Half of America Will Buy Thanksgiving Dinner

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pr_pop_zia_Earlier this week I read a statistic that fifty-three percent of Americans will rely on food prepared away from home for part or all of their Thanksgiving dinners by buying restaurant takeout food.

Whoa! That doesn’t even count all the people who go to markets for prepared food. (And it doesn’t count those who will have it catered. My husband and I once ate the leftovers of Billy Bob Thornton‘s vegan Thanksgiving dinner when we visited a former client of mine. But I digress.)

It’s a disconnect for me, because I don’t know anyone who’s not cooking. The people I hang with are buzzing about their upcoming dinner party, or what they’re making to take to someone’s house.

Everywhere I look, though, the media thinks Americans (mostly women) plan to cook. Newspapers, blogs and magazines scream with helpful hints, tips and techniques, and tons of recipes for bird, sides and pies. Even Sam Sifton at the New York Times will delay his meal until after 3 p.m., sitting at his disk to answer 911 calls. Are we food-obsessed writers out of touch?

I wonder who these people are who don’t cook for Thanksgiving, and why not. According to the National Restaurant Association, people have specific reasons for dining out. “Consumers living in smaller households and households without children are more likely to dine out on Thanksgiving. Males are more likely than females to eat at a restaurant on the holiday. Generally, younger adults are more likely to use restaurant takeout items as part of their Thanksgiving meal at home.”

What about the others who don’t cook? Perhaps they are too old, too stressed for time, or too afraid? Do women feel guilty if they don’t cook? My sister-in-law doesn’t. She takes a frozen pre-made pie to her friend’s lavish homemade meal every year. She’s happy not to bake, even though she knows how. Surely others feel overwhelmed by the planning, the shopping, the housecleaning, and the clean-up.

And for those of us who write about cooking and develop recipes, are people really going to make the dishes we present? Must we promote elaborate sides with pomegranate seeds, miso paste, and fennel, as though they’ve come from a restaurant? If we show up with whole sweet potatoes with butter and brown sugar, will others think we’re lazy or unimaginative?

In politics we know about the red states and blue states. Maybe we foodies have a similar division between us and those who do not cook. And maybe we’re out of touch about how more-than-the-other-half lives, at least on Thanksgiving day.


  1. says

    these are fascinating statistics! I am as surprised as you are. Although, I do find that many of my contemporaries are not as into cooking as I am. There are quite a few folks in our area who eat out all the time, or prepare mac&cheese or chicken fingers and call it dinner. There is probably a business plan in there somewhere!

  2. says

    Very interesting and surprising statistics indeed! I am very much on the side that likes to cook. However I do appreciate that there are folks out there who don’t have the culinary abilities to produce a good meal…and who wants to be stuck with a turkey (pun intended :) ) of a meal on Thanksgiving? I certainly don’t look down on people who don’t want to cook. Thanksgiving is a day for family, friends, thanks and (hopefully) good food and if a premade meal is the best way to make that happen so be it. Enjoy!

    • diannejacob says

      Julie, sometimes it isn’t all about a homemade meal. That’s a hard lesson for some cooks.

  3. Howard Baldwin says

    The year my sister and her husband started divorce proceedings, back in the 80s, the idea of a traditional Thanksgiving family feast was too much to handle. She and I took her kids to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and then some spaghetti restaurant. It was not a family-celebrating kind of day.

    We still look back fondly on that day as a funny anomaly — we’ve had family dinners together ever year since.

    • diannejacob says

      Lovely story, Howard. I’m You’re a terrific cook so I’m pretty sure you make at least part of the meal.

  4. says

    i live in the so-called gourmet ghetto of berkeley, and some folks i know talk about feeling too intimidated to make food for friends here because they believe the bar is so high — there’s great food to be had all around us — and they can’t match a meal you might get at a local restaurant.

    does that make sense? i think some may buy prepared foods for holiday festivities to take the angst out of getting fabulous food on the table when you don’t feel up to the task. this despite all the cooking shows, blogs, etc. rather than relieve pressure, these resources may up the ante for home cooks.

    some of my fav meals with friends occur spontaneously, when we whip up something together using just the ingredients on hand. no stress suppers.

    • diannejacob says

      Hey Sarah. Maybe the media ups the ante unintentionally. We are always looking for a new angle.

      No chance of a spontaneous meal on Thanksgiving. In fact, a friend who’s hosting dinner for 20 confessed she prepares all the sides in case the potluck contributions don’t turn out.

  5. says

    Are you saying the media stresses homemade or otherwise? the LA times recently reported a blog that was sporting the best store-bought pies to pick up.

    As I said on your Facebook page, my family cooks for 150 people on Thanksgiving, and in the old days it was the family that did all the cooking–my grandmother coming out towards the end to put the final touches on the gravy, to orchestrate the evening and to say the blessing.

    People in the community brought dishes to share, and pies were ALWAYS home made! In the last few years, the tradition has gone to the way side a little bit, but the “homemade” has never faltered and the dinners continue. Now when someone comes to the dinner and brings a contribution (and these days it’s often a store-bought) item, it is politely accepted, though you NEVER see it out on the table (hence, tomorrow’s staff meal.

    None the less, it’s the gathering that matters, and I think the mess ups around the holidays add as much to the story as the triumphs.

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Nani. The media stresses homemade most of the time.

      Those Thanksgiving meals at Nepenthe sound amazing. Question: why not put the store-bought out on the table with the other dishes? What does it say to the person who brought it when it is excluded?

  6. says

    As a recent transplant from Australia I’m constantly shocked by how infrequently even well-educated and affluent Americans cook meals from scratch. And by the fact when someone invites you to their home and says “I’ll cook you lunch” what they mean is they’ll microwave you something from the frozen foods section at Whole Foods. Entirely palatable, of course, but in Australia “I’ll cook you lunch” still means exactly that.

      • says

        Can I , who has never been to the States comment? I’ll go ahead. I would speculate that there is a ‘convenience mentality’ borne of many things of which the fear of cooking is one. People are afraid to fail at something so basic and fundamental. They don’t realise that half of the joy of succeeding is having lost the battle once or twice.

        Saying that, I still buy puff pastry….even though I LOVE food. Oh well, like I said…some day

        • diannejacob says

          KB, of course you can comment. I’m pleased to hear from someone outside the US. It may be basic and fundamental to cook, but it’s awfully time consuming. Convenience is an answer. Yesterday some of my dinner at a friend’s was made from box mixes and cans, and the dishes appeared homemade and tasted good.