I love to entertain. In the past six months, I have thrown a rock star-themed birthday party for my daughter, a Hanukkah party for four families, an Oscar party for my girlfriends, an elegant dinner party for eight and numerous coffee klatsches and casual Sunday night suppers.
I spend weeks planning the menu and decor. I choose a theme, pore over my cookbooks and shop for decorations. But one thing I have never thought about, until now, is the environmental impact of my choices. If it was the dead of winter and I wanted to make a dessert with raspberries, I would buy the raspberries-never mind that they were flown in from halfway around the world. And if I had more people than plates, I would buy plastic plates and flatware.
I know now that my old way of entertaining was not especially environmentally friendly. Like many others, I am trying to think about my carbon footprint. I am trying to waste less. But I was not sure how to achieve these goals and continue to entertain in style.
Luckily, there are many people in our community thinking about how to make all aspects of our lives greener, including how we entertain.
With a little information and planning, it is possible to throw a party-be it a kid's birthday party or an adult dinner party-that is fun, tasteful and environmentally friendly. By thinking outside the typical decor and tableware choices and paying more attention to buying seasonal, local, and organic foods, your next party can also be a green party.
Using your own plates and silverware is the most environmentally sensitive option, but most of us only have enough to serve eight or 10 guests. When you are hosting a large gathering, are you stuck using disposable plates and cutlery? Not at all, says Pamela Brookstein, the chair of the Green Chavurah at Oak Park Temple. Brookstein's first suggestion is simply to invest in more dishes. She hits the Salvation Army and thrift stores to find inexpensive options. What about the fact that the plates do not match? Brookstein doubts anyone cares. The variety makes for a more colorful table, she says.
Tips and Tricks
We do a number of things to go green. We compost, we recycle, we have a garden, my husband bikes to work, and our baby wears cloth diapers. If only I can come up with a way for my kids to remember to turn out their bedroom lights when they leave the room!
Nicole Foster, Chicago
Another Oak Park mom who aspires to green living, Deb Wellek Wolkstein has hosted zero-waste birthday parties for her children using reusable plastic dishes. She recommends dishwasher safe Preserve Tableware, which is made from recycled plastic and is BPA-free. A pack of eight large plates costs $7.
For table coverings, Wellek Wolkstein eschews plastic and even cloth-which needs to be washed and is not very kid-friendly-in favor of plain butcher paper. She then custom decorates the butcher paper with soy wax-based crayons. Leave the crayons out during the party so kids (and adults) can add to the decorations, she says.
Butcher paper can be composted when the party is over. For napkins, Brookstein uses inexpensive cloth bandanas that can be re-used and look rather festive to boot.
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When it comes to the menu, start with the locally grown, seasonal crops and build from there. In other words, no more raspberries in January! Strawberries, rhubarb, salad greens, artichokes and asparagus are all coming into season now and you can even start to find some locally grown crops.
There also are many artisanal food producers here in the Midwest that make exceptional products any host would be proud to serve.
For example, instead of selecting Californian or European cheeses for your next party, buy Wisconsin cheeses. To make that cheese plate really special, garnish it with delicious Fig Earl Grey jam, made by Rare Bird Preserves, a small-batch preserve company in Oak Park. For dessert, treat your guests to the Rich Chocolates & Candies Windy City Truffle collection. The indulgent truffles are made in Chicago with cream from Illinois farms.
Another important part of planning a green menu is to cut down on meat, since raising animals for meat is the single biggest source of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Not only is a vegetarian menu more environmentally friendly, it can also save you quite a few dollars. The key, of course, is to serve delicious and satisfying vegetarian fare so your guests do not feel cheated.
If you really want to serve meat, chicken, turkey and duck have a much lower environmental impact. However, if you are also concerned about animal welfare issues, you may want to select USDA certified organic poultry, which guarantees that the birds were never given hormones or antibiotics and were raised humanely.
Lastly, to throw a green party, avoid big bouquets of fresh flowers. Most flowers are flown in and are raised in an energy-intensive manner. Look for locally grown plants to decorate your dining room. Brookstein suggests buying three or four bold stems, such as Gerbera daisies and floating the blooms in shallow bowls of water for a low-impact, yet elegant, look.
Emily Paster is a mother of two and a freelance writer living in River Forest. Her food and parenting blog is called West of the Loop.