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Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? And is it healthy?

Turkey is rich in vitamins and minerals and can promote heart health

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A cooked chicken sits on a table surrounded by autumn vegetables.

An estimated 46 million turkeys are eaten during the holiday season, each weighing an average of 30 pounds.


Chicken takes a back seat as America’s favorite poultry for Thanksgiving. An estimated 46 million turkeys are eaten during the holiday season, each weighing an average of 30 pounds, per Business Insider,

“That means Americans are eating nearly 1.4 billion pounds of turkey during the holiday,” the article said.

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

Ken Albalaa, a history professor at the University of the Pacific specializing in cultural cuisine, told Real Simple the “first Thanksgiving” in Plymouth, Massachusetts, looked quite different from how we celebrate today.

However, “There was a tradition of serving large wildfowl in medieval Europe, especially peacock, which was skinned, cooked and resewn into its feathers for presentation,” Albala said.

“When turkeys from America and guinea fowl from Africa were introduced (to Europe) in the 17th century, they were served the same way,” Albala added. Turkey may not have been a part of the 1621 feast, but it has obviously become a staple on the Thanksgiving table.

According to Britannica, once President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, a “national mythology formed around it” due to a collection of pilgrim writings that included letters by colonist Edward Winslow.

“Although Winslow didn’t specifically mention turkey, his fellow colonist William Bradford did refer to a ‘great store of wild Turkies’ at Plymouth that fall, in a journal that was reprinted in 1856,” Britannica reported. “Before long, the cultural links between Pilgrims, turkeys, and Thanksgiving became an inextricable and integral part of American schoolchildren’s education.”

Is turkey healthy?

The American Heart Association said turkey will likely be one of the healthiest choices on your Thanksgiving menu.

“Turkey is a great source of protein, rich in many vitamins and minerals, and is low-fat — if you don’t eat the skin,” Catherine M. Champagne, professor of nutritional epidemiology and dietary assessment and nutrition counseling at Louisiana State University, told the American Heart Association. “It’s rich in B-complex vitamins niacin, B6 and B12 and the essential nutrient choline.”

WebMD has shared these potential health benefits of adding turkey to your diet:

  • Reduces the risk of cancer.
  • Promotes heart health.
  • Reduces risk of Alzheimer’s
  • Rich in vitamins and minerals.

To get the most health benefits out of your turkey, Healthline emphasized that you have to choose the right type of cut to serve:

“For example, dark meat, which is found in active muscles such as the legs or thighs, tends to have more fat and calories than white meat — whereas white meat contains slightly more protein. Furthermore, turkey skin is high in fat. This means that cuts with the skin on have more calories and fat than skinless cuts.”

What is the average price of a Thanksgiving turkey?

As the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey is usually the most expensive dish on the menu. However, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 38th annual survey announced that this year's turkey is discounted from last year.

“Turkey prices have fallen thanks to a sharp reduction in cases of avian influenza, which have allowed production to increase in time for the holiday,” said AFBF Senior Economist Veronica Nigh.

The average price of a 16-pound turkey is now $27.35, which is down about 5.6% compared to the price in 2022.