Why America Is Heading to Restaurants for Thanksgiving

Why America Is Heading to Restaurants for Thanksgiving

A family eats Thanksgiving dinner at King's Hawaiian in Southern California.

SourceCarlos Gonzalez

Why you should care

Because the most famous home-cooked meal is getting less home-cooked.

Every single year of my life, I have cooked Thanksgiving dinner at home. Whether at my mother’s house for 50 people — she has a lot of siblings and tends to invite people she meets in the grocery store — or once in a college dorm room for just two, the one constant of Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, is that I make it myself. Part of the package: squabbling with family members over exactly the right consistency for a lemon pie, small fires and, every year, a minutely detailed schedule involving precise oven temperatures throughout the day.

You can see the temptation to hand the reins to somebody else. A professional, even. Maybe that’s why …

The proportion of Americans celebrating Thanksgiving by eating their holiday dinner at a restaurant has tripled since 2013.

In 2013, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll, only 3 percent of Americans said they planned to eat out. This year, a National Restaurant Association poll found that 9 percent of respondents said they’d be heading to a restaurant for Thanksgiving.

And the restaurants are there to receive them. In Washington, D.C., the Unconventional Diner is preparing to serve its first Thanksgiving dinner (it opened in December of last year), with a $48 prix fixe menu that offers the option of turkey with gravy and pumpkin pie, but also branches out to falafel, carrot cake and matzo ball soup. One advantage of restaurants, notes co-owner Eric Eden, is having options for different diets. “We have things for vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians,” he says. “We try to offer a variety. However, I think we found in our other restaurants that despite the variety, most people do order the turkey.” About a third of Americans polled by YouGov this year say they’ll be eating with someone who has a particular dietary restriction like lactose or gluten intolerance.

People may also be loath to spend one of their few vacation days cooking an enormous meal, and happy for someone else to do the work. The U.S. remains the only industrialized nation with no minimum amount of paid leave, and only 78 percent of private employers offer all their employees paid holidays. Going out to dinner instead, Eden points out, “is a way to release some of that family stress. And, most important, there’s no cleanup.”

Except for people who work in restaurants, of course. “It’s a pretty intense day. It’s a lot of work,” Eden says. Waiters at the Unconventional Diner will be serving the same meal for eight hours today, and miss the chance to spend the holiday with their own families. So if you’re among the 9 percent today, don’t forget to tip.

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