America's newest holiday tradition involves ditching a time-honored hallmark of Thanksgiving: skipping the home-cooked meal.
Regardless of age, gender, income, or race, Americans are increasingly going out to restaurants to celebrate the holiday, according to research from the National Restaurant Association and data from restaurant companies. Forty years ago, about 4.4 percent of Americans ate their Thanksgiving meals at restaurants. This year? More than 10 percent of the country -- or 33 million Americans -- are expected to eat out on Turkey Day, according to the trade group.
It's not only the dread of yet another year of homemade marshmallow-dotted candied yams that are driving Americans out of the kitchen. Blame a combination of travel stress, holiday fatigue, and the changing tastes and nutritional needs of family members, ranging from gluten intolerances to dairy allergies. After spending hours on the road or in the air to see each other, some families are finding it easier to make a reservation than cope with everyone's dietary requirements. For restaurants, the trend is a bona fide Yukon Gold potato mine.
Cracker Barrel has seen a 72 percent jump in Thanksgiving customers over the past decade, said senior vice president of marketing Christopher Ciavarra.
"More and more people want to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal without the hassle of cooking, so we expect that trend to continue," he wrote in an email.
That surge means that Thanksgiving now vies with Mother's Day as the restaurant chain's busiest days of the year, but Thanksgiving "wins the prize for most profitable," he said.
So who's eating out on Thanksgiving day? It's a "microcosm of America," Ciavarra said. "Families, singles, travelers and groups of friends from all walks of life" come in to eat on the holiday. About one-quarter of the parties include five or more people, or about twice the normal share.
Some Americans are also opting to order in, since letting someone else slave over the stove can help make the day more enjoyable, especially if there are plans to see a parade or watch football. Cracker Barrel said its profitability is boosted on Thanksgiving by its family take-out meal, includes turkey, gravy, sugar-cured ham, and a choice of three sides. The cost is about $65, or slightly higher than its year-round menu for family meals, which is priced at about $60.
Still, putting a home-cooked turkey on the dinner table remains sacrosanct for many Americans. That doesn't mean they aren't ordering for other Thanksgiving meals, however.
GrubHub, the meal-ordering service, said it's noticed a large spike in orders during the morning hours on Thanksgiving. "By looking at the foods we see spike on Thanksgiving, we're noticing that people are ordering in to eliminate one meal from their cooking schedule -- breakfast," the company said in an email.
Offering takeout services on Thanksgiving is likely "largely profitable" for those restaurants that stay open on the holiday, the company added. The most ordered dishes on Thanksgiving are garlic breadsticks, followed by fried egg sandwiches and huevos rancheros, GrubHub added.
Just like Thanksgiving dinner itself, there's usually something for everyone when it comes to eating out on the holiday, ranging from country-style meals at Cracker Barrel to elite restaurants with menus that will put a serious dent in your wallet. Eleven Madison Park, a New York restaurant with three Michelin stars, will be happy to whip up a Thanksgiving meal for $195 per person. It includes far more than the lowly turkey -- the price comes with butter-poached lobster and a chicken veloute with black truffles.