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Thanksgiving dishes are more expensive this year — but there are alternatives

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly say a 16-ounce turkey costs almost $30. In fact, that's the price for a 16-pound turkey.]

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The American Farm Bureau Federation says almost every ingredient on this year's Thanksgiving menu is now more expensive. So as NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith reports, you may want to consider some substitutions.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: In the last two years, Thanksgiving dinner has gotten almost 40% more expensive. The Farm Bureau priced out the bare-bones ingredients for dinner for 10. They will run you more than 80 bucks. Here at NPR's business desk, we cover inflation a lot. We know food prices have hit people especially hard. And we thought, there has got to be a way to make this meal cheaper. And we will find it, kind of like Iron Chef but for inflation. Welcome to Iron Reporter - Substitutions-giving (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF CRAIG MARKS' "THEME FROM IRON CHEF AMERICA")

VANEK SMITH: We took four reporters and gave them a mission. Take a classic Thanksgiving dish and find an inflation-friendly substitute.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Alina Selyukh. I cover low-wage work and the consumer economy. My dish, dinner rolls.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: I'm Camila Domonoske. I cover cars and transportation. And I brought mashed potatoes and gravy.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi. I'm Scott Horsley. I'm the chief economics correspondent here at NPR. And I decided to make pumpkin pie.

VANEK SMITH: I'm Stacey Vanek Smith, global economics correspondent. And I tackle turkey. With business desk's Uri Berliner and intern Mary Yang as our taste testers, we set off on our mission, get the Thanksgiving grocery bill back to where it was in 2020. First up, dinner rolls, iron reporter and baker Alina Selyukh found every ingredient that goes into her Thanksgiving rolls has gotten more expensive.

SELYUKH: Compared to last year, eggs are up 43%. Flour is up 25%. So I searched for the most scaled back recipe I could find for rolls. So I made three-ingredient bread, which is flour, yeast and water.

VANEK SMITH: But nobody eats bread alone.

SELYUKH: Obviously, butter is star of the show. That's up almost 27%.

VANEK SMITH: Margarine prices up almost 50%. Jam, peanut butter - all way up. So Alina got creative with a mystery spread.

What is this, though?

SELYUKH: Does anyone have any guesses?

DOMONOSKE: Sesame.

VANEK SMITH: Refried beans.

DOMONOSKE: It's baby food.

VANEK SMITH: It's baby food?

HORSLEY: Wow.

SELYUKH: Tiny jars, $1.29.

VANEK SMITH: Bread and baby food. The price was right. The taste, though...

(SOUNDBITE OF BREAD TEARING)

HORSLEY: The bread is delicious. But, oh, that's nasty.

(LAUGHTER)

DOMONOSKE: This bread is really good. But it would be a lot better with butter.

VANEK SMITH: But also, a lot more expensive. With the baby food butter and three-ingredient bread, iron reporter Alina Selyukh cut 40% off the price of rolls and butter. Mission accomplished. Next up, mashed potatoes. Potatoes have gone up in price by more than 20%, along with the price of the milk you whip into them. Iron reporter Camila Domonoske found her frugal substitute.

DOMONOSKE: I decided to swap in beans. These are mashed butter beans. And butter beans - for y'all who aren't from the South - that's just lima beans.

VANEK SMITH: Pound for pound, dried lima beans are roughly the same price as potatoes. But the beans feed a lot more people.

DOMONOSKE: One pound of potatoes makes two servings. One pound of beans makes 13 servings.

VANEK SMITH: Are you serious?

DOMONOSKE: So you come out on top, like, in a big way when you go for the beans.

HORSLEY: The mushroom gravy smells great. And the mashed beans look a lot better than I thought they were going to look.

SELYUKH: They look so similar to potatoes.

HORSLEY: Yeah, they're a little gray.

VANEK SMITH: To top her spudstitutes (ph), Camila chose mushroom gravy. Mushroom prices have risen more slowly than other produce.

I think the texture throws me off. I don't know. The mushrooms, however, delicious. I would eat this.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Mix it with the gravy. You can kind of talk yourself into it a little bit.

HORSLEY: Yeah.

BERLINER: You'd have to have a little...

HORSLEY: But you kind of have to talk yourself into it.

BERLINER: Talk about five beers in.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: You could call it five beer...

DOMONOSKE: Five-beer butter beans.

VANEK SMITH: Iron reporter Camila's mashed beans and mushroom gravy, 50% cheaper than mashed potatoes - not counting the beer. Next up, turkey. Almost $30 for a 16-ounce turkey this year, by far the most expensive item on the Thanksgiving table. As iron reporter, I set out to find a meat substitute that would feed 10 people and cost less than $18. Chicken, steak, spam, canned tuna - all too pricey. Pork prices, though, have risen a bit less than everything else. I tried pork shoulder, pork butt even hot dogs. Nothing fit the very low bill until I found a meat that needs no toppings or sauces and where a little bit can feed a lot of people.

And it is bacon. Baconsgiving (ph).

I found a family sized pack of sliced bacon for $4. And a few of those was more than enough. And instead of stuffing, which is up 70% in price, I opted for tomatoes. Tomato prices have not really risen. And you can slice them up and put them between some three-ingredient bread and make a Thanksgiving BLT. Our editor, Uri Berliner, approved.

BERLINER: You know, I think, like, half of America would be ecstatic if there were BLTs instead of turkey.

HORSLEY: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: Bacon and tomato, half the cost of turkey and stuffing. Of course, no Thanksgiving is complete without pie. But pumpkin pie is pricey this year. The filling alone is almost 20% more expensive than it was last year. Luckily, iron reporter Scott Horsley had a plan.

HORSLEY: So I knew I wanted to do something with sweet potatoes.

VANEK SMITH: Sweet potatoes had a bumper crop this year. They're about a third the price of canned pumpkin. And there is an added bonus.

HORSLEY: I think sweet potatoes have more flavor than pumpkins. Sweet potatoes actually bring something to the party, I think.

VANEK SMITH: Iron reporter Scott Horsley cut the pie cost in half. There you have it. Iron Reporter: Inflation Edition. The final meal, three-ingredient bread with baby food, mashed lima beans with mushroom gravy, bacon with tomatoes and sweet potato pie. The full meal would be around $45. Mission accomplished.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRAIG MARKS' "THEME FROM IRON CHEF AMERICA")

VANEK SMITH: This is like a pretty good little meal that we have, right?

SELYUKH: I think so.

HORSLEY: I'm not substituting it for my Thanksgiving.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: Happy Thanksgiving, however you substitute.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 21, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
In this report, we mistakenly say a 16-ounce turkey costs almost $30. In fact, that's the price for a 16-pound turkey.
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.