Throwing a Sustainable Dinner Party

Are you tempted to throw a sustainable dinner party but unsure where to begin? It’s all about good food, good friends, and good ideas — and we've got everything you need to know in order to get started. Have fun, and bon appétit!

The Food...

...and Everything Else

Ask yourself these questions: 

The Food…

What is a Sustainable Dinner Party?A sustainable dinner party is a shared meal that focuses on local food and the farms and people who produce it. Much like a typical dinner party, there will be good friends, delectable cuisine and stimulating conversation, but with a focus on the plate in front of you and the issues that surround it. A sustainable dinner party presents an opportunity to discuss modern agriculture and enjoy some delicious seasonal food in the process.

Your sustainable dinner party can be anything from a potluck to a showcase for your culinary talents; the food can be ultra simple or as intricate as you can imagine. To make it sustainable, keep the focus on seasonal, local and organic food as much as possible.

What is sustainable food?Sustainable food is grown and produced using methods that do not harm the environment and that are respectful of workers, humane to animals, provide fair wages and support farming communities.

Why does it matter?The food that most people eat today is very different from the food that humans have eaten throughout history. In just the last sixty years, radical changes in agricultural practices have contributed to climate change, massive abuse of antibiotics, widespread obesity and rampant animal cruelty.

A sustainable dinner party is a way to examine these problems and possible solutions. By taking small steps such as hosting or attending a sustainable dinner party, you can help pave the way for a sustainable future; increased awareness can lead to changes in personal choices and advocacy for changes in our food system.

Where can I find sustainable food?The first place to look for sustainable food is at the farmers' market, where you may find locally raised vegetables, fruits and meats, as well as dairy products, baked goods and other prepared foods. Farmers' offerings are seasonal, so you will always be buying the freshest and consequently the tastiest ingredients. The folks at the farmers' market are always eager to tell you about their wares — including how to cook what they raise and grow. Feel free to ask questions — they'll be happy to provide answers. Shopping at a farmers' market is an important way to support small farmers who produce food sustainably, because they are able to earn more by selling directly to consumers than by selling through grocery stores. Be aware that while some farmers' products are not certified organic, that does not mean they are not growing food according to organic practices, so be sure to ask questions.

Another option is to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture group). In a CSA, members purchase a share of a farmer’s crop before it’s planted. This takes some planning ahead, but it is a great financial benefit to the farmer and offers the consumer an excellent deal on fresh food. As the farmer begins to harvest the crops, CSA members receive a box full of seasonal vegetables on pre-set days.

If you can join a local food co-op (a collectively owned food store), you'll have a great alternative to shopping at a conventional grocery store. Members can choose to have the co-op purchase primarily natural, sustainable, organic and local food.

If you can’t shop at a food co-op, farmers' market or join a CSA, look for organic and local food at your grocery store. As much as possible, buy vegetables and fruits that are in season. These have probably traveled less distance to market will often be fresher, better tasting and more nutritious than out-of-season produce.

Seasonal Ingredients.People have come to expect to find many varieties of fruits and vegetables available all year round. In the United States, most of this produce was shipped thousands of miles using non-renewable fuels. Because it has to withstand such a long journey, much of the produce we've become accustomed to eating has been bred, engineered and chemically treated to have a long shelf life and a near perfect appearance. In essence, consumers are now used to eating subpar produce that lacks nutrition as well as flavor. When you buy seasonal food from sustainable, local sources, you are getting food as it was meant to be consumed. Many smaller farmers grow and sell heirloom varieties that are highly distinct and flavorful. Your sustainable dinner party will be a celebration of seasonal ingredients!

Drinks.Food is not the only sustainable aspect of a sustainable dinner party; drinks can be sustainable too. There are many organic beers, wines, juices and soft drinks that you can include in your menu. Depending on your region, you may be able to find a vineyard producing local wine. Many major cities have their own breweries and buying beer from them is a way of supporting local business. If you can’t find local beverages, look for organically or bio-dynamically produced drinks and be sure to serve tap water instead of the bottled kind!

Meat.Eating local, humanely raised meat is a significant choice you can make toward eating sustainably. Sustainably raised meat can be expensive. However, if you eat less meat, but spend your meat dollars on high quality sustainably raised meat, you can balance your budget. It’s good for your own health as well as the health of the planet.

Industrially raised meat has extremely negative environmental effects. Emissions from meat production constitute about 18 percent of the greenhouse effect responsible for climate change. Manure from millions of animals in close confinement pollutes the land and water. Many non-renewable resources go to feed, butcher, package and transport factory farmed animals as well.

Sustainably raised meat is produced using practices that treat the animal humanely and have fewer negative effects on the environment. Sustainably raised animals have access to pasture, are fed their natural diet and allowed to exhibit natural behaviors. Small farms to do not overburden the land with too many animals; waste is used as fertilizer which, in turn, nourishes crops. Meat labeling can be befuddling. Look for the words “certified organic” or “biodynamic”, “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised”. Beware of the term “natural”; while artificial preservatives or synthetic ingredients are prohibited, the term has no bearing on how the animal was raised or what it was fed. For more information, see Sustainable Table’s Glossary of Meat Production Methods.

For your sustainable dinner party, think about featuring dishes in which meat doesn’t hog the spotlight — or even serving no meat at all! You can find all kinds of recipes at Meatless Monday

…and Everything Else

Make the whole party sustainable, not just the food! Here are some ideas to help get you started planning your gathering from beginning to end with an eye toward sustainability.

Invitations.Send email or an e-vite or even make a phone call, but try to avoid using paper invitations. If you must resort to snail-mail, look for invitations printed on recycled paper with soy-based or vegetable oil-based inks, which are more environmentally friendly than petroleum-based inks.

When you provide directions to your location, suggest mass transit as an alternative to driving. Be as specific as you can about bus (or subway) stops; since the invite is electronic, it’s easy to include a link to your local mass transit map leaving nothing to the imagination. If you live in an area that isn’t serviced by mass transit, suggest carpooling as a means of getting to the party. Of course, biking and walking are ideal for guests who are coming from nearby.

Decor.Forget traditional party decorations and take a tip from nature’s way of decorating the planet. In addition to offering healthy sustainable food, farmers' markets can be spectacular home decorating centers! Fresh cut flowers are always a welcome centerpiece, but don’t forget about potted varieties like marigolds that not only decorate your party, but enhance your garden afterwards. In autumn, dried flowers and grasses can provide an attractive backdrop, along with traditional fall decorations like gourds and Indian corn. Some farmers' markets feature goods from an apiary — there’s sweet, delicious honey, of course, but also beeswax candles to brighten your table.

If you live in a part of the country where chilly temperatures impart a breathtaking array of fall color, you may be able to ferret out some ornamentation from your own yard. Gravity has done the work, now you only need to gather nature’s suggestions. And summer beachcombing can result in an enormous variety of seashells, smooth variegated pebbles, bits of driftwood, and other surprises.

Green Up Your Clean Up.Avoid plastic cutlery, paper plates, and anything disposable. The obvious solution is to bring out your real dinnerware, but don’t let washing up turn into a headache. If everyone pitches in, it will go a long way towards making clean-up time fly by. If you don’t have enough dishes, or don’t want to be stuck with a big cleanup, ask each guest to bring their own plate, bowl, and cutlery along, and with them the responsibility of cleaning them up afterwards. In some cities, it’s even possible to rent dinnerware and glassware!

Use earth-friendly cleaning solutions and materials like biodegradable soaps and unbleached, undyed sponges. These products can be found everywhere from your local food market to that mega-housewares store anchoring the mall. There are dozens of products on the market that perform as well as or better than the most toxic cleaning products, some of which are far more hazardous than the germs you're trying to eradicate. And when you do wash your dishes, don’t let the water run while sponging or scrubbing. Fill the sink and let them soak; then you'll only need to run the water to rinse them clean. If you use a dishwasher, make sure it’s full before you start a load.

Composting 101.Think of it as organic alchemy, except instead of turning lead into gold, you're turning garbage into a nutrient-rich medium for plant life. By adding compost to the soil in your garden or houseplants, you provide natural fertilizer without relying on dangerous chemical fertilizers. There are many methods of composting — indoor and outdoor, wormless or with the aid of those happy little critters (see Vermicomposting 101), small scale, massive, and everything in between. You can find a tremendous amount of information on the subject on the internet or at your local library. Choose a method that works for you, and take this major step that hits all the R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle!

Post-party Possession (a/k/a The Party Favor!). Here’s another opportunity to let your imagination run wild. Again, your farmers' market can be a great source of ideas for gifts: potted herbs, baked goods, heirloom seeds, local honey and wine, and so much more. Other options include fair-trade chocolates and herbal teas. And of course, nothing is more personal than something you've created in your own kitchen, prepared for your friends with the ultimate sustainable ingredient: love.

Party Types

There are essentially two types of dinner parties — the one where you get culinary help from your friends and family (a potluck), and the one where you plan, shop, clean, prepare, cook, serve, and host — all by yourself or with a partner. Answer these basic questions before you dive in and plan accordingly:

Potluck Party. Get your guests involved in the whole process. Share the handouts in the Sustainable Dinner Party series with them. Ask them to shop at a farmers' market and have them report back on how it goes. If you can, meet at the market and shop together, maybe even cook together. Encourage them to talk to the farmer they buy from. What growing practices do they employ? Where are they located? Then around the table, have your guests tell their stories about the food they bought and prepared.

Do It Yourself. Incorporate your sustainable passions and share them! If you have a CSA share, cook from it and tell your guests about the experience of being a CSA member. If you shop at a farmers' market, pick up fresh seasonal items, cook your favorite recipes and exchange stories with your guests about the food. Talk about what it means to consume locally sourced food in your region. For example, if you live in the northeast, mangos simply aren’t local and tomatoes aren’t in season in December. It will connect you to your food and hopefully inspire your guests to try sustainable eating on their own.

Theme Ideas

Dinner and a Movie:Keeping with the sustainable theme, watch a movie such as The Real Dirt on Farmer John, an entertaining film about a farmer who converts to Community Supported Agriculture to keep his farm up and running. Finger foods or a buffet style meal would work well with a movie: grab your plates, fill them up and gather around the TV for some enlightening fun. Don’t forget to make organic popcorn to complete the movie experience.

Farmers' Market Party:First you're going to need a nearby farmers' market. You can find one through Eat Well Guide. The object is to have as many party provisions as possible come from the market. If you like to plan ahead, go the week before your party, see what is available, and give it some thought. If you are feeling spontaneous, just go and buy what looks good and incorporate it into the meal. Look for cheese, wine, bread, and other goodies at the market too. You may want to use farmers' market finds such as flowers, winter squash, and fruit as table decorations.

International Party:Pick a country and get into its spirit, sustainably of course. Let’s use Italy as an example: pull out your favorite regional Italian cookbook (or surf the web for Italian recipes) and build an Italian meal. Start with an antipasto that includes fresh vegetables, locally produced cheeses, and cured meats — all from the farmers' market. Drink Italian wine, play Italian music, and buon appetito! Try some new recipes and introduce your guests to new flavors. A red and white checkered table cloth and some candles dripping on Chianti bottles will complete the atmosphere.

Build-Your-Own Taco/Burrito/Pizza Bar:This theme gets everyone involved in the kitchen. Have the shells/tortillas/crusts ready and provide lots of delicious toppings to go with them. Set out plenty of traditional in-season ingredients to use for fillings/toppings, but offer some unusual ones too! Are peaches in season? Make peach salsa for your tacos and burritos or slice them up for a peach-goat cheese-basil pizza topping. Get your cheese from a local dairy and if tomatoes are in season, fresh salsa or tomato sauce can’t be beat.

Cookbook Party:Do you have a pile of cookbooks that you haven’t tried, or has your favorite cookbook been neglected? Choose the most seasonally appropriate one and create the whole meal from it. Pick your favorite recipes and head down to the farmers' market. For a potluck, select recipes for different courses and distribute them to your guests. Be sure to ask about their level of comfort in the kitchen and give them lots of options.

Iron Chef Challenge:Allez cuisine! The object of the game is to make a tasty, sustainable dinner using special theme ingredients that you select. If it’s a potluck, assign each guest an ingredient beforehand and have them bring their best creation. For a regular dinner party, pair up your guests with a theme ingredient for each course (entrée, side, dessert, etc.) and have them collaborate in your kitchen. See whose cuisine will reign supreme!

Vegetarian Party:This one can be especially interesting if you aren’t a vegetarian! It’s good to get out of your comfort zone and experiment. Going meatless, even for just one day a week, is gaining in popularity because of its positive effects on individuals' health and the health of the planet. You can start with a favorite non-vegetarian recipe and adapt it, or use a recipe that doesn’t rely on meat. If you aren’t one for improvisation and you don’t have a vegetarian cookbook, you can find lots of good vegetarian recipes at Meatless Monday

Holiday Party:Pick a holiday, any holiday — Halloween, the Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, Bastille Day. Every holiday has traditions and trappings that you can tap into. Be creative and look at them with an eye toward sustainability. Make sure the food is seasonal, and check out the farmers' market for decorating ideas. Like the International Party, surround yourselves with the theme: the food, the décor, and even the music should reflect the holiday. You could even ask your guests to dress up!

Comfort Foods Party:Make the dishes with sustainable ingredients and challenge yourself and your guests to make healthier versions of their favorite comfort foods. Meatloaf with grass-fed beef, macaroni and cheese with farmstead cheeses, free-range chicken soup, green bean casserole with fresh local green beans, mushrooms, and milk — you can even make your own crispy onions — the possibilities are endless!

Sound Like a Tall Order? Remember that the longest journey begins with a single step. No one expects your party to be 100% sustainable and local. Not every ingredient of every dish you serve will fall within strict definitions, but don’t let that stop you. The object of hosting a sustainable dinner party is to share ideas you care about with people you care about. It’s an opportunity to introduce them to the delicious joys and delightful flavors of sustainably raised food and the bounty that your region offers. Do what you can do and your passion will speak for itself.