The Real Cost of Your Thanksgiving Dinner

November 14th 2015

Aron Macarow

Rent, tuition: It seems like many costs are on the rise while wages remain stagnant. But there's one thing that we can be thankful for this year: the price of a classic Thanksgiving feast, which continues to be a bargain. At least by some measures.

Despite an expected increase in turkey prices that is "much larger than typical" this year because of an avian flu outbreak earlier in 2015 (according to agricultural economist Corinne Alexander), the cost of the average turkey dinner for 10 people is still expected to hover around $49. This number has remained stable since 2011, when the price jumped by $5.73 from the year before.

How does this stack up with Thanksgivings of years past? 

Surprisingly, the typical American holiday meal actually costs less than it did in 1986, at least when we account for inflation. 

Since the mid-1980s, the American Farm Bureau Federation has conducted an informal price survey of the typical ingredients for a standard Thanksgiving spread, which includes enough bread stuffing, turkey, rolls, butter, peas, cranberries, pumpkin pie, coffee, and other groceries to feed a family of 10. A turkey dinner in 1989 cost $24.70, roughly half of what you'll pay at the market today. Adjusted for inflation, that price is almost identical to today's cost. 

"America's farmers and ranchers remain committed to continuously improving the way they grow food for our tables, both for everyday meal[s] and special occasions, like Thanksgiving dinner," said AFBF Deputy Chief Economist John Anderson of the price stability.

A history of downward prices

The phenomenon of falling food prices, taking inflation into account, isn't new. As Americans, we spend less of our disposable income on food for the home now (5.5 percent in 2010) than we did in the 1960s (17 percent) and far less than in the 1930s (24 percent). (The St. Petersburg Times reported in 1968 that Thanksgiving dinner prices were also cheaper then than in 1950.)

We also spend less on food than many other countries, including Germany (11.4 percent of income), France (13.6 percent), Italy (14.4 percent), and Mexico (24.1 percent). 

For those of us feeling the pinch in today's economy, that may sound like good news. But some believe that an abundance of cheap food is unsustainable at best and harmful at worst. 

Pay now or pay later?

Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," criticizes our modern food system. In the documentary Fresh, he says: 

"Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn't paid at the cash register, it's charged to the environment. ... And it's charged to your health."

The continuous improvement cited by Anderson and others in the agricultural industry is due in part to the mechanization of agriculture, which keeps prices low. But that carries its own costs. 

Americans consume 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving — 20 percent of our annual turkey consumption as a nation. The only way that we can produce enough turkeys at low cost for that one day of feasting is large-scale factory farming, which has been criticized for animal cruelty, environmentally toxic waste runoff, and the overuse of antibiotics. 

RELATED: You Won't Believe What This Factory Farm Does with Pig Waste

According to the World Health Organization, the overuse of antibiotics is of great concern and a practice that can lead to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. In a 257-page report released in 2014, WHO warned that the world was moving toward "[a] post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill." It points fingers at multiple causes for antibiotic-resistance illnesses, with modern agricultural practices singled out as particularly problematic. 

The agriculture industry now uses an estimated 80 percent of antibiotics on food animals, with the aim of growing them larger, faster and in less space: Turkeys weigh on average 10 lbs more than they did in 1986.

There are more healthful approaches for us and the planet, and you can reflect them in your choices at Thanksgiving. Consider upgrading your Thanksgiving bird from a conventional turkey to an organic, free-range one. Making that choice can significantly increase the price of your dinner: Such a turkey can cost as much as $100 at a specialty shop.

If you purchase ingredients for a fully organic Thanksgiving meal for 10? It will run you around $170, according to Time magazine. That's more than triple the cost to your wallet of the average Thanksgiving dinner. But it may also be a cost-savings for your health and the planet in the end.