The big holiday season is just around the corner, and we all should be planning how we are going to prepare all the big meals. If you want to try something different for Christmas or New Year’s Eve, maybe having a local holiday meal might be a good idea. But, what is a local holiday meal? To answer this question, we can use Thanksgiving as an example. First let’s imagine that we are in 1621, and we are planning to celebrate the First Thanksgiving Meal.

So, let’s think… would we be able to go to the supermarket and buy stuff? – No! We must harvest our vegetables and hunt our meat. Some of us will go with some of the Plymouth colonist and hunt birds, others will go with some Wampanoag Indians and hunt deer. Others will stay and harvest corn and pumpkin and collect some seafood like, lobsters. As far as we know, according to the Thanksgiving History, we would not have ovens nor ingredients from England, so we would have to stay local and use Native American ingredients such as, molasses, herbs, onions and nuts and used other cooking methods like roasting over a smoldering fire.

In 1621, Turkey wasn’t the main dish, because the Plymouth colonist returned from hunting with other birds such as, goose, swan and duck. However, turkey was indeed a common food between the Pilgrims and the Indians, it was a wild plentiful bird in the region. One of the main reasons to have a Thanksgiving celebration at that time was to celebrate the first autumn harvest. Local grown vegetables were served at the table, carrots, corn, potatoes (white and sweet) and beans. Lots of indigenous fruits, especially whole cranberries, were used for the First Thanksgiving Meal, no sauces were made. And of course, Pumpkins! However, due to the lack of butter and wheat flour, no pie was prepared.

Ok, this might have been a little too local, but we get the idea, let’s get back to the present. Today, a local Thanksgiving will require us to get ingredients that are produced close to where are sold, and knowing where our food comes from. To centralize in a specific region all the activities related to food production, processing, distributing and marketing is what typically makes local food systems. However, the term is not universally defined and depends on consumer perspective. But, why we want to do buy local?

There are many reasons to buying local, maybe the most common is to secure freshness of products. However, the more important point related to Thanksgiving and other holidays is supporting our local economy. Supporting local farms, which usually start as small family farms, grow, process and distribute locally to help stimulate local and rural economies. Unlikely large industrial farms, most local farms run according to sustainable standards, which in a very general way means, not damaging the environment or threatening human or animal health. Buying local not only gives us the opportunity of knowing where our food comes from, it also can give us the advantage of knowing the farmer (the producer), ask questions and educate ourselves about how our food is produces, all face to face. There is also a USDA initiative that uses consumer interest in where their food comes from and help farmers and ranchers to expand their market opportunities: the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF). More importantly, it can bring us together with our community and feel more connected with our food.

So, let’s get back to the main question, how to have a local holiday meal? Here are some tips that you might know or not, to ensure where your food comes from:

1. Get to the farmer’s market!

picture6Direct from the farm to the consumer, this is what a farmer’s market is all about. This will be the best opportunity to get to know the farmer or producer of your food and ask all the questions you might have. Going to a local farmer’s market can be a very fun experience. You can find almost everything and more that you might not have think of. From veggies to cheese, even wine! If you prepare with time and search all your closest farmer’s markets you may be able to find everything for your traditional holiday dishes, at affordable prices. There is a USDA, Local Food Directory, that can help you find all the national farmers market regardless of what part of the country you are

2. Finds stores that have local produce!

If you are not able to catch your closest famer’s market, don’t worry! You can still find local produce. Big well known stores such as Whole Foods Market, have locally grown, raised and produced. Their definition of local varies according to their stores. But, for example, California is divided by areas, which makes it more specific to find products from closest areas. Here you may also be able to get everything for the big celebration, even a local raised turkey, for Thanksgiving. However, because it is a big standardized store, you might spend more money

3. Hunt a Turkey! – not really…

Although this might be a really option for people that are into hunting, and there certainly are some areas according to the state where you find and hunt turkey. There is another option. There are some stores where you can find a local free-range heritage turkey, and there is even a store finder from the Mary’s free-range Turkey, which also gives you information about preparation and cooking advises. You might also be interested in searching for local farms that have turkeys available, however, you might require reservation to get a turkey, especially on Thanksgiving. Turkey is not the only one meat that you can find locally. Searching in the USDA KYF web site might help you find what you are looking for. Also, don’t forget to ask on the farmer’s market.

4. Get seasonal!

If you are not able to get to the farmer’s market or whole foods, you can at least make an effort to buy seasonal products. Luckily for you, must of Thanksgiving dishes are made with seasonal products, like Pumpkins! You might increase your chances of getting ingredients that are grown local by buying only seasonal products.

5. Grow and raise your own!

picture7This might sound a little crazy, but if you have a big yard with a lot of free space, you may be interest on start a new hobby. Growing your own veggies, and even raise your own turkey! Can be a great project to share with family and friends, it not only will save you lots of money, but also will give you great satisfaction knowing that you are producing your own food. However, this will require a lot of preparation and planning, even from one year before. But, well still an option!

We cannot get back to 1621 to ensure a 100% local meal, however, we have some options that can help us get as local as we want. Let’s get to know our local farmers and eliminate the gap between us and our food. Food has always been an opportunity of bringing people together. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and any other holiday, are the perfect occasion to reconnect with our food and express gratitude by supporting our local economies.

This article is part of our on-going series “The Science of Food” which is comprised of essays from students in the M.S. in Food Science program at Chapman University. The essay was originally published on the Food Science Student Association’s blog, which you can read here: