A close up of many different types of food on a table

Your Best Thanksgiving Feast Ever, Healthy, Delicious, and Cheap!

If there’s one thing we should be thankful for this Thanksgiving, it’s this: Turkey is cheap! And the rest of the Thanksgiving dinner can be, too.

A close up of many different types of food on a table

The secret to enjoying a traditional feast without overspending is to know a few tricks. I sat down with two highly respected professionals—a butcher and a personal chef. What I learned from John Smith, professional butcher and personal chef, Liz Tarditi, pretty much blew a hole in everything I thought I knew about buying, thawing and preparing a turkey.

Get the best turkey

Choosing the best turkey is easier said than done unless you fully understand the difference between a store brand and a name brand bird. Just because a turkey is more expensive does not make it any better, says John. All that means is that it has a lot of advertising built into its price.

What customers don’t know is that one turkey processor will slap many different labels on his crop of birds. The turkeys are all the same, only the labels are different. This is a rule you can count on, according to John the Butcher: “Always go with the cheapest turkey and you’ll never go wrong. I’ve sold tens of thousands of store brand turkeys to very happy customers.”

EC: Fresh or frozen?

JS: First, let me define a “fresh” turkey. According to the people who make the laws, turkeys can be called “fresh” even though the moisture in the bird is frozen! If you press very firmly on the bird the meat is not frozen. The turkey processors have it down to a science. They bring the temperature of the “fresh” birds down to the very legal limit before sending them off to the store two weeks before Thanksgiving.

Frozen turkeys, on the other hand, are quick-frozen immediately upon butchering. So the freshest turkey is really a frozen turkey. The freezing process has no noticeable effect on the quality of the bird.

EC: How can we select the right turkey from the pile?

JS: First, decide what size of a bird you need (one pound per person is a rough guideline) and then select the plumpest frozen bird in that size category. Some will be slim, some fat. Some turkeys are flat-chested and some are quite bony. Choose the roundest. It’s that easy.

If a bird is skinny, it could mean it wasn’t very healthy and might be dry and tough. Bone and fat cost as much as the meat so go for the least amount of waste. Remember too, that the larger the turkey the more useable meat to bone and fat ratio. Customers often buy a really big one and ask me to saw it in two through the breastbone (no charge, of course). If you do that you can save half for Christmas or share with another family.

EC: Besides the obvious, what’s the difference between a Tom and a Hen?

JS: You’re going to love this. The turkey people who process millions of birds do not have time to do a physical exam. They separate birds by size, not gender. Birds that dress out 16 pounds or more are usually called Toms, 15 pounds and smaller are Hens.

EC: So how about a quick recap?

JS: When choosing a turkey don’t even look at the brand unless you own stock in the company.

  • Go for the cheapest
  • The freshest turkey is a frozen turkey
  • Pick the plumpest one you can find
  • Toms are big and hens are small

Turkeys are a great value now, so it’s a good time to fill your freezer. I buy enough turkeys for my family during the holidays to last all year long. Kept frozen and in its original plastic wrapping, a turkey can safely remain in the freezer for a year.

Prepare the turkey perfectly

For years, Liz Tarditi’s mother tried to kill her family with turkey. Not intentionally, of course, but invariably sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas someone in the family developed flu-like symptoms. Mother blamed it on the weather and whatever influenza was going around but the truth is they suffered from mild food poisoning that zapped their resistance and required weeks to fully recover.

Tarditi, now a professional personal chef, says the way to avoid “the flu” and make sure the holidays are as healthy as they are happy is to practice safe food handling techniques when preparing the Thanksgiving turkey.

EC: Well, you’ve got our attention. What’s the deal with the food poisoning?

LT: Most poultry contains small amounts of salmonella bacteria that when ingested can result in a variety of afflictions all the way from slight illness to death. The way to kill salmonella in food is with heat and on surfaces with an antibacterial agent.

As a professional chef, I am required by law to handle food in such a way as to not poison my customers so I treat all poultry as if it has live salmonella. Unfortunately, most non-professional cooks don’t take similar precautions so lots of people get sick needlessly, but rarely make the connection with their kitchen.

EC: I can understand a restaurant following strict rules because it’s a public place. But it seems extreme for home cooks. Our parents and grandparents didn’t worry about salmonella and antibacterial cleaners, and they did okay.

LT: Yes, but think about that turkey your grandmother made. Was the white meat moist and juicy or was it dry as dust? Did she wiggle the drumstick to see if it was done? That method of cooking turkey until the meat falls off the bones (an ancient test for poultry doneness) requires at least 185 F internal temperature. That’s overkill and means white meat so dry you’ll choke on it. Reducing the cooking time and temperature so the turkey just passes the safety point (165 F) produces delectable results: perfectly moist and juicy white and dark meat.

EC: I’m convinced. So where do we start?

LT: You must have an effective antibacterial solution in your kitchen, but don’t spend $6 for a 12-ounce bottle of cleaner. Make it yourself: One gallon of 70 F (cool) water plus one teaspoon of liquid bleach. Any warmer and the bleach evaporates; more bleach will harm some surfaces and fabrics. So don’t get obsessive, just measure carefully and stick with this perfect, dirt-cheap recipe that will not harm wood, paint, granite, marble or fabric. Regularly sanitize all surfaces with this bleach water, particularly those that may have come in contact with raw poultry including the inside of the refrigerator.

EC: Okay. Here I have this great big frozen turkey. Now what?

LT: Back up a couple of hours. Clean out your refrigerator before you go shopping and make a place for a large sheet pan to catch the raw run-off drippings while it sits in the fridge. Leave the turkey wrapped and place it in the fridge on the sheet pan. Even sealed in plastic, it will drip. Let the frozen turkey thaw naturally.

It will take one day per five pounds. Don’t take it out and leave it on the counter to speed it up; don’t try to quick-thaw it by placing it into the oven at a low temperature, or in a sink of water. Don’t “blast” it at 500 F for three hours before company arrives. Thawing a turkey any other way than in the fridge on a sheet pan for several days invites trouble because it increases the chances that some bacteria will make it through the cooking process alive and well.

EC: What if it is fully thawed several days before Thanksgiving?

LT: Even if the bird is thawed completely by say, Tuesday, just leave it fully wrapped in the refrigerator. It will still be excellent on Thursday.

EC: What’s the best way to safely stuff a turkey?

LT: In a word? Don’t! As the bird cooks, raw juices drip into the soft, absorbent stuffing. The stuffing may be steaming hot when you spoon it out, so you think it’s fully cooked because the bird is. It’s not. Turkey must reach an internal temperature of 165º F, and so must the contaminated stuffing. It’s nearly impossible to cook a stuffed turkey to perfection and also guarantee uncontaminated stuffing.

EC: You don’t really expect us to give up stuffing, do you?

LT: No! Prepare your stuffing as you always have but bake it in a separate foil-covered pan while the turkey’s roasting. Use some turkey stock to give it that great flavor we all know and love. After the bird is fully cooked and out of the oven, mix some of the roasting pan drippings and fat into the stuffing before you make the gravy. An unstuffed turkey cooks faster and more evenly.

EC: What’s the easiest, and hopefully fool-proof way to roast a turkey?

LT: Set the oven to 325 F. Place the turkey in a roasting pan, season with salt and pepper and put it in uncovered. It will take about 3 hours for a 12-pound turkey; add 10-12 minutes for each additional pound, up to 6 hours total for a 25-pound bird.

Check internal temperature 2/3 through the cooking time using a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh meat. It’s done when it reads 165 F. Always sanitize the thermometer before and after you stick it in the bird. Let the bird rest for 20 minutes before carving for juicier and more flavorful meat.

Remember the season

Build your menu around fresh stuff that is really cheap this time of year. Pumpkins, squash, onions, apples and potatoes are in season and very inexpensive right now. You won’t have to look far to find excellent recipes for butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and onions.

And think about this: How cheap is a bag of flour plus a few packets of yeast? Dirt cheap! The crowning glory of your holiday meal can be homemade bread or rolls.

Pro Tip: Make rolls days ahead and freeze them right at the point of the second rise. Really easy and what a great idea!

Stick to the basics

Forget all those fancy appetizers, relish plates and far-out exotic dishes that end up costing a small fortune. Most people don’t care that much for them anyway. Stick with a traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, one or two vegetables, a salad, rolls, and dessert.

If you want to impress your guests by jazzing things up a bit, try this easy soup to start off the meal:

A bowl of soup on a table
Print Recipe Pin Recipe
2.21 from 5 votes

Pumpkin Soup

If you want to impress your guests by jazzing things up a bit, try this easy soup to start off your Thanksgiving Feast!
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time30 mins
10 mins
Total Time1 hr
Course: Soup
Cuisine: American
Servings: 6
Calories: 141kcal
Cost: $2.50


  • large cooking pot
  • blender


  • 1 29-oz. can pure pumpkin puree (careful, NOT pumpkin pie filling)
  • 1/2 onion, small (chopped and sauteed)
  • pinch garlic powder, or to taste
  • 1 14.5-oz can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • red pepper flakes, optional
  • salt and pepper, to taste


  • Place all ingredients in a pot and cook for 30 minutes on Medium heat.
  • Pour into blender or use an emersion blender to purree the soup, just before serving.


Serving: 1cup | Calories: 141kcal

First published: 11-18-16; Revised & Updated for 11-13-19

John Smith is the author of the book “Confessions of a Butcher: Eat Steak on a Hamburger Budget and Save.” Chef Liz Tarditi is a professional personal chef. She provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals for busy clients in their homes.


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17 replies
  1. Christi-Anna says:

    2 stars
    Are you sure about the sanitizer recipe?
    1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water?
    Really? Only 1 teaspoon?
    As to the other topics in this post – same old, same old.

  2. Jane says:

    I use get a turkey sawed in half, but the stores around here won’t do it anymore. Reason they say is cross contamination. My take is oh dear, we will have to clean the saw. Have you had problems?

    • Pat C says:

      My dad used to cut the frozen turkey in half, lengthwise, in the basement. On his table saw! I’m amazed that my mother who was an OR nurse was OK with it. Either that or it only contaminated any wood that he later sawed and that wasn’t her problem.

  3. Robin says:

    Hi Mary, I do love your hints and tips, but I confess to being disappointed by this post. Everyone marvels at how cheap turkeys are. Well, do you know how they manage to be so cheap? Without going into the gory details and grossing everyone out, it is the manner in which they are raised which means they are dirt cheap. Overcrowded conditions and excessive use of hormones and antibiotics to fatten up the bird are a big problem. Turkeys grown for profit are much fatter than wild turkeys or those grown without the use of drugs, and the largest ones can’t even stand up because their legs can’t handle the unnatural weight. I know people who will buy a whole load of cheap turkey at Thanksgiving and put it in the freezer. Why not just buy a free range, organic bird for the same money and not take part in the suffering of these birds or feeding hormones and antibiotics to your family. By the way, my family owned two poultry farms so I know what the situation is. Thank you for listening.

  4. PJ says:

    Great information in this, especially about the ‘fresh’ turkey, I was planning to buy one this year, but not anymore! I am glad to read about the brand name vs. store brand as well, and I can fully testify that he is absolutely correct. I’ve always bought the ‘cheap’ brand name turkeys because they were what I could afford at the time. One year I was doing better and decided I would splurge and get a ‘good’ turkey, it was not nearly as juicy or flavorful as my cheap turkeys. I’ve never bought a name brand since. My only comment is about the stuffing. I understand the concerns she expressed, but I’ve been stuffing turkeys over 30 years and serving my in the in-the-bird cooked stuffing with no ill effects on my family. One thing I have always done, however, is when I remove the stuffing from the bird, I usually have some time before we are ready to sit down and eat, so I put my stuffing that has been removed from the bird into a casserole dish, covered (sometimes with a little extra of the hot broth that’s been cooking with the neck and gizzards mixed in), in a hot (325 degree) oven, so that it’s piping hot when we’re ready to sit down. Maybe that ‘kills’ anything that may be lurking. Either way, I believe it’s good to be knowledgeable, and it is good advice for novice cooks if they are not sure how to properly stuff and cook a stuffed turkey, to perhaps cook it unstuffed. Love your columns Mary, I share them often. 🙂

    • Sue McMahon says:

      I find that I get more juice for gravy when I cook the turkey un-stuffed. And it takes a lot less time to cook the turkey too. But if I ever stuff it again I’ll be sure to follow your heating in a casserole dish advice!

  5. Sue McMahon says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! A MILLION times, thank you! I have cooked Thanksgiving dinners for years and always have to look up the cooking time, what temperature it’s supposed to reach, etc., and have usually bought a “fresh” turkey because I thought it was “better”. Not this year. I just printed this article out and it will go in my accordion folder of my “go-to” recipes.

    You just took so much stress off of me because my sister-in-law Martha Stewart is coming for dinner (haha, not really, that’s just what I *lovingly* call her in my own head!). So of course I want everything to taste AMAZING!!!

    Thanks again, Mary! I love your articles!

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Oh I am sitting her laughing outloud! Your MIL … 🙂 I know you’re going to knock ’em dead. Especially if you add the Pumpkin Soup. It’s amazing and everyone will join MIL in thinking you started with a pumpkin from your own garden which you raised from an heirloom seed then roasted it, peeled it, coddled it for many hours at the perfect temperature and all. Just make sure that empty can makes it to the outside trash before anyone arrives. You won’t have to lie. They will assume 🙂 and then don’t bother correcting them. And those rolls. You have to make the rolls. And since writing this post, I’ve discovered something great on that, as well. You can make the rolls days ahead right up to the point of forming them into little balls … then freeze them. That’s frees you up on Thurs and you’ll produce freshly baked amazing rolls from the oven and to rave reviews. I got the idea from my friends at King Arthur Flour. I got to visit the factory, bakery, plant, store, cafe this past summer. Oh what a fabulous place! It’s in Vermont.

      • Sue McMahon says:

        Hahaha! Now it’s my turn to laugh!

        Great tip on the rolls….and the soup sounds amazing, and looks very easy to make!

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