Tips for Choosing Your Thanksgiving Day Turkey

How to pick a healthy (and delicious) holiday bird
thankgiving turkey ready to eat

The leaves have fallen and the air is crisp and cool. It’s officially time for one of America’s favorite holidays: Thanksgiving!

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There’s something special about gathering around the table with your friends and family with delicious family recipes and a big, flavorful turkey. (And, hopefully, your gathering is under 10 people during the global coronavirus pandemic.)

We all want to impress our guests with the best turkey on the block, but where do you even start? There is a lot to consider when you’re shopping for a turkey and there are many options from which to choose.

Registered dietitian Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD, shares what you need to know (and what to look for!) when you go to purchase a scrumptious and healthy holiday bird. 

Consider your buying options

Finding the perfect turkey can get overwhelming — fast. Jeffers recommends you keep an eye out for the following: 

  • USDA-certified organic birds are free-range turkeys raised without antibiotics or pesticides. 
  • A turkey from a local poultry farmer (non-certified). Ask how it was raised and whether or not it’s been enhanced.
  • Heirloom breeds are a slower-growing turkey with a little more fat marbling, meaning you get a richer flavor and texture.
  • Conventional grocery store turkeys are bred to have more white meat. These birds are confined and they grow fast.

Labels to watch for

When browsing the grocery store aisles for your perfect turkey, it’s important to understand the labels so you know what you’re getting. 

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1. Enhanced or moisture-enhanced; pre-basted, basted or self-basting; marinated in natural broth solution

If you see any of these words on the label, these turkeys have been injected with a water solution that includes fats, spices and flavor enhancers. 

“Typically-used potassium and phosphorus increase sodium content from 210 milligrams to 710 milligrams,” says Jeffers. “A standard non-enhanced bird has about 75 milligrams. Read the fine print to know all the ingredients and what percent of the total weight is liquid.”

2. Hormone-free or no hormones added

This is a common but misleading food label. While it implies a healthier choice, federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry. 

According to the USDA, if the label states that no hormones are added, it must be followed up with a statement that says, “Federal regulations do not permit the use of hormones in poultry.”

3. Natural or all-natural

For meat, the USDA defined the term “natural” to mean that it’s minimally processed and contains no artificial flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives or other artificial ingredients. 

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“Take note that enhanced, self-basting or turkeys fed antibiotics to promote growth and fight diseases are deemed all-natural,” says Jeffers.

Don’t forget about the date

When making your final decision, be aware of the dates on the label so you can make sure you’re getting the freshest bird for your Thanksgiving dinner. 

The USDA recommends you keep your eyes peeled for the following information: 

  • “Sell-By” date tells the grocery how long to display the product for sale. The product should be purchased before the date expires.
  • “Best if Used By” date is recommended for best flavor or quality, but it’s not a purchase or safety date.
  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. Take note that a retailer can legally sell fresh or processed poultry beyond the expiration date on the package as long as the product is wholesome.​

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