What’s for Thanksgiving Dinner?

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This holiday season, consumers are expected to open up their wallets more for everything from shopping to travel, and now it seems they will spend more on Thanksgiving dinner as well, but not necessarily because they want to.

After declining in 2009, the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal for a family of 10 increased this year by 1.3% to $43.47, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, which tracks the changing prices for 12 popular Thanksgiving foods including turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie mix. That falls about $1 shy of the price of a meal in 2008, the most expensive year on record, and is roughly $8 more than it cost back in 2004.

According to the report, the only item which is cheaper now than in 2009 is milk. Everything else will be more expensive, with a 16-pound turkey costing $19.09, or about $1.50 more than it did last year.

“This Thanksgiving is probably going to be one of the most expensive that we’ve had in a while,” said Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com, a site that tracks food marketing trends. “People will be spending more this year because they have to.”

In order to cope with the price rise for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, many Americans are expected to find creative ways to cut corners when planning out their family dinners.

“Over the past three years, people have learned a bunch of new shopping behaviors for food, like going to dollar stores and using coupons,” Lempert said. “Even though we may not be as desperate now as we were a few years ago, we have still maintained those behaviors, and will probably exercise them now as prices go up again.”

So what does that mean for Thanksgiving dinner this year? For starters, don’t be too surprised if you end up at an event where the main course is a frozen turkey.

“More people this year seem to be foregoing heritage turkeys and instead have decided to go for fresh and frozen turkeys from super markets and places like CostCo,” said Tanya Steel, Editor-in-Chief of Epicurious, a popular online publication that features recipes and tips for foodies. “That’s where we are really seeing people try to save money.”

At the same time, the main meal is expected to be smaller this year in order to cut costs.

“There’s no question that we’ll have smaller portion sizes this year,” Lempert said. “We’ll see more finger foods served before dinner, more pasta served on the side and more snacks served after because the expensive part of the meal will be diminished in size.”

In general, the theme of this year’s Thanksgiving seems to be that many consumers are going back to the basics and trying to prepare certain foods like deserts from scratch.

Steel notes that Epicurious has seen a tremendous traffic increase in recent weeks for recipes on how to make your own pumpkin pie. Similarly, SupermarketGuru polled more than 700 consumers and found that 16% plan to change up their Thanksgiving dinners this year by making everything from scratch. Even some of the major grocery store chains have noticed the impacts of this trend. One Whole Foods market coordinator told MainStreet that the chain has seen an increase this year in sales of baking goods and flour.

All of this leads to the conclusion that 2010 may be the year of the DIY Thanksgiving.

As part of this, Steel says consumers are also trying out cheaper alternatives to fancy table arrangements, making simple decorations out of gourds and squashes, or buying low-cost flowers.

“What we’re seeing is consumers have a definite eye on the bottom line, but an interest to make things seem a little more flashy and splurge-worthy,” she said. “That way you can make the meal feel a little more indulgent even though it doesn’t cost much.”

Yet, just because people are cutting corners doesn’t mean they won’t splurge on certain items.

Steel has found that consumers are more interested this year in spending a little extra on cheese and wine, and have researched and purchased more $25 bottles through her site than during the previous year. And of course there are some items people just can’t do without.

“Turkey is still the centerpiece of the meal and the sides that people are buying are pretty traditional as well, like stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes or yams, green beans, apple, pumpkin and pecan pies,” said Jo Natale, director of media relations for Wegmans, a supermarket chain in the Northeast.

Ultimately, even as consumers continue to cut down on the price tag, Steel believes there is a growing urge to cut loose and spend a little more to celebrate, if not this year, then next.

“This will be the third thanksgiving where we’ve all been in this bad economy and I think there is kind of a fatigue,” she said. “People want to celebrate and have a glass of champagne and not really worry about it as much as they have in the past.”

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