small hands making a crafty holiday decoration with sustainable, waste-free materialsShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Brittany England

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Living a more sustainable lifestyle is always a great goal, but the holiday season presents some special opportunities.

While this time of celebration means spending special, memorable moments with family and friends, it can also be a time of waste.

Too much food, too much stuff, and too much spending can add up to overdoing it, both for your wallet and the planet.

Want to ring in the season with a more modest footprint? Check out these 9 options for celebrating in a budget- and planet-friendly way.

Granted, turkey or ham are the usual VIPs of the holiday feast, but there’s no harm in breaking with tradition to swap out some of your meaty holiday menu items with plant-based alternatives.

In fact, there are some compelling reasons to go veg.

Plant-focused diets not only have benefits for health, like reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and overall mortality. They can also cost less than carnivorous diets.

Research from 2021 found that vegetarian and vegan diets based on legumes (beans) and whole grains were the least expensive compared to other diets studied.

Replacing animal foods with plant-based ones is also often significantly gentler on the environment.

One 2019 study revealed that moving from an omnivorous diet to being vegan or ovolactovegetarian (eating dairy and eggs) lowered personal greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

The question of how much to scale back on animal products in holiday meals is, of course, up to you.

Consider serving a smaller turkey and tofu steaks at Thanksgiving, adding savory flavor to a casserole with smoky roasted shallots instead of bacon, or trying oat or cashew milk for creaminess in mashed potatoes.

From a budgetary standpoint, it might sound counterintuitive to spend more cash on holiday décor—but hear this one out.

Higher-quality items last longer, saving you money over time. This also delays their journey to the landfill.

Meanwhile, a higher price point might make you pause and ask whether you really want a holiday decoration in your home, leading to more mindful purchases.

Another way to deck the halls with less impact? Look to purchase décor (or even some gifts) secondhand.

By perusing the thrift store in your neighborhood, you’ll support your local economy, opting out of the treadmill of mass-produced goods that crisscross the globe consuming resources.

Plus, you might be surprised at some of your fun and unique finds while thrift shopping!

In addition to thrift stores, there are also plenty of consignment shops that curate their collections of clothing, shoes, handbags, and more. These shops often boast brand name items in great condition for a fraction of the price.

If you can’t buy secondhand, consider choosing gifts that are Climate Neutral Certified. This certification ensures that brands have measured, offset, and established plans to reduce their carbon footprint.

You can see a comprehensive list of certified brands on the Climate Neutral website.

Some faves include:

Ordering holiday gifts online can be a stress-relieving godsend come December. No lines to stand in, no trudging to stores hither and yon.

But making multiple purchases from online retailers means that Santa’s sleigh (AKA the FedEx truck) might drop off a lot more than gifts. From the cardboard boxes to the packing peanuts, online shopping creates high amounts of waste.

Minimize the excess by consolidating your online shopping into as few large purchases as possible.

Some retailers — like Amazon — give the option to ship all your items on the same day in fewer boxes. Shopping in this one-and-done fashion may even cut down on impulse buys.

When all is said and done after a Christmas or Hanukkah gift-opening session, have you ever looked around and thought, “What are we gonna do with all this STUFF?”

There’s no denying the holidays can bring numerous new items into the home—some of which may go unused.

This year, what if you gave the gift of experiences, rather than stuff?

Even small presents of quality time, such as a coupon book for coffee dates with your mom, might be more appreciated than another bath set or scented candle.

Looking for inspiration? Consider these non-stuff gifts:

  • Tickets to a concert, play, museum, sporting event, or amusement park
  • Gifts of service, such as mowing a lawn, providing a home-cooked meal, or running errands
  • Gifts of time, like a movie night, park date, or game night
  • Learning and performing a special song, writing a poem or thank-you letter, or creating a piece of art

Everyone loves a gorgeously wrapped present, but gift wrap has a surprising dark side. According to an estimate from Earth911, 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper is produced in the U.S. each year, to the tune of 12.7 billion dollars.

Sadly, its shimmer and shine are short-lived. Since much of it is not recyclable, 2.3 million pounds of wrapping paper ends up in landfills each year, says Earth911.

Perhaps it’s time to get a bit more creative with dressing up holiday gifts.

For an eco-friendlier (and cheaper) alternative, consider wrapping Santa’s loot in reusable household items you already own, like tea towels, scarves, or cookie tins.

For a recyclable or compostable option, vintage book pages or old maps make novel wrapping paper.

You might even save up brown paper grocery bags or buy a roll of plain butcher’s paper and add some artistic flair with markers or stickers—an especially fun option for kids to participate in.

What do a potted plant, a stack of books, and a tiered serving tray have in common?

They’re all inexpensive and eco-friendly, not to mention creative alternatives to a live or faux Christmas tree.

Though a well-decorated spruce or fir is a beautiful focal point in your home, Christmas trees–especially the fake kind—aren’t very pro-planet.

About 90 percent of artificial Christmas trees in the U.S. are shipped from China, creating carbon emissions and using other limited resources. Since faux tree materials are usually not recyclable, they tend to end up in landfills.

Given the choice between real or fake, real Christmas trees are a better environmental option, since they support tree farms and can be composted, recycled as firewood, or donated for conservation and habitat projects.

To take a sustainability-on-a-budget mission even further, peruse your home for items that can shape-shift into a zero-waste “tree.”

Try decorating a house plant, wrapping a bookshelf or ladder with greenery, or even drawing a tree on a large chalkboard.

You can also keep a potted fir tree in your backyard year round only to use it over and over again each holiday season.

You’ve probably heard that meal planning can help you save money and reduce food waste. It’s true all year round and during the holidays too!

You most likely take time to consider what you’ll serve at communal holiday meals. You can also keep your meal planning mojo going throughout the season and beyond.

If you have kids home on winter break who might normally eat lunch at school, get ahead of waste, extra expense, and the inevitable questions of “what’s for lunch?” by setting aside time to plan some simple mid-day meals.

Some ideas to get you started:

  • personal pizzas on whole wheat English muffins
  • hummus, veggie, and turkey wraps
  • bento boxes of crackers, lunch meat, cheese, fruits, and vegetables

Plotting out some convenient, easy dinners might also save you some stress on potentially harried winter evenings.

Before you toss that gift bag or string of lights in the trash, consider: could it extend its holiday cheer into next year and beyond?

If you have the space to save holiday items, keeping them for another go-round or more dials down financial and environmental costs.

Even if a decoration is past its prime, try to get in the habit of repairing and repurposing, rather than replacing. A strand of lights with a few broken bulbs, for example, is an easier fix than you might realize, and some superglue might restore your snowman’s missing carrot nose.

This principle applies to food, too!

When you’ve overbaked Christmas cookies or gotten overzealous with Hanukkah latkes, preserve them in the freezer for later use. They can last well into January and February.

With this preservation mindset, you’ll set yourself up for less waste, less expense, and even less stress the next time the holiday season rolls around.

Ready for a calm and stress-free holiday? Check out Healthline’s Season of Self-Care, your go-to destination for the latest must-have health and wellness gifts for your loved ones – and you!


Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.