Has the Cost of a Thanksgiving Dinner Changed Much Over Time?

Both the historical costs, as well as the history itself, may surprise.

By J. Richard Fredericks, Main Management

For 34 years, the American Farm Bureau has released an annual survey of the total cost of the items that make up a classic Thanksgiving Dinner for 10 people. This year the full meal tally came in at \$48.91, which is essentially unchanged at only one penny higher than last year’s result of \$48.90, and after three years of price declines since 2015. The cost of a Thanksgiving dinner remains less than \$5 per person and lower than it was back in 2012.

To determine the price of the dinner, the Farm Bureau uses 250 volunteer shoppers who have checked prices in 38 states to look for the best possible prices without taking advantage of any special promotions.

The shopping list for the Farm Bureau’s survey includes the turkey in addition to stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and coffee and milk in quantities to serve 10 people with plenty of leftovers.

Some of this year’s survey results indicated that –

• The turkey itself amounts to 42.5% of the cost of the total dinner this year. The turkey (measured as a 16-pound bird) cost \$20.80 this year and had one of the most significant declines in price of any of the components for this years’ Thanksgiving meal. The cost of the bird is \$0.91, or 4.2% lower than the previous year and equates to roughly \$1.30 per pound. The table below shows the cost of the turkey for each year and how consistent the price has been over the years and current consumers are enjoying the lowest absolute prices and price per pound over the time frame that is shown.

• The aggregate of the other ingredients is higher this year (\$28.11 vs. \$27.19, or up 3.4%) as 7 out of the 11 non-turkey items registered an increase, while two items decreased as can be seen in the table below.

• The cost of the Thanksgiving in inflation adjusted, real terms is \$19.13 this year, down 1.2% from a year ago continuing a decline since at least 2013. The cost of a Thanksgiving dinner in 1986 would have been \$66.89 (in 2019 dollars), which translates into a Thanksgiving meal that is 27% cheaper than it was 34 years ago!
• Even more impressive is how much less time it takes the average worker to afford their Thanksgiving feast. The average US production worker earns \$23.70 per hour according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That hourly wage would suggest that it would take 2.06 hours of work to afford a classic Thanksgiving Dinner for 10 people (\$48.91/\$23.51 = 2.06 hours).  That result is 3.7% lower in terms of hours worked versus last year when it would have taken 2.14 hours. Just since 2014, to afford the classic Thanksgiving dinner, the average worker needs to work 13.4% less which equates to more than one half of an hour less.

• Looking back even further in time, the cost of a Thanksgiving Dinner took 3.21 hours of work in 1986. Thus, today’s family can afford the same classic Thanksgiving Dinner experience while working 2.06 hours, or 36% less than what it cost the 1986. Clearly the American worker has benefitted from productivity in food production.

Other Interesting Thanksgiving Facts

• In the United States, football is a major part of the Thanksgiving celebration. Dating back to the first college football game between Rutgers and Princeton that was held on Thanksgiving Day in 1869, football games have since become synonymous with Thanksgiving ever since. Many have grown up watching professional games on Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions started the tradition in 1934 and are slated to play their 75th Thanksgiving game this year.
• The Turkey Trot, a ballroom dance in the 1900s, was named for the short, jerky steps of the turkey. It became popular mainly because the Vatican denounced it as “suggestive”.