Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?



Thanksgiving day usually revolves around delicious and bountiful meals.

It is typical to find dishes like bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and so much more on the dinner table.

And, who could forget the main course, the turkey!

When did the day of thanks become turkey day? Let’s dive into some history and uncover this fowl mystery.

Was turkey served at the First Thanksgiving?

The first Thanksgiving

It is often assumed that Thanksgiving turkey dinners originated from the First Thanksgiving, a meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people.

However, there isn’t a specific mention that turkey was served on the dinner table, but a pilgrim named William Bradford mentioned hunting a turkey before the meal.

Turkey has been a popular meal to serve on such occasions because it is a common bird, and one could usually feed an entire family.

Since chickens can be used for their eggs, whereas turkeys are typically raised or hunted, especially as meat birds, they were preferred for bigger feasts.

With these facts, people have assumed turkey was served on the table on the first Thanksgiving.

Who came up with the idea of turkey for Thanksgiving?

Who's idea was Thanksgiving?

First, in 1621, The first Thanksgiving between pilgrims and Wampanoags happened in the fall of that year.

This feast was recorded in two books. One is entitled Of Plymouth Rock by William Bradford, and the other is called Mourt’s Relations by Edward Winslow.

Sarah Josepha Hale was the main driving force behind the idea of Thanksgiving we have today. She was a prolific writer in the 1850s and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Recipe magazine.

In 1854, she found a copy of William Bradford’s journal at London’s Fulham Palace Library, which mentioned hunting turkeys before the feast.

Hale wrote many Thanksgiving turkey recipes based on a passage from that journal and campaigned for Thanksgiving to be an official holiday.

She embarked on a 17-year-long campaign to establish the national holiday, wrote plenty of editorial pieces to make her case to politicians, and used her magazine to promote her idea.

She also had a lot of recipes and menus for Thanksgiving that included all the food we now associate with the holiday, such as roasted turkey and dressing, creamed onions, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

Then in 1863, Lincoln took notice of Sarah’s campaign to make Thanksgiving Day a national holiday and made it official that year.

This was the start of turkey dinners being on the table of every American family.

What was the main dish at the First Thanksgiving?

An illustration of people getting together for Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving feast didn’t have as much food as today.

Food mentioned in the original journals of the first Thanksgiving included venison, fowl, corn, shellfish, and nuts such as beechnuts, walnuts, and chestnuts.

Other foods served as bread or porridge were pumpkins, squash, corn, and beans.

Cranberries might have been there. There is no record that this was served, but they were a significant part of the Wampanoags’ diet in the autumn.

Most likely not served that day were potatoes, butter, and flour. So, no pies yet! 

How many turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving?

Somebody carving a cooked turkey

The 2021 U.S. census stated Americans spent $985 million on Thanksgiving turkeys. That sounds like a staggering amount, right?

Well, you’re not wrong! Over 292.9 million Americans ate turkey for Thanksgiving dinner in 2021. 

That equates to an average of 15.3 pounds (6.9 kg) of turkey per person!

What other foods do people eat at Thanksgiving other than turkey?

Many foods traditionally eaten on Thanksgiving

Some Thanksgiving main alternatives include hare, salmon, chicken with gravy, goat leg, and roasted duck. Other dinners reflect people’s cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Italian Thanksgiving dinners typically add pasta, lasagna, and antipasti dishes.

Norwegian or Scandinavian-influenced dinners always include Lefse.

Southern Thanksgiving dishes include baked macaroni and cheese and collard greens.

Mexican-Americans serve turkey with mole sauce and roasted corn.

Puerto Ricans prepare the turkey with mofongo with sides of potato salad and roasted white sweet potato.

Cuban-Americans serve roasted pork with white rice and black or kidney beans.

What is a Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with for Thanksgiving dinner?

Turkey stuffing

There are regional differences as to how turkey dressing is made depending on which state you are in.

The most common American version of stuffing uses sage in the dressing, usually made with white bread cubes, onion, sage, celery, and parsley.

Southerners commonly make their dressing from cornbread.

Other parts of the country opt for rye, or sourdough bread, for their base of turkey filling.

Another common practice for some families is making stuffing balls because they want more than just what goes into the turkey.


Thanks to the people involved in the first Thanksgiving and the others who pushed this event to be a holiday, Thanksgiving is considered one of America’s most significant holidays.

Whether you have a turkey dinner at a large table with many people or just some mac and cheese from the microwave, Thanksgiving is about getting together with loved ones and giving thanks for everything and everyone we have around us.

About The Author

Ashley D
Ashley D

Ashley is an author and creator of 3 major blog sites and a full-time freelance writer. He writes on a plethora of subjects, his favorites being health, lifestyle, and travel. When he’s not writing, he streams games on twitch or shreds some berms on his mountain bike.

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