is laid out in front of me. My family cooks and I eat!

That sounds like an amazing way to unwind with family. Can you tell me a little bit more about what the holidays typically looked like for you and your loved ones pre-COVID?

In the past, the Holidays were always super hectic, juggling my own work and then hopping on a plane to Chicago and lending a hand at my parent’s restaurant (always the busiest season of the year). The hospitality industry is chaotic but always fun!

So how do you anticipate your holiday traditions to shift or change due to the pandemic?

2020 will be different. The family restaurant is closed and I’ll be returning down south to my southern roots to celebrate the festivities with my immediate family. It’s been over a decade but I’m excited to put down some new southern traditions. My parents are retired, my sister and her family are nearby and everyone either cooks, BBQ’s, or bakes...except me. My duties are to make sure food scraps are recycled properly. This year, I’m excited to test out some ideas I have for canning some of those food scraps.

It sounds like you’re preventing food waste through preservation methods. Can you tell me a little more about the inspiration behind this idea? 

It’s always been interesting for me to watch cooks in my family prep the ingredients before they actually prepare the meals. Nothing is ever wasted unnecessarily. 

I was walking through the Union Square Farmer’s Market last weekend and I came across a Kimchi stand. I started thinking about ways I could ferment some of the stalks and stems from vegetables we normally throw out. My project this holiday break is to see if I can salvage those pieces and turn them into a gut healthy, fermented side dish that could actually taste good...🤞

Union Square Greenmarket stand featuring kimchi

It’s great to hear you innovating and thinking creatively about ways to use up every  part of the vegetable and getting involved in the kitchen! How do you think the pandemic has influenced you, if at all, to your perspective on food? 

Growing up down south, my parents were restaurateurs. I never had to make a meal for myself until I left for college! But I’ve always been fascinated by the art of cooking.

Before the pandemic, I had staple recipes I would rotate weekly. I would visit the grocery store multiple times a week, only picking up the ingredients I needed for those meals. These days, I’m socially distant and avoid big crowds. I buy groceries in bulk and I’ve been more creative in how I use each ingredient. If there’s another use for the ends of a carrot, cauliflower stems or even stale bread, I’ll google and find that recipe! 

Part of this new habit was because my regular food scrap drop-off location was shut down temporarily because of COVID; the thought of tossing food scraps into the landfill made me cringe. I made a conscious effort to try and reuse or repurpose every ingredient or leftover into a new edible food item. My goal was to keep my overall food waste down to a minimum so I could store it in my freezer. I waited patiently until a drop-off location opened up again.

I am definitely more confident and aware of my capabilities as a new cook. I can’t promise all my food ideas will turn out to be a success, but I’m more interested in the creative process.

As someone who eats food and inevitably generates some amount of food waste, I learned something new and hope others do, too! What other food waste reduction or prevention tips would you offer families to help them reduce their holiday food waste?

The holiday season is notorious for turkey consumption, so if your family will be eating any kind of poultry at the dinner table, I would encourage you to save any bones and leftovers to make soup stock and other meals. If you have a pet and they’re accustomed to eating food scraps, you can offer some whole foods for them to enjoy. And as I mentioned earlier, I would encourage us to explore using “nontraditional” parts of the vegetables like the stalks and stems, and using them in our meals.

These are all great suggestions. We’re wrapping up, but would love for you to share any last words of wisdom for minimizing waste overall during the holiday season.

My hope is that everyone pays special attention to the food waste hierarchy. Our combined efforts can prevent further food waste.

EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy Pyramid

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