Could Buying Thanksgiving Dinner Be Cheaper Than Cooking?

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whole homemade Thanksgiving turkey with all the sides
Photo credit: Brent Hofacker/shutterstock

Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends to share a festive meal and reflect on their blessings. With that comes the expectation of a full-on turkey dinner — and the stress of planning, shopping, and cooking. But hosts have options besides preparing a meal from scratch. And believe it or not, the time-saving alternatives can be almost as easy on the wallet.

If you're feeding a smaller family of four, our analysis shows a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal runs about $12 per person. That's only a dollar shy of what each person would pay for a comparable meal at Cracker Barrel, $13, without lifting a finger — though of course a nice holiday tip for your server would boost the price a bit. And if you're willing to bring your meal home, you could pay as little as $11.50 a person at Denny's for Thanksgiving takeout, albeit for a slightly smaller feast.

If you're feeding a bigger crowd of eight, a home-cooked meal would run about $9.58 a person. That's several dollars cheaper per person than dining out, but there are still some compelling takeout options. For instance, a comparable heat-and-eat takeout meal from Kroger costs only $10 per person; you can also swing by Bob Evans to pick up a respectable heat-and-eat feast that would be about $10.63 a person.

Curious about how the numbers break down? Read on.

Home Cooking: $9.58 to $12.05 per person

Our research shows that a Thanksgiving feast made from scratch is a relatively pricey option for a smaller family of four people. The total bill our shopping list at Kroger was $48.18, or $12.05 a person. But double the number of guests, and the cost is $76.62, or $9.58 a person.Home Cooking

These totals reflect sale prices available for shoppers who have a Kroger Plus card, the store's free loyalty card. Also note that while turkey was not on sale when we shopped, many supermarkets do have sales on turkey this time of year, selling the birds at a loss to attract customers purchasing all the trimmings. Depending on when you buy, that could bring down costs another dollar or so a person.

Prices below are for eight people and assume that a few pantry staples, such as sugar for the cranberry sauce, are already on hand.

- Turkey (16 lbs.): $25.44
- Mashed potatoes (10 lbs. potatoes, 1 gal. milk, 1 lb. butter): $8.17
- Gravy (made with turkey drippings): $0
- Stuffing (four loaves bread, one bunch celery, poultry spice, two cans chicken broth): $8.19
- Green bean casserole (four cans green beans, one container fried onions, two cans cream of mushroom soup, milk): $6.73
- Corn (four cans corn, butter): $2.36
- Cranberry sauce (24 oz. cranberries, water, sugar): $3
- Rolls (two dozen): $5.18
- Pumpkin pie (two cans pumpkin, eggs, two cans sweetened condensed milk, pumpkin pie spice, two pre-made crusts, two tins): $17.55

Supermarket Takeout: $7.50 to $15 per person

Even the most loyal supermarket shopper may not have the time or energy to shop for and prepare a big Thanksgiving meal, but the deli counter may have another option for you: A prepared Thanksgiving feast. At Kroger, the turkeys come fully cooked, though side items don't — they'll need about 15 minutes of cook time, Kroger says.Supermarket Takeout

Kroger's $60 Medium Turkey Meal serves six to eight people, which works out to only $7.50 a person for a crowd of eight, or $10 a person for six. Only feeding four? Your cost is a cool $15 a head, though you'll probably have leftovers. You'll get a 10- to 13-pound roasted turkey; a dozen Kings Hawaiian rolls; a 10-inch pumpkin pie; and your choice of two sides like stuffing, green-bean casserole, roasted vegetables, or mashed potatoes. If you'd prefer smoked turkey or a spiral-sliced ham for your main dish, Kroger has you covered at the same price.

If you're feeding a bigger crowd, Kroger's $80 Large Turkey Meal serves eight to 10 people and includes a feast that's more comparable to the amount of food you would get with our home-cooked meal. It costs $8 per person if you'll be feeding 10, or $10 per person for eight. You'll get a 13- to 16-pound turkey; a dozen King's Hawaiian rolls; a 10-inch pumpkin pie; and your choice of four sides.

Dining Out: $12.49 to $14 per person

To avoid meal prep and cleanup entirely, eating out is the way to go. And while you can spend more than $50 per person at high-end restaurants like your local steakhouse, several national chains offer a more modest feast at a much more affordable price, especially compared with cooking for a smaller family. Here are a few favorites:

Denny's: $12.49 per person

At Denny's, the turkey and dressing dinner is on the menu for the holidays. Feast on carved turkey breast; stuffing; turkey gravy; cranberry sauce; bread; and your choice of two sides like mashed potatoes, corn, or zucchini and squash. All that is $10.49 at our local Denny's, though we think it's only fair to add a slice of pumpkin pie, bringing the total to $12.49. Any drink other than water will add a couple more bucks, too.

Cracker Barrel: $13 per person

Cracker Barrel serves a traditional Homestyle Turkey n' Dressing Meal beginning at 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving. You'll get turkey and stuffing; gravy; a sampling of sugar-cured ham; sweet potato casserole; cranberry relish; your choice of one side; biscuits or corn muffins; a refillable beverage; and a slice of pumpkin pie. Considering all that comes included in Cracker Barrel's meal, plus the fact that any kids in your party will only cost $8, we think this is your best value.

Bob Evans: $14 per person

Bob Evans' down-home menu always has home-cooked favorites. You can nosh on herb-rubbed turkey and stuffing; chicken gravy; your choice of bread; and two sides like honey-glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, buttered corn, or macaroni and cheese for $11. Of course, you have to have a slice of pumpkin pie, which adds $3 to your tab. A drink will up the price even more.

Restaurant Takeout: $9.20 to $19.25 per person

If you can't fathom the thought of eating at a restaurant on Thanksgiving, you can instead choose to bring a full holiday meal home with you — in most cases, you'll just need to heat it, then eat it.

Denny's: $9.20 to $11.50 per person

Smaller families may want to consider an easy take-out meal from Denny's that comes hot and ready to eat. The chain's Turkey & Dressing Dinner Pack includes carved turkey breast with stuffing; turkey gravy; cranberry sauce; and two sides like mashed potatoes, sautéed zucchini and squash, or creamed corn. It's $37, but it doesn't include pie; adding that on boosts the price to $46. That's $11.50 per person for four or $9.20 per person for five.

Bob Evans: $10 to $14.38 per person

Buying the Farmhouse Feast for eight people at Bob Evans will set you back $80, or $10 a head, if you select hickory-smoked ham for your main dish. Upgrade to slow-roasted turkey and you'll pay $85, or about $10.63 per person. The meal also comes with the following: bread and celery stuffing; corn; mashed potatoes and gravy; green beans with ham; cranberry relish; rolls; pumpkin bread; and pumpkin pie. Packed cold, the Farmhouse Feast requires heating up at home.Restaurant Takeout

A similar, smaller Farmhouse Feast for four is available for $50 or $55 depending on whether you choose ham or turkey. That works out to $12.50 or $13.75 per person, respectively.

If you really want to splash out on dinner without making it yourself, Bob Evans offers a third option: The Premium Farmhouse Feast for $115. You'll get both turkey and ham; bread and celery stuffing; corn; mashed potatoes and gravy; green beans with ham; cranberry relish; macaroni and cheese; rolls; pumpkin bread; pumpkin pie; and apple pie. If you keep the same crowd of eight, that's $14.38 per person.

Cracker Barrel: $11 to $19.25 per person

More of a Cracker Barrel fan? The chain's Heat N' Serve Holiday Family Meal To Go is $110. It serves up to 10 people, which works out to $11 per person, or $13.75 per person if you're only serving eight. You get two oven-roasted turkey breasts; cornbread stuffing; turkey gravy; cranberry relish; sweet yeast rolls; pumpkin pie; pecan pie; and a choice of three country sides like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, corn, or green beans.

Feeding a smaller crowd? The Homestyle Turkey N' Dressing Family Meal To Go requires no at-home heating and serves up to six people for $68, or $11.33 a person; if you're only serving four, it's $17 a person. It includes turkey; a sampling of sugar-cured ham; cornbread stuffing; turkey gravy; cranberry relish; your choice of bread; and a choice of three sides. There's no pie with this one, so adding one will cost an additional $9 and bring the per-person total to $12.83 for six or $19.25 for four.

Savings Tips for Home Cooks

Although takeout might be a cheaper option, for some people there's just no competing with a homemade Thanksgiving feast. To cut costs, keep an eye open for sales and savings that come with a grocery store's loyalty card, especially when it comes to the priciest part of the meal — the turkey. In years past, we've seen turkey as low as 79 cents a pound for card holders who spend $35 on other groceries — easily accomplished at Thanksgiving.

Alternatively, save money and time by purchasing the dishes that are costly to make from scratch and prepare the rest of the feast in your kitchen. For instance, buying two 8-inch pumpkin pies from Kroger would cost us about $7, compared with more than $17 for the ingredients.

Finally, don't ignore another classic money-saving idea: Delegate responsibilities by arranging a potluck. The host provides the turkey and the guests contribute the fixings.

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