How Leftovers Saved Thanksgiving Turkey From the Pandemic

If there’s one Thanksgiving food that you might expect to struggle in a year when millions of Americans are gathering on Zoom rather than around a dining table, it’s the bird that can feed an extended family in one sitting.

In any given year, 40 million turkeys are eaten over the Thanksgiving holiday — equivalent to roughly a billion pounds of meat at average slaughter weights. Getting through all that breast and leg is a problem in the best of times, and the coronavirus pandemic should have made things even harder.

The typical Thanksgiving meal hosted a dozen people in 2010. At a pound or so per person, that’s enough to get through most of a 17-pound turkey hen. This year, however, only about 27% of Americans are planning to have dinner with anyone outside their homes, according to a survey conducted for the New York Times. With your average household having just 2.6 people, the same bird would provide enough meat to feed the family for a week. There’s a fine line between leftovers and force-feeding turkey at every meal.

How Leftovers Saved Thanksgiving Turkey From the Pandemic

It would be reasonable to think the sharp reduction in place settings would have accentuated a gradual trend toward eating smaller meals from individual parts of the bird, such as legs, breast and ground meat. A couple of generations ago, about half of Americans’ annual turkey consumption was in the form of whole birds eaten in the holiday season stretching from Thanksgiving to Christmas, according to Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, an industry group. Nowadays that share has fallen to about one-third, as packaged and processed meat has become more of a year-round staple of lunch counters and school canteens. Whole birds comprised just 26% of the turkey in cold storage in the post-holiday lull at the end of November last year, down from 38% in 2017.

In fact, the opposite has happened. 

“It’s been somewhat surprising. Whole bird sales have been strong throughout the pandemic,” says John Zimmerman, 47, a second-generation turkey farmer who raises about 150,000 birds annually in Northfield, south of Minneapolis.

The best explanation seems to be the larger amount of time that everyone’s spending at home. Just cooking a full-sized turkey can take four hours or so. If you add in time for brining (and you should) the whole project will use up a day or more.

How Leftovers Saved Thanksgiving Turkey From the Pandemic

In normal years, that substantial time investment has meant that the convenience of using portions or other foods often wins out over home-cooked whole turkey, except around the holiday season. But the past year has been anything but normal. Some 46% of Americans said they were spending more time under lockdown cooking, according to a March survey by Morning Consult — a larger increase than streaming television or films, reading books or virtual social events. Preparing a full-sized bird for one meal and using up the leftovers through the week, like making sourdough bread, seems to have been one way that Americans have made it through the enforced isolation of coronavirus.

That’s helped lift prices for farmers and processors. Typically, America’s 123 million households are gathered under a much smaller number of roofs for Thanksgiving dinner, meaning the 40 million birds are just enough to go around. This year, socially isolated families are cooking far more individual meals, putting pressure on a fairly inflexible supply of poultry. Fresh whole turkey hens were selling for $1.32 per pound last week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up about 13% from a year earlier.

For Zimmerman, that’s been less than ideal. While the whole-bird market prefers hens that weigh in at around 17 pounds each, he specializes in the larger male toms, which can be 41 pounds apiece and are mostly processed and used in the food service industry. At the peak of the pandemic, with schools and restaurants closed, those sales were down 60% on their usual levels, according to Brandenberger. That's been recovering gradually, but is unlikely to go back to usual until vaccine immunization becomes more widespread.

Still, skills learned under lockdown aren't easily forgotten. Just as office workers have acquired new talents for home working, a nation that's grown more adept at cooking whole birds (and more importantly, using up their leftovers) may keep up the habit even as they return to a semblance of normality.

“Home cooking will still remain a fixture,” said Brandenberger. “Nobody’s going back overnight to the old patterns.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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