Thanksgiving Meal Doesn’t Have To Break The Bank

Turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie—all are common Thanksgiving Day foods. The good news for consumers is that the cost of a traditional Thanksgiving meal is slightly down per person this year, compared to last year, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s recently released data.

The AFBF reported that the national average cost of this year’s meal for 10 people is $49.04, a 44-cent price decrease from last year’s average. This makes the cost of this year’s meal less than $5 per serving.

Included in the AFBF calculations were turkey, bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a relish tray of carrots and celery, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and beverages of coffee and milk, in quantities to serve 10 people.

The main course

Most U.S. families traditionally eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day. The National Turkey Federation estimated that 46 million turkeys will be eaten in the United States for the Thanksgiving holiday this year.

Mary Meck Higgins is an associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Human Nutrition at Kansas State University, as well as a registered dietitian. She said lean turkey is a nutrient-rich, high-protein and low-fat food that is often sold at a relatively low price around the holidays.

Still, typically the main dish—turkey, a beef roast or ham, for example—is about half of the meal cost, Higgins said. To save money, consumers should be alert for grocery stores to lower their prices, particularly on turkeys, which is typically one or two weeks before Thanksgiving.

“The very low turkey prices offered by many grocery stores make them what is known as a ‘loss leader,’” Higgins said. “Grocers lower their prices on one main food item to a very low level, perhaps even losing money on that sale, to lure customers into the store to buy all of their other meal items.”

This is why making a grocery list is important to help save money, too.

“You’ve looked through your cupboards and you know that you don’t have an extra can of, say, cranberry sauce pushed to the back,” Higgins said. “Those kinds of things add up, because you’ll have a bigger bill than you really need. Most people are trying to reduce their grocery bill this time of year because of all of the other expenses that they incur for holidays.”

Higgins said consumers should check store ads and wait to buy that Thanksgiving bird until they have found a sale. For even larger savings, if they have enough freezer space, they should also think about purchasing bigger turkeys, or more quantities, at the “loss leader” reduced price. After cooking them, people can freeze leftover turkey portions for their families, or freeze uncooked turkeys to cook after the holidays.

At least one pound per person is the rule when selecting a turkey, said Karen Blakeslee, extension associate for K-State Research and Extension and coordinator of the Rapid Response Center (RRC).

“If you’re buying a whole turkey, you have to factor in the bones,” Blakeslee said. “By the time you cook the turkey and you take the meat off the bones, you end up with roughly a half a pound per person, and that should cover everybody.”

“Of course, if no one in your family likes dark meat, you might save money by buying just a turkey breast instead of the whole bird,” Higgins said.

More ways to save

When it comes to food, Higgins said, the best way to save the most money during the holidays is eating more meals at home. Foods purchased at the grocery store are usually less expensive than foods purchased at restaurants.

Postponing the holiday gathering at least two days after the actual holiday might also save the meal preparer some money.

“Many grocery stores have reduced prices on special holiday foods, such as breads, rolls and desserts, the day after the holiday,” Higgins said. “If you want to splurge by buying holiday-themed table napkins or other decorations, you can usually get those for a reduced price just after the holiday as well.”

Having guests bring side dishes and desserts not only adds variety to the meal, but it spreads out some of the total cost, Higgins said. Keep food safety in mind, though, especially with potluck meals. Getting sick from the meal could also be very costly.

“You want to make sure you keep your hot foods hot and cold foods cold if you’re preparing something that you’re taking to someone else’s house,” Blakeslee said. “Be sure you wash your hands before, during and after food preparation.”

Preventing food waste is also important in helping save money. People can keep the holiday meal cost down by using all of the food they buy and prepare, rather than throwing it away. Higgins said the key is to not make too many foods that don’t freeze well.

Leftovers that can be frozen are helpful for later meals, Higgins said. All perishable foods should be covered and placed in the refrigerator within two hours of first serving them, and eaten or frozen within four days after the meal.