Company Updates

Third Annual Turkey Day Exposé: Breaking Down This Year’s Big Meal



Nov 3, 2021

Last year, Thanksgiving looked a lot different with many families opting for smaller-scale celebrations, outdoor dining experiences, or meal-time video chats with loved ones around the dinner table. Whatever your 2020 Thanksgiving looked like, this year many Americans are looking forward to coming together and celebrating with food, family, and friends. 

According to recent Instacart surveys among more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online by The Harris Poll, nearly all Americans (91%) are planning to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner this year. More than half of Americans (55%) say they expect to have less than 10 people at their Thanksgiving dinner this year, with more than 1 in 5 (22%) expecting just 4 people or less. Meanwhile, some Americans are planning bigger celebrations, with more than 1 in 3 (37%) saying they expect to have 10 or more people for their Thanksgiving meal this year.

Even though more people are comfortable celebrating Thanksgiving together this year, one pandemic-era trend remains: staying local. According to our Instacart/Harris Poll surveys, a majority of Americans (71%) are planning to celebrate Thanksgiving in the town or city where they live, while only 16% are planning to venture outside their town/city limits for Turkey Day celebrations. 

When it comes to the big meal itself, tradition holds true with a majority of Americans who plan to host or contribute dishes for Thanksgiving dinner this year (85%) saying they plan to make a traditional Thanksgiving meal (e.g. turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce) for friends and family. Here’s what we can expect to see being served up on dinner tables across the country…

The Main Dish: Gobble Gobble

Following tradition, turkey is the centerpiece for most Thanksgiving celebrations. Last year, Instacart sold more than 4 million pounds of turkey with large (42%), average-sized (29%), small (27%), and tiny (2%) turkeys making up all turkey purchases, according to Instacart purchase data. Here are the sizes of turkeys people are planning to purchase this year, according to the Instacart/Harris Poll surveys:

Team white meat or dark meat? According to the Instacart/Harris Poll surveys, more than 9 in 10 Americans (93%) eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and among those who do…

  • 44% prefer white meat
  • 20% prefer dark meat
  • 25% prefer an equal mix of both dark and white meat
  • 11% don’t have a preference

Further, among those who eat turkey on Thanksgiving, Americans living in the Northeast (50%), South (44%) and Midwest (50%) are more likely than those living in the West (34%) to prefer white turkey meat for Thanksgiving.

The Sides: Controversial Cranberries & Sweet Potato Confusion

The Thanksgiving meal is known for its variety of side dishes – from cranberry sauce and green bean casserole to yams and mashed potatoes – and everyone has a strong opinion about what actually belongs on the table. 

These sides are the worst. According to our Instacart/Harris poll surveys, these are among the worst Thanksgiving dishes according to Americans along with the percentage of people who believe it to be true:

Controversial cranberries. While cranberry sauce isn’t at the top of the worst dishes on the Thanksgiving table, it certainly is one of the most controversial, especially when it comes to discussing what’s better: homemade or canned cranberry sauce. According to our Instacart/Harris Poll surveys, here’s how Americans net out when it comes to their cranberry sauce preferences:

  • 37% prefer homemade cranberry sauce
  • 35% prefer canned cranberry sauce 
  • 21% do not eat cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving 
  • 3% have never tried it

Further to this, among those who prefer canned cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving, nearly 7 in 10 (68%) prefer to eat it in the shape of the can, while just 27% prefer it mashed up so it looks homemade. 

“Despite canned cranberry sauce being so controversial and a hot topic at many Thanksgiving dinner tables across the country, Instacart purchase data shows that sales for the Thanksgiving staple have increased by 32% over the past two years,” said Instacart’s Trends Expert Laurentia Romaniuk. “There are different reasons why consumers may prefer canned cranberry sauce including tradition, flavor, nostalgia, texture, convenience, or the fact that it can be served on a dish in the shape of a can, which adds an element of levity to the meal.” 

Here’s exactly how much canned cranberry sauce Instacart delivered in 2020:

And if you’re curious about which parts of the country like canned vs. homemade cranberry sauce the most, we’ve got you covered…

According to the cranberry sauce heat map, these states are more likely to prefer homemade cranberry sauce compared to the national average:

  1. Iowa
  2. South Dakota
  3. Nebraska
  4. Minnesota
  5. Oregon

Meanwhile, people living in these states are more likely to prefer canned cranberry sauce:

  1. Mississippi
  2. Rhode Island
  3. New Hampshire
  4. Alabama
  5. New Jersey

The “root” of the matter: yams vs. sweet potatoes. Candied yams and sweet potatoes may be at the top of the list for some of the “worst” Thanksgiving foods, but root vegetables are still purchased in large quantities for Thanksgiving. In fact, Instacart delivered more than 2.5 million pounds of the two veggies last year!

Regardless of whether or not we actually like yams and sweet potatoes, we were curious if people know the difference between the two. According to our Instacart/Harris Poll surveys, only about 2 in 5 Americans (42%) believe yams and sweet potatoes are different vegetables, while 39% believe they are the same, and 19% have no clue if they are the same or not.

And for the marshmallow on top of these sweet, sweet insights — whether you love it or hate it — nearly 2 in 5 Americans (39%) believe marshmallows absolutely or probably belong in sweet potato dishes on Thanksgiving. Cue the controversy!

The Flavor: It Better be Butter

Everyone knows that butter is the secret ingredient in nearly every Thanksgiving dish, but how much exactly are we using to enhance flavor in our food? According to Instacart purchase data, Instacart delivered 3,399,218 pounds of butter in November 2020, which is 1,079,036 pounds more than we delivered the month before in October. Here’s a breakdown of which states buy the most buttery goodness:

These states buy the most amount of butter per customer:

  1. West Virginia: 12.59 ounces/customer 
  2. Vermont: 12.43 ounces/customer 
  3. Minnesota: 11.73 ounces/customer 
  4. North Dakota: 11.54 ounces/customer 
  5. Iowa: 11.5 ounces/customer 

These states buy the least amount of butter per customer:

  1. Hawaii: 3.44 ounces/customer 
  2. Idaho: 6.18 ounces/customer 
  3. Washington, D.C.: 6.63 ounces/customer 
  4. California: 6.64 ounces/customer 
  5. Washington: 6.64 ounces/customer 

The Dessert: Eyes on the Pies

Pies definitely have a “moment” every Thanksgiving when most people opt for a nice slice after dinner — in place of their usual sweet tooth choices. These are the top Thanksgiving pie preferences, according to Instacart purchase data:

If you’re tasked with bringing the pie this Thanksgiving, you have a few options: 1) bake the pie from scratch, 2) buy some of the pie ingredients (like the crust) and bake the rest from scratch, or 3) buy a premade pie from the store and decide whether or not you want to pass it off as homemade 😏. 

So what are Americans doing when it comes to Thanksgiving pie duties? Using Instacart purchase data, we mapped out which states are more likely to order premade pies vs buying the individual pie ingredients. 

East coast vs. west coast: There is a clear divide in our country in regards to buying premade pies vs. ingredients to make homemade pies. The west coast is much more likely to buy premade pies, with Hawaii topping the list, while the east coast is more likely to buy just the ingredients, with Vermonters standing strong for their homemade classics. 

Planning Ahead: A Must This Year

According to our recent Instacart/Harris Poll surveys, nearly half of Americans hosting or contributing dishes to Thanksgiving dinner this year (48%) are either very or somewhat concerned about getting everything they need for their Thanksgiving meal due to supply chain issues. Given these ongoing disruptions and potential shortages of popular Thanksgiving items, it’s important to start planning your meal and shopping for the ingredients as early as you can.

In addition, among those who plan to host or contribute dishes to Thanksgiving dinner this year, nearly 1 in 3 (32%) planned to start buying ingredients for those dishes before the end of October. About 1 in 5 say they’ll wait to start buying ingredients until the first (Nov 1-7) or second (Nov 8-14) week of November (19% and 21%, respectively). In addition, more than 9 in 10 Americans (91%) who plan to host or contribute dishes to Thanksgiving dinner this year say they, or someone in their household, will go to the grocery store or shop online more than once to get everything they need to make their Thanksgiving dinner/dish, and 68% say it will be 3 or more times. 

“To ensure you’re able to get everything you need on your Thanksgiving shopping list, we strongly recommend starting your grocery shopping earlier than usual this year,” said Romaniuk. “According to Instacart insights, the days leading up to Thanksgiving are some of the busiest shopping days of the entire year, and it’s also when popular Thanksgiving items see huge spikes in demand. We recommend that people start shopping for their non-perishable and frozen ingredients in early November and load up on fresh ingredients as far out from the Thanksgiving holiday as feasible. And above all, remember that the most important thing about Thanksgiving isn’t any one ingredient or dish, it’s quality time and good food with loved ones.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! 🦃

Survey Method:

The first survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Instacart from October 19-20, 2021 among 2,006 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, of whom 1,098 plan to host or contribute a dish to Thanksgiving dinner this year. The second survey was conducted October 25-27 among 3,058 U.S. adults, of whom 2,846 eat turkey on Thanksgiving. 

These online surveys are not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodologies, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact [email protected]

Adjusting for Growth:

We adjust Instacart growth percentages by the overall growth of total deliveries. Doing so removes the influence of our platform growth so we can focus on the change in consumer behavior.



Instacart is the leading grocery technology company in North America, partnering with more than 1,400 national, regional, and local retail banners to deliver from more than 80,000 stores across more than 14,000 cities in North America. To read more Instacart posts, you can browse the company blog or search by keyword using the search bar at the top of the page.

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