Thanksgiving is a time for bringing family and friends together around a bountiful meal, often including recipes handed down for generations. But consumers' perception of food has changed in recent years, and concerns surrounding ingredients, processing and animal welfare are more prevalent than before.
Industry and dietary experts view these trends as tweaks or enhancements to Thanksgiving rather than outright disruptions. Increased focus on health and sustainability may shake up this year's Thanksgiving menu, but won't derail the foundational food-related traditions so emblematic of the holiday.
How consumers' food perceptions could impact Thanksgiving
More consumers today are concerned about how their diet impacts their overall health, and many have made a variety of changes to their everyday food and beverage selections as a result. Foster Farms conducted a national survey in August that revealed a number of these trends in consumers' food perceptions, particularly in relation to the comfort foods served at Thanksgiving meals:
73% of consumers have changed their opinions about the food they feel good about eating
81% care more about quality of ingredients
83% choose healthier recipes
81% eat more fruits and vegetables
63% seek more meat and poultry raised without hormones and antibiotics
"These shifts reveal that today’s comfort food cuisine features fresh and premium quality ingredients, including antibiotic-free and organic poultry," Patrick Sai, marketing manager for the turkey business at Foster Farms, told Food Dive. "We are seeing organic whole turkeys in high demand this Thanksgiving season, as consumers shift toward a more purposeful approach in selecting their ingredients."
Food allergies are also on the rise in the U.S., which has inspired the growth of the gluten-free and free-from food industries over the past several years. Startups and major manufacturers alike have attempted to create new products in these segments, as well as alternative versions of popular foods that tend to contain allergens. If families or individuals have grown accustomed to free-from foods, either out of choice or necessity, these trends will likely be a part of Thanksgiving meal plans this year.
"Those living with food allergies and food intolerances bring a unique challenge to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner," Lara Felton, registered dietitian and head of the dietary team at ShopWell, told Food Dive. "...Beyond gluten, the free-from movement (also) challenges home cooks to change up Thanksgiving classics and try new dishes."
For those with food allergies or eating free-from products because of health concerns, any dietary changes are likely to reach into future Thanksgivings. That could mean permanent menu shifts for families across the country, ranging from replacement dishes to ingredient swaps in classic recipes.
"These diet restrictions have change how (consumers) shop and cook and definitely impacts holiday cooking and I believe they are here to stay," said Felton. "I think some dishes will stand sacrosanct; most individuals never mess with how they cook their turkey."
"We likely won’t see a complete overhaul of traditional Thanksgiving dishes any time soon," said Sai. "(But) it’s probable consumers will make small substitutions or updates that align with evolving preferences."
Changes in Thanksgiving dishes vs. ingredients
Entirely new Thanksgiving menus could be possible, but experts agree it's more likely that consumers will focus on improving their ingredient purchases — like finding organic meat or gluten-free grains — instead of finding new recipes.
Take the traditional Thanksgiving turkey. Consumers are increasingly aware of controversial aspects of turkey breeding like the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, and animal welfare issues. This has led to the growth of organic meat sales and an increase in cage-free poultry. These practices will likely drive consumers to brands that abide by these standards when it comes time to buy this year's Thanksgiving protein.
"I think some dishes will stand sacrosanct; most individuals never mess with how they cook their turkey."
ShopWell dietary team head
"During the Thanksgiving timeframe, we have seen an increase in popularity in pre-brined turkeys as well as organic birds," said Sai. "...While this trend may not be disruptive to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, it does represent a shift in consumer preferences from a generation ago.”
Side dishes could also see a notable ingredients overhaul this Thanksgiving. From growing interest in adding more fruits and vegetables to diets to weariness over grains' impact on health, consumers' perceptions and industry trends are likely to impact their holiday food purchases.
"Fresh produce is playing a larger role in the traditional Thanksgiving meal than ever before," Dean Rucker, chef, James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author and Food Network "Chopped" champion, told Food Dive. "We are seeing more squash dishes. ...Harvest salads with seasonal fruit, artisan cheeses and nuts, along with a variety of fresh, vibrant greens, are increasingly more appealing to consumers than heavy stuffing and casserole dishes made with canned, processed ingredients."
"As was demonstrated in Foster Farms’ ‘new comfort food’ survey findings, people are cutting back on rich, heavy ingredients and opting for lighter, fresher alternatives — without sacrificing flavor," Rucker continued.
This is especially true for grain-based dishes, like stuffings and casseroles, which could see an overhaul by consumers whose dinner guests want to eat gluten-free.
"The gluten-free trend is rising steadily and is infiltrating holiday meals," said Rucker. "We are seeing a lot more gluten-free bread stuffing alternatives in addition to many stuffing and side dishes that don’t mimic bread. Rather, stuffing/side dishes with quinoa, wild rice, millet, amaranth, vegetables, greens, dried fruit and nuts are increasingly popular ingredients whose combinations of flavor and texture excite the palate more than traditional stuffing or casserole recipes.”
"Gluten-free is still a hot trend and will definitely have an impact from those starchy sides to gravies, sauces and desserts," said Felton. "Ancient grains, particularly quinoa, and pulses are also very trendy and I could see these foods being used as substitutions or new additions to the Thanksgiving meal."
Could Thanksgiving meal kits become a trend this year?
Meal kits are becoming a popular way to help consumers put home-cooked meals on the table without a trip to the grocery store. In some cases, meal kits have pre-measured and even pre-chopped ingredients as well. With busy schedules leading up to the big day, consumers may consider using meal kits for Thanksgiving dinner.
"In the days leading up to the holidays, anything to make prep easier will be essential," Michael McDevitt, CEO of meal kit delivery service Terra’s Kitchen, told Food Dive. "...Saving time is the biggest convenience here. Meal kits cut down on steps like planning, going to the store, and ... much of the prep."
"People are cutting back on rich, heavy ingredients and opting for lighter, fresher alternatives — without sacrificing flavor."
Cookbook author and chef
But while cutting down on prep time is valuable for many consumers, meal kits often can't recreate beloved family recipes. Consumers have to accept a limited selection of side dishes in exchange for the convenience meal kits bring.
"You may have family food traditions that meal kits don't provide, so you may end up still cooking other items," said McDevitt.
However, McDevitt believes meal kits could play a unique role in the days immediately following the Thanksgiving feast this year and going forward.
"After Thanksgiving, you can only eat so much turkey and mashed potatoes," said McDevitt. "So the week after is a great time to plan for a meal kit delivery service."
Manufacturers of traditional Thanksgiving ingredients may not have much to fear in terms of current trends disrupting holiday traditions. But brands have to consider how consumers are permanently changing their relationship with food and the ingredients they use to cook family meals.
"Traditional Thanksgiving dishes have stood the test of time and are not going away anytime soon," said Rucker. "The shift we are seeing, however, is a reinterpretation of what type of ingredients fit within this meal. We are seeing a shift away from the cans and boxes and back to the farm, where the real harvest happens. Premium quality turkey, fresh produce, grains and other ingredients have a spot at consumers’ Thanksgiving dinner tables now more than ever before.”