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Should You Be Worried About a Thanksgiving Turkey Shortage?

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You may have heard earlier this year that there was going to be a turkey shortage because of an outbreak of Avian flu last spring. A widespread shortage didn’t come to pass, but it’s still time to get serious about shopping. In fact, if you are looking for a Heritage turkey — one descended from the first domesticated turkeys raised by English settlers — you’re likely already too late. Fortunately, there are many other bird options still available.

Let’s Talk Turkey

If you’re price-sensitive, you wouldn’t have been looking for a Heritage turkey anyway, because prices start at $99 for the 8- to 10-pound birds. That’s about enough to feed six people and leave some leftovers, by most estimates (typically 1.5 pounds per person).

You can find local, pasture-raised turkeys online, but most of us will hunt for them at the grocery store. If that’s where you hope to find one, you may spend more than last year: the Department of Agriculture expects the price of turkey to increase as much as 19%, or to $1.36 per pound as a result of Avian flu. Choices you’ll have include natural, organic, kosher and self-basted (the last is what Butterball, the nation’s top-selling turkey brand, offers). The turkeys do taste different from one another in some cases, and personal philosophy may also play a role in the kind of turkey you choose.

The Best Times to Buy 

If your wallet gets much say, chances are you’re looking at a frozen bird. And now that the dreaded turkey shortage did not materialize, when should you buy? Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, recommends buying frozen turkeys “when they’re a loss leader” at the grocery store. This could occur in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, as stores often offer competitive prices on their birds in hopes that people will also buy (the more expensive) trimmings. Although prices on turkeys are up slightly this year as opposed to last, Olson said, sales can help offset that.

He said frozen turkeys will keep for up to a year. (You can tell when a turkey was frozen by looking at the packaging; by law, a date must be there.) Many experts say there is no difference in the taste of fresh and frozen turkeys, and Olson agrees — he can’t taste a difference.

If you’re in the market for a fresh turkey, wait until Thanksgiving is just a few days away. You won’t be able to chase the deals as aggressively, but you also won’t have to find freezer space for it and then thaw it for several days (about a day for every four pounds, experts say).

A Few Ways to Simplify Your Dinner

If what you really want is turkey and trimmings, but you could do without the sides of stress and worry that come with preparing a big dinner, consider buying your turkey (or other components of your Thanksgiving dinner) cooked at the supermarket or from a nearby restaurant. It’s possible to serve turkey, dressing and Grandma’s special squash casserole, followed by homemade pumpkin pie and only make the last two. Or you can host a get-together and assign sides to some of your guests. Also, remember that there is no law that the main dish has to be turkey — ham prices are low this year.

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