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Societal Shifts Shape Thanksgiving Traditions

Changes in economic, ethnic, generations, health, pop culture, and social structure are changing Thanksgiving traditions. Thanksgiving is now a meal with family or "family" redefined, a shopping experience, an entertainment experience, and, for many, a workday. An aspect of Thanksgiving tradition that has remained the same is that most Americans choose to celebrate the meal in a home, theirs or someone else's.

Here's what researchers at The NPD Group and its partner CultureWaves, which looks at consumer behavioral data, says are forces that are influencing new Thanksgiving traditions:

Generational- Baby Boomers are less about maintaining how things always have been and are focused on making connections. Members of Generation X are all about mashing traditions with things that give them joy. Millennials find themselves nostalgic for family tradition, but also suspicious of media-generated traditions that have little to do with what they actually lived.

Cultural Influence – Consumers identify with multiple cultures, whether its their own or someone else's. We're likely to see is pieces of various world cultures fitting into the traditional American Thanksgiving meal in unexpected ways—like a Szechuan green bean casserole, Japanese maki sushi (see photo) or mashed potatoes made with Manchego cheese.

"The key point is that as American culture evolves, the core of each American holiday is becoming focused on the people over the celebration itself," says Locke Hilderbrand, executive vice president and chief insights officer of CultureWaves. "Holidays are now an outlet in which to connect, regardless of what cultural traditions may or may not be present. This allows for new holiday events and occasions to be created, as more families and friends intertwine their traditions and customs to create new ones that celebrate personal tradition."

Regardless of how the celebration is changing, the Thanksgiving dinner is really an at home occasion, according to NPD Group, which continually tracks all aspects of how U.S. consumers eat:

  • 48% of Americans eat their Thanksgiving meal at home that day, while another 44% eat in someone else's home. Only 3% had their big meal at a full service restaurant
  • The meal most likely to be eaten at a restaurant on Thanksgiving is breakfast — 19% of consumers eat breakfast at a restaurant
  • Restaurant take out, on the other hand, is something Americans take advantage of on Thanksgiving:
    • 29% of Thanksgiving Day holiday celebrations include an item sourced ready-to-eat from foodservice
    • 57% include items that were "completely homemade" from a restaurant or foodservice outlet

"As much as things change, we know that many of the traditional Thanksgiving foods have remained the same," says David Portalatin, vice president, food industry analyst at NPD Group and author of the recently published Eating Patterns in America. "The majority of Thanksgiving feasts will include a turkey, although that turkey may be dressed in non-traditional spices and flavorings. And even with all of the changes going on in our society, we have managed to keep the spirit of the first Thanksgiving intact, and that is sharing a meal and spending time with family, friends, or whomever one chooses."

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Don Sniegowski is editor of Blue MauMau, the daily news journal for franchise & small business owners. Call him at +1 (270) 321-1268, tweet @bluemaumau or email