Carrying on Tradition around the Thanksgiving Table

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Thanksgiving is just around the corner and Americans across the country are planning what to serve, who they’ll dine with, and where they’ll eat. A vast majority of adults indicate they celebrate Thanksgiving (96%), but it’s not always all about the food. Nine in 10 Americans agree Thanksgiving is more about who you’re with than what you’re eating (90%).

While food may not be the most important part of the holiday, it’s certainly a critical part for many. Nearly three quarters (73%) agree having a fridge full of leftovers is the best thing about hosting Thanksgiving. Turkey sandwiches may be the very thing they’re looking forward to as 7 in 10 adults also agree it’s not a proper Thanksgiving meal if there’s no turkey (70%).

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,037 U.S. adults aged 18+ surveyed online between November 2 and 4, 2016.

The people

Seven in 10 adults also agree it’s not a proper Thanksgiving meal unless you celebrate with family (71%). And along these lines, over 6 in 10 Americans (62%) say they prepare Thanksgiving meals with family, while 15% do so with friends. Adults planning to attend a meal with family will have 2 Thanksgiving meals, on average. This number jumps up to an average of about 3 meals among those who are part of multi-ethnic/multi-cultural families.

Twelve percent also indicate they celebrate the tradition of “friends-giving” – a Thanksgiving meal exclusively celebrated with friends. “Friends-giving” is particularly popular among 18-34 year olds compared to older adults (19% 18-34 vs. 14% 35-44; 6% 45-54; 11% 55-64; 9% 65+). Those who are planning to attend a “friends-giving” meal will have about 2 meals with friends, on average.

The places

A majority of Americans say they typically celebrate Thanksgiving at their own home (61%) or a family member’s home (52%). The latter is, perhaps unsurprisingly, most common for those ages 18-34 (64%) compared to older adults. Those with kids in the house are more likely than those without to host in their own home (67% vs. 57%), as are those with multi-cultural families (69% vs. 59% with non-multicultural families). About 1 in 10 celebrate at a friend’s home (11%) or a restaurant (8%).

Whether it’s at their home or someone else’s, most Americans prefer the homey feeling of Thanksgiving meal as just 26% of adults say they would much rather eat in a restaurant on Thanksgiving than cook dinner. Eating at home has other perks as well as nearly 3 in 10 (28%) say they typically have the television on while eating their Thanksgiving meal.

Diverse dishes

A majority of Americans indicate their holiday meals typically consist of several “traditional American” dishes including turkey or ham (80%), side dishes – like mashed potatoes and green beans – (77%), and dessert, including apple pie or pecan pie (72%). However, not everyone’s Thanksgivings are as traditional as one might picture. Interestingly enough, nearly 3 in 10 Americans, prepare these same traditional dishes with an ethnic twist or cooking method from another culture (29%). As well, these meals now include side dishes (22%), a main dish (16%), or dessert (14%) from another ethnicity or culture. Some non-traditional, ethnic-inspired dishes that will be served up at holiday meals include kimchi, ceviche, enchiladas, halal dishes, gorton, pierogis, pernil, rutamus, and kishka.

Not surprisingly, those who have a multi-cultural family are significantly more likely than those who don’t to serve a culturally-diverse dish:

  • 47% serve a side dish from another ethnicity or culture (vs. 18% among non-multi-cultural families)
  • 45% serve a “traditional American” dish prepared with a cooking method or flavor from another ethnicity or culture (vs. 26%)
  • 39% serve a main dish or entrée from another culture (vs. 12%)
  • 27% serve a dessert from another culture (vs. 12%)

While cooking from scratch may be seen as the traditional way, nearly 2 in 10 (18%) say they’d prefer to make Thanksgiving dinner from a meal kit, with ingredients and instructions pre-portioned and delivered to their doors. Younger adults, those 18-54, are significantly more likely than older Americans to be open to the idea of holiday meal kits (32% 18-34; 27% 35-44; 16% 45-54; 8% 55-64; 5% 65+). Those with kids in the house are also more likely to agree they prefer meal kits – nearly three times as much as those without kids in house (31% vs. 11%, respectively).

“Thanksgiving traditions are shifting, affecting everything from how people shop to what they cook to who they’re celebrating with,” said Jordan Rost, Vice President of Consumer Insights at Nielsen. “As the U.S. becomes increasingly more diverse and digital continues to transform the retail environment, Americans will start to trade out some of their traditional plans to modernize the holiday, such as opting for click-and-collect grocery purchases to delivery kits to celebrate the festivities this year.”




This Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between November 2 and 4, 2016 among 2,037 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners. 

The Harris Poll® #64, November 17, 2016

By Allyssa Birth, Senior Research Analyst, The Harris Poll