Holiday Central

Thanksgiving dinner, including turkey plus trimmings, falls to lowest cost in five years

Key Points
  • Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people will cost an average $49.12 this year, down 75 cents or 1.5 percent from 2016, according to a farm bureau survey.
  • Turkey prices represent the largest chunk of the average price decline, although there also are drops in bread roll, milk and sweet potato prices.
  • But pumpkin pie mix, whipped cream, stuffing and fresh cranberries are more costly this year.
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This year's traditional Thanksgiving dinner will be easier on the wallet, with the price the lowest in five years, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The farm organization found the price of the turkey and all the trimmings for the classic Thanksgiving Day meal for 10 people will cost 1.5 percent less than last year, or an average of $49.12. That is down 75 cents from last year's average cost of $49.87.

"The last time Thanksgiving was this cheap was 2013," John Newton, the federation's market intelligence director. "The fact you can have that classic meal for under $5 per person says a lot about the U.S. farmer and the harvest they produce every year."

Nationally, the average cost of the traditional Thanksgiving meal as tracked by the federation has gone down for two-consecutive years. Newton said this year's decline was led by falling turkey prices.

Indeed, the biggest single decline this year for the national cost is the price of the 16-pound turkey, down 36 cents to an average to $22.38 from $22.74 last year. That's a decline of 1.6 percent.

"Wholesale turkey prices are now below $1 [per pound] for the first time since 2013," said Newton. "We have an abundant supply of turkeys, and that's really leading to some of the lower prices that consumers are seeing at the grocery store."

Some supermarkets use the turkeys essentially as a "loss leader" to drive sales in stores for other holiday food items. Amazon's recently purchased Whole Foods is cutting prices for its organic or non-antibiotic turkeys for Thanksgiving this year.

Other special items on the dinner table that are down nationally this year include sweet potatoes, rolls, green peas and 9-inch pie shells. Three pounds of sweet potatoes were $3.52, down 2.2 percent from last year. The price of a dozen rolls fell 8.1 percent, pie shells dropped by 5.4 percent and a gallon of whole milk dropped by 5.7 percent.

Butterball turkeys are for sale at a grocery store in Omaha, Nebraska.
Eric Francis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"The gallon of milk was lower as milk supplies in the United States continue to grow," said Newton. It also comes as some East Coast dairy producers are experiencing some of the thinnest profit margins in the past few years.

However, the federation said the price of the pumpkin pie mix was up by 2.6 percent, whipped cream jumped 4 percent and 12 ounces of fresh cranberries went up 1.7 percent. In percentage terms, the highest increase this year was cube stuffing, rising 5.2 percent over 2016 levels.

According to Newton, some of the price movements may be more related to processing costs, including labor and energy expenses. He said things that are more directly farmed to consumers didn't see a significant price increase in this year.

The survey, which has been conducted annually since 1986, is done by volunteer shoppers around the country and looks at regular-priced items. It doesn't reflect store coupons or other discounting.

Demand for organic and specialty turkeys has been growing in recent years, but the most popular ones for Thanksgiving remain frozen whole birds.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the total frozen whole turkeys in cold storage as of Sept. 30 were up about 22 percent from last year. The increase partly reflects a building of supplies in advance of Thanksgiving but also additional supplies that have been produced.

The oversupply of turkey may be good news for consumers, but it has hurt pricing for the major producers of the bird and, in some cases, squeezed margins. Even so, the organic turkeys tend to have stronger pricing than the conventional frozen birds.

"This year overall has been a more challenging year in general," said Jay Jandrain, COO of Butterball, the nation's largest supplier of turkeys. He said there's been "too much supply out there [of turkeys] and an oversupply of protein in general."

"It's made for a more competitive environment in general, both because of turkey industry-specific supplies as well as protein in general," he said.

This year, Butterball is rolling out for the first time an organic whole bird, although Jandrain said it's a "very small part of the business."

"As we look at those types of offerings, whether it's in a whole bird or it's other types of products that we produce, we're certainly seeing increased consumer demand for antibiotic-free ... in organic products in general," the COO said. "We're looking for additional opportunities to meet consumer needs in providing those additional offerings, also."

Parts of the country may see even lower costs than the national price reported by the federation.

For example. the classic Thanksgiving meal will cost total of $44.74 this year in New York state, down $1.89 or a nearly 10 percent decline from last year, according to the state farm bureau's survey. That means it will be on average $4.38 cheaper for New Yorkers than the national average price for the meal.

The savings for New Yorkers is evident in the price of 16-pound turkeys, which will cost an average $21.36 in the state, down from $22.20 last year and more than a $1 cheaper than the national average price of $22.38 this year.