What percentage of turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a beloved American holiday centered around food, family, and giving thanks. The most iconic Thanksgiving tradition is the turkey dinner. In fact, Turkey is so synonymous with Thanksgiving that the holiday is sometimes referred to colloquially as “Turkey Day.” But just how many turkeys are actually consumed on Thanksgiving? What percentage of the year’s turkey supply is eaten during this single holiday meal?

Turkey Consumption on Thanksgiving

According to the National Turkey Federation, approximately 46 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving. This accounts for about 88% of the total turkeys consumed in the U.S. each year. The remaining 12% are eaten throughout the rest of the year in the form of cold cuts, turkey burgers, turkey bacon, and so on.

To put 46 million turkeys in perspective, if you lined up all the turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving next to each other, they would stretch nearly from New York to Los Angeles. That’s a distance of about 2,500 miles!

The average weight of a turkey purchased for Thanksgiving is 15 pounds. Multiplying 46 million turkeys by 15 pounds per turkey results in a total of 690 million pounds of turkey consumed on Thanksgiving.

Per Capita Turkey Consumption

The U.S. population is currently around 333 million people. If 46 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving, that equates to approximately 0.14 turkeys consumed per person.

In other words, for every 7 people eating a Thanksgiving meal, there is around 1 whole turkey served. Given that many families share one turkey between 4-8 people on average, this estimate seems reasonable.

The vast majority of turkeys consumed are purchased whole. However, there are some exceptions:

  • Approximately 736,000 turkeys are purchased as frozen stuffed turkeys.
  • Roughly 5.8 million turkey breasts are sold specifically for Thanksgiving.
  • An estimated 440,000 deep-fried turkeys are cooked for the holiday.

When tallying up the whole turkeys plus the turkey parts purchased specifically for Thanksgiving, the total equates to about 46.1 million turkey servings.

Turkey Sales for Thanksgiving

The peak days for turkey purchases are the few days leading up to Thanksgiving. In the week before Thanksgiving, around 27 million whole turkeys are purchased. Turkey sales really ramp up the last 3 days before Thanksgiving, when over 30 million whole turkeys are sold:

  • Friday before Thanksgiving: 13 million turkeys sold
  • Saturday before Thanksgiving: 9 million turkeys sold
  • Sunday before Thanksgiving: 8 million turkeys sold

As you can see, turkey sales more than double on that Friday before Thanksgiving compared to the preceding Saturday. Fridays and Saturdays are always the busiest shopping days of the week, but this spike before Thanksgiving is especially pronounced.

History of the Thanksgiving Turkey Tradition

Turkey being the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal dates back to the very first Thanksgiving in 1621, when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe celebrated their fall harvest together. While deer, ducks, geese, oysters, lobsters, eels, and fish were also served, turkey was likely the most plentiful dish thanks to the abundance of wild turkeys in the area.

There are several theories as to why turkey became such an enduring symbol of Thanksgiving:

  • Turkeys are large enough to feed a crowd.
  • They represent the fall harvest season.
  • They are native to North America, unlike beef or chicken.
  • Their name may come from Native American languages related to giving thanks.

By the 1700s, turkey was firmly established as part of the traditional New England Thanksgiving menu. As Thanksgiving spread as a national holiday in the 1800s and 1900s, turkey cemented its role as the quintessential Thanksgiving fare.

Alternatives to Turkey

Despite turkey being synonymous with Thanksgiving, some families opt to serve alternative main dishes. Here are a few of the more popular Thanksgiving meal centerpieces besides turkey:

  • Ham: About 20 million hams are consumed on Thanksgiving.
  • Roast beef: Particularly in areas with large cattle productions like Texas.
  • Lamb: A festive yet nontraditional choice.
  • Tofurky: A vegetarian turkey substitute made of tofu.
  • Turducken: A dish with turkey, duck, and chicken layered together.
  • King salmon: Commonly served in Alaska where it is abundant.

However, turkey remains the preferred centerpiece by a very wide margin on Thanksgiving. According to a national poll, 91% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Of the 9% who don’t eat turkey, the majority are vegetarians or vegans who eat meat substitutes like Tofurky.

Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Turkey became the symbol of Thanksgiving due to a variety of factors:

  • Turkeys were plentiful in New England when the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving feast.
  • A whole roasted turkey can feed a large gathering of 10-30 people.
  • It serves as a memorable centerpiece to the meal.
  • Turkey is native to North America unlike domesticated meats like beef or chicken.
  • The word “turkey” may have Native American origins indicating thanks or giving.
  • Turkeys represent the fall harvest season corresponding with Thanksgiving.

By the late 1800s, turkey was firmly cemented as the quintessential Thanksgiving meal across America. Some historians believe turkey started replacing other meats like goose, duck, venison, and beef as the main dish because it was more affordable for Americans in tough economic times.

Per Capita Turkey Consumption

The average American consumes 16 pounds of turkey per year. Where does this turkey get eaten if 46 million turkeys are consumed just on Thanksgiving?

Here is a breakdown of where the rest of Americans’ annual turkey consumption occurs:

  • Cold cuts (29%): Turkey sandwiches, turkey wraps, turkey salad.
  • Sausage/Hot Dogs (18%): Turkey kielbasa, turkey bacon, turkey breakfast sausage.
  • Boneless Roasts (16%): Roasted breast, grilled cutlets.
  • Lunch Meat (13%): Sliced turkey on sandwiches.
  • Ground Turkey (9%): Burgers, meatballs, tacos.
  • Whole Bird (6%): Small turkeys and parts like drumsticks.
  • Other Value-Added (9%): Soups, frozen entrees, marinated cutlets.

From these statistics, it’s clear that turkey has become a versatile, lean protein eaten year-round in America. But Thanksgiving remains far and away the holiday when turkey consumption spikes thanks to whole roasted bird centerpieces.

Cost of Thanksgiving Turkeys

The average cost of a Thanksgiving turkey in 2022 was $1.47 per pound. This is a 17% increase from 2021 when whole frozen turkeys cost $1.25 per pound on average. The uptick in turkey costs is largely attributed to inflation, bird flu outbreaks, and supply chain issues.

Here are the average costs of some popular turkey sizes:

Turkey Size Average Cost
10 pound turkey $14.70
12 pound turkey $17.64
14 pound turkey $20.58
16 pound turkey $23.52
18 pound turkey $26.46
20 pound turkey $29.40
22 pound turkey $32.34

As these figures illustrate, shoppers can expect to spend around $15-$30 for a whole frozen turkey in 2022 depending on the size. Smaller 10-12 pound birds are more affordable for smaller gatherings, while 20 pound plus turkeys feed crowds of over 12 people.

Organic, Free-Range, Pasture-Raised Turkeys

In addition to standard frozen turkeys, organic, free-range, pasture-raised and other specialty turkeys are increasing in popularity. These birds cost more but some shoppers prefer them for perceived health benefits, better treatment of the animals, or superior taste.

Here are the average costs of specialty turkeys versus standard frozen:

Turkey Type Average Cost Per Pound
Standard frozen $1.47
Organic $4.29
Free-range $2.99
Pasture-raised $4.39
Heritage breed $4.99

As you can see, specialty turkeys come at a steep premium, often 3-4 times the cost of a standard frozen bird. Despite the higher prices, demand for premium turkeys keeps increasing each year from shoppers looking for higher quality birds.

Turkey Consumption Trends and Traditions

Turkey has long been the cornerstone of the traditional American Thanksgiving feast. However, trends, tastes, and traditions have evolved over time:

  • Smaller gatherings: The average number of Thanksgiving dinner guests declined from 10.3 in 2019 to 8.9 in 2022.
  • Non-traditional dishes: Over 28% of households now serve non-turkey mains like ham, roast, or seafood.
  • Ethnic twists: Recipes fusing Thanksgiving classics with ethnic flavors are on the rise.
  • Creative leftovers: Turkey leftovers are being reinvented into dishes like turkey pot pie, turkey noodle soup, turkey tetrazzini.
  • Turkey trots: Charity 5K races take place Thanksgiving morning across the country.
  • Parades: Massive, festive parades like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade draw millions of spectators.
  • Football: Watching NFL football on Thanksgiving has become a tradition in many households.

While traditions continue to evolve, turkey still remains at the heart of Thanksgiving for the majority of Americans. Roasting a turkey and gathering with family will likely continue to define the holiday for decades to come.

Fun Turkey Facts

Here are some fun facts about turkeys to share around your Thanksgiving table:

  • Male turkeys are called toms, females are called hens, and babies are poults.
  • Turkeys have approximately 3,500 feathers.
  • They can run 20 miles per hour and fly 55 miles per hour.
  • Turkey eggs are tan with brown speckles and hatch in 28 days.
  • Commercial turkeys are usually too heavy to fly.
  • Wild turkeys sleep in trees – domestic turkeys don’t.
  • The protruding flesh on a turkey’s beak is called a snood.
  • Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national symbol rather than the bald eagle.


Approximately 46 million turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving, accounting for 88% of the annual U.S. turkey supply. The Thanksgiving turkey tradition dates back to 1621 at the first Thanksgiving. Roasting and carving a turkey remains central to the holiday for the majority of Americans, though tastes, preferences, and traditions continue to evolve. Whether you prefer an organic free-range bird or a deep fried turkey, gobbling down turkey on Thanksgiving remains a quintessential American tradition!

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