Shannon Lynch’s favorite Thanksgiving dish isn’t her mom’s mashed potatoes or a family pie recipe passed down through generations. It’s the stuffing from Harris Teeter.
“The celery’s crunchy. It has a spice or some type of added mixture. It makes your nose happy,” the 27-year-old says. “I eat it with mashed potatoes; I eat it with my turkey; we put it on sandwiches. It’s just fabulous.”
Nine years ago, Lynch’s family stopped attempting to pull off a homemade Thanksgiving that usually meant her mother spending the day in the kitchen and missing out on family time.
Instead, Leni Lynch, 64, started pre-ordering everything from the turkey to the gravy to the pumpkin pie from Harris Teeter, a chain of grocery stores throughout the Southeast, where a standard turkey dinner with cornbread stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce costs $49.99 and serves eight to 10 people. The pie costs an extra $8.99.
“It’s the best decision I ever made,” says Leni, who lives at Wintergreen ski resort in Wintergreen, Va. “We usually go to the movies and then come home and eat. We never got to do that before. It’s just a delightful experience.”
On a holiday traditionally recognized as the ultimate celebration of the home and its bounty, Americans are ditching the kitchen and seeking out restaurants and prepared options in order to carve out more family time, reduce stress or find a better space to host a crowd.
But historically, Thanksgiving is meant to be held at home, with homemade dishes.
“Thanksgiving is an archetypal home festival,” says Merry White, author of a cookbook called Cooking for Crowds and a professor of food anthropology at Boston University.
The day was a tradition founded by Abraham Lincoln to unite the country after the Civil War, laying the “basic foundation as the home as where America is,” she says. “It’s also supposed to represent love and service, service being the arduous activity of serving the meal.”
Letting the hospitality industry do the serving “undercuts the nature of this domestic holiday,” White says.
Blame it on the 21st-century busyness complex. Whether it’s an unyielding work schedule, expensive travel or keeping up with kids’ activities, we’re finding it harder to carve out time to prepare an entire Thanksgiving dinner, or just don’t want to.
“People are busy with their lives, and people are looking for ways to simplify their lives,” says George Michel, CEO of the Boston Market restaurant chain, where Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year.
The company serves more than 1 million people across all 460 locations on Thanksgiving. More than half of that business is for pickup orders. Many of the restaurants set up tents and refrigerators outside, where a line of customers starts forming around 9:30 a.m., Michel says.
A turkey dinner for 12, which includes two pies, dinner rolls and spinach artichoke dip along with the classic turkey and sides, is $94.99. But Boston Market also offers variations, including a ham dinner, combo meals and meals with fewer sides. Diners who eat in the restaurant shell out $10.99 for an individual meal.
The company’s Thanksgiving business has increased 13% to 14% every year since 2010. Throughout the holiday season last year, but primarily on Thanksgiving, that amounted to more than 36,000 turkeys, 10,000 hams and 3 million pounds of mashed potatoes. And as Black Friday sales have ballooned in recent years — requiring retail workers to cut family time short to be at work — Boston Market has also started catering Thanksgiving dinner for retailers including Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target.
“People are stressed for time,” Michel says. “The solutions provided by us have become a necessity, and I guess a welcome proposition.”
In a survey given exclusively to USA TODAY, Boston Market found that more than half of respondents plan to use prepared foods as part of their Thanksgiving meal. Respondents said relying on prepared options makes them feel “efficient,” “relieved,” “confident” and “relaxed.”
Those interviewed by USA TODAY say the same. Katy Ellis will go the semi-homemade route this year to host her husband’s parents and sister. The 24-year-old from Houston is buying most of her dishes, including a pre-brined turkey, from a local grocery store. But she plans to make mashed potatoes and bread herself.
“I love cooking, I just think it’s so stressful on Thanksgiving,” Ellis says. “It sounds like a lot of fun and then when you actually get down to it, it takes a lot longer than you think and you never have enough space for anything.”
Ellis is used to an unconventional Thanksgiving. Her husband, Mat, 26, is an oil and gas engineer whose job has kept him away from home on the holiday for the past four years. So she’s usually traveled to him. One year, that meant dinner at a diner in Anchorage. Last year, it was steaks at Morton’s The Steakhouse in Dallas.
Morton’s opened several restaurants for the first time on Thanksgiving last year after observing that competitors like Capital Grille were having success on the holiday. This year, about 50 of its 70 U.S.-based restaurants will be open on Thursday.
“We’re expecting a really big day,” says Scott Crain, vice president of operations, adding that some restaurants are expecting double the number of people as last year.
But steak instead of a Thanksgiving turkey? Morton’s doesn’t change the menu to accommodate the classic American fare. Even on Thanksgiving, filet mignon is the top seller, Crain says.
Deviating from tradition on a day when the menu seems sacrosanct began long before families started heading to Morton’s and Boston Market for dinner. It was in the 1980s, when Americans started installing state-of-the-art appliances, liking ethnic foods and experimenting in the kitchen, White says.
She recalls one year when a friend served lamb shish kebabs for Thanksgiving. “There was such a feeling of transgression,” she says. “Everyone felt slightly uncomfortable. It was delicious, but it wasn’t Thanksgiving.”
Others say unconventional gatherings allow for more family time and new traditions. When Sara Pimental’s parents moved from the Minnesota suburb where she grew up to Minneapolis, they didn’t have enough room in their condo to host Thanksgiving anymore.
So two years ago, they turned one holiday into a long weekend and rented rooms at the downtown Hilton. They eat Thanksgiving dinner in the hotel restaurant and head to Macy’s for Black Friday shopping. This year, the group will include Pimental’s parents, her husband, and her sister and her sister’s boyfriend visiting from New Orleans.
“We just get to spend so much more time with each other and not have to worry about taking care of anything at home,” says Pimental, 25.
While eating out on Thanksgiving isn’t gaining as much popularity as relying on prepared dishes, it has grown slightly. In a survey by food research and consulting firm Technomic about Thanksgiving dinner plans this year, 7% will eat at a restaurant, up from 6% the past two years.
Even White admits she’ll be eating out on Thursday to make things easier on her boyfriend’s elderly father, who can’t manage stairs. But she won’t do away with tradition altogether. She’ll host a second Thanksgiving at her house on Friday.
“I have to have it,” she says. “I can’t bear the idea of no leftovers.”