How to have an affordable Thanksgiving

Health, Fitness & Food

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If you’re feeling ruffled by recent reports that turkey prices are on the rise, don’t panic. There’s no need to start hoarding turkeys.

“We’re not seeing a shortage of supply,” said Ben Del Coro, vice president of sales and marketing at Fossil Farms, a New Jersey-based purveyor of sustainable and all-natural meats and farm-raised game.

Unlike last holiday season, where supply chain and labor issues caused ingredient shortages, there should be enough frozen turkeys to go around for Thanksgiving. However, avian flu outbreaks and inflation’s impact on fuel, feed and labor costs have contributed to higher prices for turkeys.

Whole frozen turkey prices have increased from $1.15 per pound at this time in 2021 to $1.47 per pound for the week of October 28-November 3, 2022, according to the US Department of Agriculture. While that’s nearly a 28% increase per pound, “the overall costs are in line with what everyone has been experiencing all year” with food prices and inflation, Del Coro said. Indeed, costs for all turkey parts have increased across the board, including bone-in fresh and frozen breasts, drumsticks and ground meat.

In case such prices seem affordably low, they are not the final ones you’ll see in the butcher case. As Del Coro explained, the USDA weekly pricing report shows wholesale pricing for commodity birds — not free-range, organic or any other so-called premium descriptor. Distributors and retailers add markup costs before the turkey gets to your cart.

For those who had planned on cooking the traditional turkey for Thanksgiving, this year might be the time to try something different. “The purchasing trends have shifted,” Del Coro said. “For the past two years, people have been eating at home and hosting smaller gatherings,” while restaurants and hotels pulled back on serving large Thanksgiving feasts.

With more options returning for dining out on Thanksgiving, there’s “increased demand on the same supply,” he said. “Now wholesale is coming back, but retail demand is still there.” While home cooks will likely be able to find a frozen turkey at the market, the size and price may not be ideal.

If you’re feeling adventurous or considering opting out of serving turkey this year, here are some alternatives for the Thanksgiving menu.

Try a different bird or cut of meat

“I personally understand that Thanksgiving is all about tradition, but it’s OK to have fun with tradition,” Del Coro said. His Thanksgiving meal often incorporates foods that were more frequently eaten in preindustrial North America.

Prepared with seasonal accompaniments, venison steak evokes Thanksgivings of years past.

For example, game meats used to be a common staple of the American diet, he said. “Venison was certainly part of the original Thanksgiving meal and is seasonally appropriate,” with cuts similar to a beef roast or steaks that can be prepared with seasonal accompaniments.

If you’d like to stick to the poultry theme, Del Coro recommends guinea hen, pheasants and ducks as replacement birds, which “are more available and less expensive than turkey,” he said. Try a whole roasted duck with balsamic glaze for crispy, succulent skin, rosemary-brined guinea hen or roast pheasant with cornbread stuffing.

Or for a more turkey-adjacent experience, Del Coro suggests poussin, a young chicken that weighs about 1 to 1½ pounds and is popular in Britain. Each poussin can be stuffed individually, he said, and “everyone can get their own little mini-roast turkey on their plate.”

Decolonize your menu

Since turkey is just one element of the many colonial myths and stereotypes surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday, this can be an opportunity to revamp the menu to honor Native Americans.

The movement to decolonize Thanksgiving focuses on acknowledging the historical racism and violence toward Native Americans instead of perpetuating the “Pilgrims and Indians” narrative and celebrating the continued cultural contributions of these tribes. Creating a decolonized menu can focus on more of the foods traditionally prepared and served by Native Americans.

Help decolonize your menu by serving stuffed butternut squash with chickpeas, cranberries and quinoa.

Some of the ingredients common to what we think of as the “traditional” Thanksgiving meal — squash, including pumpkins, corn, wild rice, and root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and turnips — are also traditional Indigenous ingredients, so a decolonized menu can bring these dishes to the forefront.

You can also add foods frequently prepared by tribes in the region where you’re living. In the Pacific Northwest, that can include salmon and berries; in the Southwest, you can try making homemade tamales.

Go plant-based

No, focusing on plant-based dishes for Thanksgiving doesn’t mean you have to serve Tofurky.

“I’ve done lots of polls with my friends and family” regarding favorite Thanksgiving dishes, said Jules Aron, certified holistic nutrition coach and author of “Nourish and Glow: Naturally Beautifying Foods and Elixirs.”

Plant-based dishes such as baked carrots, sweet potatoes, beets and zucchini add color to your  menu.

More often than not, she noted, people choose a side dish as their top Thanksgiving food — “and most side dishes are already plant-based.” This makes Thanksgiving a natural time to include more plant-based dishes at the table when there’s already an inclination toward sampling and sharing. And if your favorite side dish recipe isn’t vegetarian, it’s not the end of the world.

“People get scared when thinking about plant-based recipes,” Aron said, fearing that they will have to make multiple substitutions to a dish or find unusual ingredient replacements. However, “if your side dishes are not already plant-based, usually there’s a very easy tweak you can make,” such as replacing chicken broth with vegetable broth or using mushrooms in place of bacon.

Aron recommends simple plant-based dishes that highlight seasonal vegetables for two reasons: Vegetables add color to a menu often dominated by brown and beige ingredients, and “when you’re buying in season, the prices are lower.”

A whole roasted cauliflower can make a picturesque plant-based centerpiece dish for Thanksgiving.

One of her favorite Thanksgiving side dishes is rosemary maple-roasted vegetables, which can feature a mix of root vegetables such as purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets and carrots — or whatever options your family likes best. “It’s not difficult to throw them on a sheet pan and roast them,” Aron said.

She also suggests showing off with a whole roasted cauliflower as a plant-based centerpiece dish. To bring another pop of bright color to the table, “go the extra mile and find a purple one.” Cauliflower is a blank slate for absorbing flavors, so for Thanksgiving, Aron recommends pairing creamy tahini sauce with seasonal cranberries and candied pecans.

Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.

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