How many people eat turkey for Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a beloved American holiday centered around food, family, and gratitude. The most iconic part of the Thanksgiving meal is the turkey. But just how many Americans actually eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Quick Facts

  • 88% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, according to a survey by the National Turkey Federation.
  • Of those who eat turkey, 93% say it is important to their Thanksgiving meal.
  • Other popular Thanksgiving foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
  • The average weight of a Thanksgiving turkey is 15 pounds.
  • Turkeys are now available in a wide range of sizes – from 6 to over 40 pounds.

So the vast majority of Americans do eat turkey for their Thanksgiving feast. But why has this particular food become so ingrained in our holiday traditions?

History of Turkey at Thanksgiving

The tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving goes back to the very first feast held in 1621 by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth. While we don’t know for sure what was on the menu, a letter written by Pilgrim Edward Winslow described wild fowl being among the dishes served. This could have included ducks, geese, swans, or turkeys.

Here are some key facts about the history of turkey and Thanksgiving:

  • Turkeys are native to North America and were abundant in the area around Plymouth.
  • By the 1700s, turkey had become a regular part of New England Thanksgiving meals.
  • Sarah Josepha Hale, an author and magazine editor, campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday in the 1800s.
  • Hale published Thanksgiving recipes that featured roasted turkey, solidifying the turkey’s role in the holiday feast.
  • When Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, turkey was the cornerstone of the celebratory meal.

So while turkeys may not have actually been at the very first Thanksgiving meal, they quickly became the centerpiece thanks to their availability, Hale’s campaigning, and their appeal as a large bird suitable for feeding a crowd.

Modern Thanksgiving Turkey Traditions

Today, turkey continues to be the star attraction at Thanksgiving meals across the country. Here’s a look at some modern turkey-related Thanksgiving traditions:

Pardoning the White House Turkey

Since the 1940s, most presidents have pardoned a live turkey presented to the White House just days before Thanksgiving. The presidential turkey pardon is a lighthearted tradition that spares the bird from being served at the holiday meal. The turkey typically goes on to live out its years at a petting zoo or university animal sanctuary.

Turkey Trots

On Thanksgiving morning, communities across America host turkey trot races where participants run or walk a 5K before indulging in their holiday feast. The event allows people to get in some exercise and work up an appetite before the big meal. The Atlanta Turkey Trot, first held in 1903, claims the title as the nation’s oldest turkey trot race.

Thanksgiving Parades

No Thanksgiving would be complete without watching a parade, especially New York City’s famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The annual event dating back to 1924 features enormous balloons of beloved characters, colorful floats, marching bands, celebrities, clowns, and to close out the parade, Santa Claus himself.

Turkey Sales

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, turkey sales soar at grocery stores across the nation. About 40 million turkeys are consumed each Thanksgiving in the U.S. When turkeys are in short supply, prices at the grocery store often spike as demand outpaces availability.

New Ways to Cook Turkey

While roasting remains the standard way to prepare Thanksgiving turkey, new techniques have emerged for cooking the bird. Options like grilling, frying, smoking, or cooking a turkey breast rather than a whole bird have grown in popularity. These alternatives can help cook a turkey more quickly or infuse more flavors.

Regional and Family Traditions

While turkey may be the quintessential Thanksgiving protein across America, certain regions and families put their own spin on the holiday meal. Here are some of the regional and family differences when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner:

Other Main Dishes

In some parts of the South, roasted ham or fried chicken often share the spotlight with turkey. Other families may opt to serve goose, duck, Cornish game hens, prime rib, or other alternatives to turkey.

Side Dishes

Standard sides like mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce are supplemented or swapped with regional specialties. In the South, cornbread dressing, collard greens, and sweet potato casserole are popular. Other regions may feature dishes like wild rice and sausage stuffing, green bean casserole, roasted winter vegetables, tamales, or homemade rolls.


While pumpkin pie is usually on the menu, some families bake apple pie, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, chocolate cream pie, or fruit cobblers. Ethnic desserts like tres leches cake, Italian ricotta pie, or Portuguese malasadas also make appearances at Thanksgiving meals around the country.

Family Recipes and Dishes

Specific recipes handed down to newer generations create meaningful connections to the past. A grandmother’s secret stuffing recipe or famous mac and cheese may be just as anticipate as the turkey. Families from various cultural backgrounds also incorporate traditional dishes into the Thanksgiving celebration.

How Many Turkeys are Eaten Each Year?

Now that we’ve covered various turkey traditions at Thanksgiving, let’s look at some statistics on the huge volume of turkeys eaten each holiday season.

Turkey Production

According to the National Turkey Federation, over 223 million turkeys are raised annually in the U.S. Turkey production is concentrated in the Upper Midwest and North Carolina, which together account for nearly half of the total number of birds raised each year.

Per Capita Consumption

Americans consume an average of 16 pounds of turkey per person each year. For reference, annual per capita consumption of chicken is around 95 pounds.

Thanksgiving Turkeys

It’s estimated that 46 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. at Thanksgiving each year. This accounts for about one-fifth of all turkeys sold in the country for the entire year.

Year Estimated Number of Turkeys Eaten (millions)
2022 46
2021 42
2020 40
2019 42
2018 46

As shown in the table, around 40-46 million turkeys are purchased and consumed each Thanksgiving. Typical holiday gatherings of 10-20 family and friends can go through a 15-20 pound turkey in a single meal.

Increase in Small Turkeys

While turkeys have gotten progressively larger over the decades, a recent trend is a growth in demand for smaller 10-16 pound turkeys. Smaller birds are ideal for smaller gatherings, take less time to cook, and result in less leftover turkey after the holiday.

Thanksgiving Turkey Sales

It’s estimated that turkey accounts for $1 billion in supermarket sales each Thanksgiving. This represents a massive temporary surge in demand for a single food product. Grocery stores often sell turkeys at discounted prices or even give them away for free as a loss leader to attract shoppers during the Thanksgiving rush.

Increase in Frozen Turkey Sales

Up to 90% of Thanksgiving turkeys purchased at grocery stores are frozen rather than fresh. Frozen turkeys can be bought well in advance of Thanksgiving and stored in the freezer until it’s time to thaw and cook them. This gives consumers more flexibility in purchasing and preparing the holiday bird.

Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Now that we’ve explored the history and modern numbers related to Thanksgiving turkey, let’s examine some of the main reasons this particular food became our national holiday centerpiece:

  • Taste – When properly cooked, turkey is regarded as being delicious, tender, and flavorful. The meat takes well to brining, seasoning, basting, and cooking methods that keep it moist.
  • Texture – Turkey offers a range of textures depending on how you prepare it. Crispy roasted skin, succulent breast meat, rich dark meat, and stuffing combine for mouthwatering sensations.
  • Versatility – Turkey can be stuffed, roasted whole, grilled, smoked, fried, or divided into pieces. There are endless ways to customize your holiday bird.
  • Affordability – Purchasing an entire turkey is relatively affordable compared to other proteins like beef or lamb. Discounted holiday sales make turkey even more budget-friendly.
  • Availability – There is ample turkey inventory available even with the huge spike in demand around Thanksgiving.
  • Convenience – Thaw-and-serve frozen turkeys and turkey breasts require minimal preparation compared to cooking a fresh bird.
  • Tradition – Eating turkey is ingrained in our culture as part of a quintessential Thanksgiving feast.
  • Versatility for Leftovers – Turkey leftovers can be used in everything from sandwiches and soups to casseroles and salads.

So in many ways, turkey is the ideal centerpiece for a Thanksgiving spread shared with family and friends. The quantity of birds raised each year makes turkey readily available even with huge holiday demand. When combined with side dishes, appetizers, desserts, and libations, a roasted turkey completes the ultimate Thanksgiving meal.

Turkey Consumption Trends and Statistics

Now let’s take a broader look at turkey consumption trends beyond just Thanksgiving:

Year-Round Turkey Consumption

While turkey consumption spikes around Thanksgiving, the meat is consumed year-round in the U.S. Turkey breast is commonly used in sandwiches, salads, and wraps. Ground turkey is growing in popularity as a leaner alternative to ground beef. Turkey sausage, bacon, and other processed turkey foods are also widely available.

Increase in Non-Whole Turkey Products

As smaller households cook smaller meals, sales of turkey products like breast, tenderloins, cutlets, drumsticks, and pre-packaged parts have grown. This gives consumers more customizable portion sizes.

Growth of Value-Added Turkey Products

The turkey industry has invested in value-added products like smoked turkey, turkey pepperoni, sausage, jerky, pre-cooked entrees, and marinated cuts. This helps expand turkey consumption occasions beyond holiday meals.

Yearly Per Capita Consumption

Year Per Capita Consumption (pounds)
2021 16.1
2020 16.5
2019 16.4
2018 16.3
2017 16.1

The table shows that per capita turkey consumption has held relatively steady in recent years. It peaked at 17.5 pounds per person in 1996 before declining slightly.

Increase in Organic and Free-Range Turkeys

Consumer interest in organic, antibiotic-free, and humanely-raised turkeys has grown. Specialty turkey farms are increasing production to meet this demand for premium Thanksgiving birds with premium price tags.

More Time-Saving Turkey Options

From microwaveable turkey breast roasts to ready-to-eat smoked turkey deli slices, products are making turkey more convenient for home cooks. This can help expand day-to-day turkey consumption.


Turkey has become an iconic centerpiece of the Thanksgiving holiday in America. About 90% of Americans eat turkey as part of their Thanksgiving celebrations, whether it be roasted, fried, grilled or prepared in another creative way. From its origins at the first Thanksgiving meals of the 1600s to the massive turkey productions operations of today, turkey continues to bring comfort, nostalgia and full bellies to Thanksgiving dinner tables nationwide. Regional customs, new cooking methods and consumer preferences are keeping turkey traditions fresh and evolving. But the core custom of sharing a turkey feast with loved ones on Thanksgiving endures as a cherished part of our national holiday.

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