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Home-Cooked vs. Premade: Which Thanksgiving Dinner is More Budget Friendly?

Nov 23, 2021

As we approach the biggest food holiday of the year, Thanksgiving, we wanted to explore the more cost-effective option for your holiday feast: to home-cook your meal, outsource components of it, or get the whole thing from a restaurant or grocery store.

While some people may be staunch traditionalists who see Thanksgiving as a holiday that is primarily about home-cooking a big meal with turkey, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie for your nearest and dearest, others may see the benefits of having a restaurant or grocery store do all of the hard work. Delish recently stated that "the average American spends seven hours prepping a Thanksgiving meal from scratch." That is a lot of work for just one meal, and for some people, they might not have the time or patience to spend those long hours cooking a meal that could figuratively (or literally) blow up in your face. Additionally, if you are spending the holiday by yourself or with only 1-3 other people, you might not feel that spending this amount of time is justified. This is why many chain and local restaurants have capitalized on creating premade Thanksgiving meals you can order, which will feed anywhere from one to ten people. 

In 2020, U.S. News and World Report posted the results of an American Farm Bureau Federation survey on the cost of a premade vs. home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. They found that on average, a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people will run you about "$46.90, or less than $5.00 per person" if you are splitting up the cost of the meal. However, this cost only covers the absolute bare bones of a typical Thanksgiving meal. In their survey, they assessed that the cost of a turkey will run you about $19.39, sweet potatoes $3.44, and pumpkin pie mix $3.39. The costs of a premade meal from a chain restaurant/service on the other hand, could run you anywhere from Popeyes' $39.99 dinner that serves 8+ people, to Harry and David's $215 feast that will serve 6-8 people.

While the meal the American Farm Bureau Federation suggested does seem cost effective, it is also extremely basic and only considers the main ingredients of these dishes, not everything else that goes into making Thanksgiving staples. If you are someone who likes to create unique sides or get fancy with your turkey preparation, below are some methods for you to think about to help keep the cost of your meal low:

  • Consider planning your Thanksgiving meal early so you can take advantage of sales on things you really want. Like, If you know your party likes a certain type of stuffing at the holidays, try to get the ingredients on sale early and store them until Turkey Day.
  • Additionally, keep an eye out for coupons or app deals on things that you know you will need, prior to the Thanksgiving season. If you see a coupon or digital code for pie essentials in early October, try to buy those items with the coupon, because you will be saving money and avoiding the holiday rush, where everyone will be buying those items and they might not be in stock.
  • Some grocery stores offer deals like "Get a free turkey if you spend $100 or more," so even though you might not be spending that much on your actual Thanksgiving meal, it could be good to do a large round of shopping at once so you can take advantage of the offer.

While everyone usually considers the main bulk of the cost spent on a Thanksgiving meal to be the actual food that is served, another major factor that you have to consider is the cost of your time.

Consider these questions when thinking about the price of labor for your meal:

  • Are you going to need to take time off of work to do shopping, prep, and/or cook your meal?
  • Is your group going to make a mess that would be too large or complicated for you to clean up on your own?
  • Is the whole experience of cooking a big meal and cleaning up going to keep you from staying up-to-date on other important household chores and duties?
  • Are you going to be spending most of the day in the kitchen as opposed to really enjoying the day and getting to interact with your party?

Something else to consider is whether, if you are hosting a large group of people (say 8-10), it's possible for you all to pitch in some money to buy a premade meal from a restaurant you all enjoy, as opposed to having one person prepare and cook the whole thing. With this idea, no one person will have to do all of the shopping, prep work, and cooking. In many instances, you just bring the food home and heat it up, and if you time your pick-up window right, you might even be able to eat it while it's still hot. Additionally, you know you will be getting a quality meal from a place that you all like.

While the ease of just picking up your food from a restaurant and putting it on a plate might seem tempting, there are also some potential downsides to this idea you will have to think about.

  • Is the amount of food you are getting really going to serve the number of people in your party?  
  • Do you have folks that like to eat as much as they can on Thanksgiving and will not be satisfied with the potentially small amount you might be getting from that premade meal?
  • Are you still going to have all of those fan favorite Thanksgiving leftovers if you buy the meal premade?
  • Does the meal even come with things your whole party will eat, or will you still have to bake that Southern mac & cheese everyone loves?

In the same vein, if you are having a lot of people at your house for the holiday, it may make more sense to make the dinner a potluck. By hosting a potluck, you are still agreeing to let everyone gather at your home and use your kitchen appliances to keep the food warm, but no one person will have to be physically or financially responsible for cooking the whole meal. With a potluck, everyone is able to bring foods they might cook really well and want to share with the rest of the group.

A potluck may also give your group the opportunity to branch out from the traditional Thanksgiving fare and try different dishes. If someone in your party has a special dish their grandma made every year on Thanksgiving that they love, this could be their opportunity to introduce that dish to everyone. Also, if you have loved ones from several different cultures coming over, it may be fun to ask everyone to bring a dish that their culture likes to enjoy on special occasions, in addition to some of the classics. This can be a fun opportunity for you all to get to try a dish you may not have ever known existed, and can keep the meal fresh.

Additionally, if some of the people you are inviting have dietary restrictions or do not like certain types of food, they could bring that food for themselves. Rather than having to make a special dish that only one or two people may eat, you could kindly ask those people to bring their favorite dish and you can keep it warm for them, so they can still feel included in the meal.

While there are many benefits and costs to consider when deciding whether to home-cook or order your Thanksgiving meal, what is most important is choosing the option that will give you the best bang for your buck and cause you the least amount of stress during the holiday season.

Erin Elis 
Erin Ellis
Accredited Financial Counselor ®
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