Five Healthy Meats for Your Holiday Table (Plus Two To Avoid)

We know you want to choose the most humane, good-for-you, good-for-the-environment foods for your family holidays.

Children’s bodies, and especially their growing brains, are particularly sensitive to the contaminants in meat and seafood – like mercury and cancer-causing dioxins. Furthermore, dioxins and mercury bioaccumulate in meat and then in the body, which means they build up over time, potentially adding to children’s risk of cancer, brain and organ damage over the course of their lives.  

So what do we recommend to protect little bodies and the environment when a stuffed winter squash just won’t do?

Here are our suggestions for five healthy meats you can build a festive holiday meal around.

1. Wild salmon. Surprise! When it comes to health and the environment, sometimes we need to think creatively, so the first thing on our list isn’t technically a meat at all.

Salmon is an excellent choice for protein and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are critical for brain development during pregnancy and childhood. Four to eight ounces of salmon weekly, depending on the species, can provide 100 percent of the recommended amount of omega-3. Choose wild salmon (as opposed to farmed) due to higher rates of PCB contamination in farmed salmon – five to 10 times more. Check out Seafood Watch to find the wild salmon with the least environmental impact.

2. Venison

Nutritionally, deer is your best red meat choice, with less saturated fat per serving than beef and double the iron. It has the added benefit of being “raised” without growth hormones, antibiotics or feed with pesticide residues (much like meat raised organically). 

3. Turkey (organic and pastured)

Organic, pastured poultry is your best bet for a traditional centerpiece holiday meat that’s less damaging to the environment than some of the alternatives. Consider purchasing a smaller bird, such as an heirloom breed. The USDA estimates a shameful 35 percent of turkey meat ends up in the trash. Or mix it up one year and choose another organic, pastured poultry, like chicken, duck or Cornish game hens.

  • Turkey farming produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef – 2.5 times less
  • Organic meat doesn’t contain antibiotics, growth hormones or pesticides from feed and is less likely to be contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria.
  • Organic and pasture-raised methods of meat production are better for soil conservation and help keep chemical fertilizers and pesticides out of streams and rivers – and ultimately our drinking water.

4. Lobster

Lobster is a healthy holiday choice, or consider other high omega-3, low-mercury seafood like mussels, rainbow trout and oysters. Check our seafood guide for a complete list of recommendations.

EWG recommends pregnant women and children eat seafood every week to capitalize on the omega-3 benefits they offer but use caution to make sure not to exceed safe mercury levels. Since seafood varies in its mercury levels, use our mercury calculator to help you determine how many servings of seafood you (or your children) should eat.

5. Goat (organic, pastured)

Finally, you could feast on this cosmopolitan food this holiday season – the most commonly eaten type of meat globally. It’s also the most nutritious red meat, after venison. Goats are great foragers and can improve pasture if well managed. Choose an organic, pastured or grass-fed cut for the best balance of good fats.

The Worst

Ready-Made Ham

Products such as this one score poorly in EWG’s Food Scores due to the processing – manufacturers add nitrates and nitrites, which have been linked to colorectal cancer. Ham can also pack a high-blood-pressure-inducing amount of sodium – 70 percent of the Institute of Medicine’s daily recommendations – in one three-ounce serving. There’s also the likely use of the toxic chemical BPA in the can lining.

Why we don’t recommend beef

Beef is the most environmentally harmful thing Americans regularly eat – 10 times worse than any other meat. Routine consumption of red meat has been linked to a wide array of cancers – particularly colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer, as well as a variety of other diseases.

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