The holiday season is fast approaching, and over the next five days consumers nationwide will be busy shopping for all that’s needed for the annual Thanksgiving Day feast.
It is a heartwarming—and typically expensive—time of the year when families gather at the dinner table to partake in delicious cuisine that at once brings back fond memories of yesteryear, while creating new traditions to pass on to the next generation. But did you ever stop while in the super market and wonder just how much Thanksgiving dinner costs each year? The answer may surprise even the most savvy shoppers and chefs.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) 34th annual survey of Thanksgiving Day dinner food prices, this year’s celebration could be the lowest in nearly a decade. They enlisted volunteer shoppers across 37 states to check the prices of individual items found on a typical Thanksgiving Day table for 10 people. They looked at the usual items people purchase—turkey being first and foremost—along with the favorite side dishes (e.g. stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, butter, green beans, mac and cheese, a variety of pies, and coffee, tea and milk) and found that the checkout counter receipt wasn’t as costly as one would believe.
Each plate about $5 per person
This year, the total average cost was $48.90—depending where you shop—just shy of $5 per person, and about 22 cents cheaper than the total cost of last year’s holiday meal.
For instance, the cost of a 16-pound turkey is about $21.71 cents (again depending on where you shop). Some items have not increased very much in cost, including a gallon of milk ($2.92), sweet potatoes (three pounds for $3.39), green peas (one pound at $1.47), a dozen rolls for $2.25), a 14-ounce box of bread stuffing at $2.87 (toss in another $10 for celery, onions, green/red peppers and garlic), and a pair of nine-inch pie shells coming in at $2.47. Other miscellaneous items such as butter, evaporated milk, sugar and eggs are slightly up this year (purchased together) by an an average price of $3.01.
Some items have witnessed a slight increase in price since last year. Fresh cranberries (12 ounce at $2.65), and pumpkin pie mix (30 ounce can at $3.33) are both higher in price. The aforementioned box of bread stuffing is actually higher than last year by about 20 cents, and the two pie shells saw a small increase of about 12 cents from 2018. Even a one-pound veggie tray is up by about 5 cents to approximately 75 cents.
The AFBF also looked into the price of a boneless ham—which has increased steadily since 1995—and reported that you can come home with one for about $3.88 per pound this year, still down from approximately $4.35 per pound in 2014.
Much higher cost when delivered
Food delivery services are popular, so the AFBF also gathered data on that cost and revealed it was much higher than making dinner yourself. The same 16-pound turkey is about 50-percent higher, and the total dinner for 10 is about $8 per person, not including the cost of delivery and a tip. In all, if you order your dinner it’ll cost you in total about 60 percent more in price.
Thanksgiving dinner prices have actually fallen each year since 2015 and, adjusted for inflation, next Thursday’s dinner could be the cheapest in more than a decade, which could be especially good news for Black Friday shoppers.
“Since 2015, the average cost of Thanksgiving dinner has declined steadily and is now at the lowest level since 2010,” said Dr. John Newton, chief economist for the AFBF. He added that an ample supply of fresh turkeys helps to keep the meal “affordable and reasonably priced” for consumers.
Because California experienced a severe drought about three years ago, consumers have raised concern about rising food prices not only in the Golden State but also in the Midwest where much of our turkeys and hogs are raised and shipped throughout the country to be processed and delivered to your local market. According to John Anderson, deputy chief economist with the AFBA, the drought on the West Coast, torrential rains and subsequent flooding in the Midwest, and heavy snow storms on the East Coast may have led consumers to believe that they’d have to spend more this year for Thanksgiving dinner.
Effects of the drought
They were wrong. Anderson explained that the complete effect of the West Coast drought has not been realized either from farmers, processing plants, shipment, or at the check-out line.
“Decisions about Thanksgiving dinner are often made months or at least weeks in advance, so the effects of the drought still haven’t been evident in most retail prices yet.” Anderson said. “Consumers were incredibly cost-conscious during the recession, so naturally they want to know how much they’ll be expected to pay for meal preparation during the holiday season.”
By now you might ask: “What does the weather in the U.S. or in other countries have to do with my Thanksgiving dinner?” Let’s look at those warm, buttery rolls we all enjoy. About five years ago, there was a disappointing wheat harvest in the Midwest. In 2014, the Department of Agriculture reported that only 36 percent of that year’s crop was rated as “good” or “excellent”—the quality most used for making wheat products. Also, drought conditions in far-away countries such as Russia and Ukraine also hurt crops, further pushing wheat prices higher. Three years ago, the same wheat crop found 50 percent rated as good or excellent, and therefore consumers saw an increase in bread prices.
During the same period, the popular 16-pound turkey increased in price by about 3.1 percent, primarily because of the drought. You may remember that many charities at the time faced a shortage of turkeys because of even the smallest increase in price.
The role of California farmers
California farmers are responsible for a significant portion of the dinner spread. In the vegetable isle at the grocery store, one pound of green peas, for example, has risen about 4 percent over the past five years. And although production has been up during that period, consumers know that once a product increases in price, it’ll either stay that way or decrease slightly over two or three years—but it never quite returns to the original price. The same is true for potatoes, green beans, beets and so on.
Cranberries are a staple at most holiday dinner tables. The Department of Agriculture has reported that production of cranberries is slightly less this year than it was three years ago, mostly because the vines faced a heat stress during the drought. Wisconsin produces about 57 percent of the nation’s cranberries, and farmers there reported in 2017 that they were nearly “on track” to produce roughly 2 percent more of the product for this year’s consumption. The good news is that cranberries are about 1.2 percent lower in price (per 12-ounce can) than they were two years ago.
Milk and other dairy prices are also a bit lower than they were from 2017-18, thanks mostly to an extra supply built up during more mild summer temperatures in places like California and Wisconsin. And while dozens of California dairies had to file for bankruptcy because of the drought, it looks as though we won’t have to pay as much this year at the dairy isle because of increased production at the nation’s dairy farms.
It’s a similar story for potatoes. In Idaho, where more than a third of the nation’s potatoes are produced, more moderate summer temperatures have allowed the price (three pounds) to be about 3.4-percent lower this holiday season than just a few years ago.