15 Ways to Save on Thanksgiving Food Shopping

Holiday grocery shopping is a little bit like Black Friday shopping. You need to plan and shop early in order to save.

thanksgiving Photo: Lisa Gagne/iStock

Don’t let the news about food inflation and scarcity dissuade you from having a fabulous, filling, and economical Thanksgiving this year. True, the price of food from the grocery has risen 5.3 percent in the past 12 months, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. But the most jarring, double-digit inflation is reflected in meats. Turkey and fresh vegetables—the stars of many a Thanksgiving table—are up just 1.7 percent.

Typical Thanksgiving foods actually are priced less on average this year than in the past two years, says the grocery shopping app and analytics company Basket, which ran the numbers for CR. A market basket of fresh root vegetables, as well as name-brand items such as Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce, Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts, and French’s Original Crispy Fried Onions, costs $22.31 this year, compared with $23.67 last year, and $22.52 in 2019.

“Thanksgiving is actually one of the most economical meals you can host,” says Annette Economides of Phoenix, who with her husband, Steve, runs the website MoneySmartFamily. The key to saving, she notes, is to treat holiday food shopping like Black Friday: Plan ahead, look for sales, and follow common money-saving tips.

Read on for a handful to help you keep food costs in line. (We’ve got a separate guide on how to entertain with ease this season.)

Turkey-Time Tricks

1. Nab the big bird. There’s actually no turkey shortage, and prices of larger birds—16 pounds and up—have dropped around 9 percent from 2020, Basket reports. (It’s the price of smaller birds—an increasingly popular option—that has risen—about 7 percent.) A bigger bird is more economical per pound and per serving, and can produce days’ worth of leftovers. So assuming your freezer, fridge and oven can handle it, go big. A 16- to 24-pound whole turkey averages $1.13 per pound, Basket says. An even bigger bird costs an average $1.09 per pound; in contrast, turkeys weighing 15 pounds or less cost an average $1.40 per pound.

More on Food Shopping

2.  Alternatively, think small. If you’d rather not be stuck with tons of leftovers, buy a smaller turkey, a roasting chicken, or a turkey breast, which will cost less than a whole bird. You could even get away with Costco rotisserie chickens, at $4.99; at around 3 pounds., each will feed 4 to 6 people and save you the time and effort of roasting. "If you slice it and garnish it on a platter with traditional Thanksgiving items—cranberry and stuffing, for instance—it would look great," says Amy Keating, a registered dietician who leads food testing at Consumer Reports. (Buy before Thanksgiving, though, since Costco will be closed that day.)

3. Mind the turkey promotions. Check grocers’ circulars and ads for bargains. BJ’s Wholesale Club, for instance, is offering a free Butterball bird to members who spend $100 or more on qualifying items; they’ll also get $10 loaded to their membership account. The shopping app Ibotta is promising new users a cash rebate of nearly $27 on Thanksgiving items—including turkeys—purchased from Walmart between Nov. 4 and 25. At a few retailers, you’ll get a free turkey if you buy a nice-sized ham. Others have slashed frozen turkey prices; Giant, in the Washington, D.C., area, is charging 39 cents a pound for turkeys of all sizes, through Nov. 11; you must spend at least $25 on other groceries to get the deal.

4. Move fast. Stores generally make promotional offers while supplies last, and may not be giving rain checks. And don’t buy more groceries just to get the freebie. “Only spend what you were planning to in the first place,” says personal finance blogger Andrea Woroch.  

5. Keep it simple. Skip pricey buys like seafood appetizers, sausage for stuffing, and store-bought side dishes. "Focus on the main dishes instead of lots of cheese and crackers, which can be expensive," Keating says. Plus, a side dish with just a few ingredients can be very satisfying. Jacob Pinkham, a consumer from Huntington Beach, Calif., says he uses just a few common ingredients for his stuffing recipe—half a loaf of dried bread, parsley, thyme, a small onion, salt, pepper, and butter—which he prepares in a food processor before loading into the turkey cavity. "Plain and simple is best," he says.

6. Price frozen veggies. Frozen fruits and vegetables are up just 1.6 percent from last year, and frozen veggies are actually 0.3 percent lower in price. What’s more, frozen foods can be nearly as nutritious as fresh fruits and vegetables. Look for the deals now, says Burt Flickinger III, managing director at Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting company based in New York. Manufacturers are cutting back on promotional allowances—that is, payments for displays and advertising to promote their products—so those lower prices now may not last, he explains.

Go to
Consumer Reports’ Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.

Year-Round Tactics

7. Check the circulars. Planning well to minimize your trips to the store can save you time and reduce your impulse purchases. “If you can spend $30 by spending 15 minutes looking at grocery ads, is it worth it?” Economides asks. “I certainly think it is.”

8. Get a store loyalty card.  Most grocery chains’ loyalty programs offer special member deals. Some, notably those of Safeway and Stop & Shop, also let you build rewards toward gas purchases at affiliated gas stations. 

9. Use shopping apps. Three we like are Basket, Ibotta, and Flipp. Basket shows real-time grocery prices online and in-store at local grocers, so you can see where to shop for the best deals; it crowdsources its data, the same way a traffic app like Waze works. Ibotta and Flipp both identify manufacturer promotions and coupons, and offer direct rebates after you buy from a participating retailer.

10. Compare unit prices. Unit price shelf stickers under each product can help you better compare prices of like items. But if the store doesn’t have the stickers, download a unit price calculator on your smart phone to do the work for you: We found free ones for both iOS and Android phones.

11. Go with store brands. The cost of store-brand foods and beverages is at least 20 to 25 percent less than name brands of the same product, Flickinger says. (When CR members were surveyed about the grocery stores and supermarkets they liked best, three grocers earned top marks for their store brands: national names Costco and Trader Joe’s, and Central Market, which is based in San Antonio and is a subsidiary of the privately owned H-E-B supermarket chain.) You can often find store brands right next to comparable name-brand items.

12. Use a cash-back credit card. Some offer rewards for grocery purchases. If you’re looking for a new one, consider the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card; it returns 6 percent on the first $6,000 in groceries each year, among other benefits. The card is currently offering a $300 rebate for spending $3,000 in the first six months, and the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year. Keep in mind that you may need a credit score of 700 or higher to qualify, says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com. The annual percentage rate on this card ranges from 14 percent to 24 percent, so it’s best to use it only if you pay off your balance each month.

13. Embrace digital coupons. Most grocers will accept manufacturers’ paper coupons, and may even double or triple their value at checkout. Certain retailers do it every day or week; others, less regularly. In the Northeast, Stop & Shop doubles manufacturers’ paper coupons every day. Bi-Lo, in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, doubles coupons with a value of 60 cents or less every day, unless noted otherwise at the individual store. (At both chains, other restrictions apply.)

14. Buy in bulk. When 10 cans of your favorite soup go on sale for $10, it’s always wise to load up. And larger packages often have lower per-unit pricing. When you go this route, consider donating a portion to a local food pantry (though they prefer cash because they get bigger discounts); the pandemic has amplified the need of these organizations.

15. Get creative.  CR’s Facebook followers have plenty of ideas for stretching their grocery dollars. For instance, Linda White of Nevada City, Calif., expects to save about $100 this year on her Thanksgiving for four by serving lasagna instead of turkey. Her guests are also helping out. “They’re bringing a pumpkin cheesecake for dessert,” she says.

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Shop Like a Nutritionist

Eating well isn’t always easy—or fun. On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Amy Keating heads into the grocery store to show you how to make healthy decisions when it comes to food.

Tobie Stanger

I cover the money side of home-related purchases and improvements: avoiding scams, making sense of warranties and insurance, finding the best financing, and getting the most value for your dollar. For CR, I've also written about digital payments, credit and debit, taxes, supermarkets, financial planners, airlines, retirement and estate planning, shopping for electronics and hearing aids—even how to throw a knockout wedding on a shoestring. I am never bored. Find me on Twitter: @TobieStanger