In 2020, Americans made a strong shift toward non-traditional and smaller fall and winter holiday meals simply because of smaller group sizes and less traveling due to the pandemic. Chicago-based IRI reports more pork, seafood, and other less traditional options were on the plate. In some cases, consumers even spent more money on these holiday meals even though they were smaller. For example, many consumers were plating cuts of prime beef.

“People splurged a little bit more and took a chance on cooking some of the finer cuts and had a great time doing it,” explains Chris DuBois, IRI’s senior vice president. “Cooking behaviors changed, and gatherings changed.”

Due to uncertainty caused by the pandemic, it is hard to predict how 2021 meat, poultry, and seafood holiday sales will compare to 2019. What IRI’s latest data has shown is that about a quarter of people are still hesitant to go to restaurants and other public gatherings. While those numbers could oscillate slightly higher or lower during the next few months, DuBois says, it still suggests that holiday gatherings won’t be quite as big as pre-pandemic. He would expect holiday gatherings to be bigger than 2020, though.

That being said, last year saw large demand for smaller turkeys. While DuBois believes the industry will see a shift back to average-sized turkeys, he doesn’t believe the demand for larger turkeys will return.

Last year, Heidi Diestel, fourth-generation turkey farmer at Diestel Family Ranch in Sonora, Calif., also says demand was huge for smaller turkeys given the reduced gathering size and the fact that many people were hosting for the first time. “While I think smaller turkeys, like Diestel’s petite birds, will continue to be popular due to their more manageable size and appeal for first-time hosts, I definitely think we’ll see more larger turkey orders than we did last year as many people are ready to enjoy a more traditional Thanksgiving with extended family gathered together,” she explains.

While a traditional turkey will always have a place at the holiday table, Diestel has seen growing interest in convenient turkey options that have minimal prep. In turn, the company offers several products that meet this growing consumer need including, Diestel’s Holiday Cook-in-Bag Turkey Breast Roast, which comes pre-seasoned, lightly brined, and ready to roast in its own bag for 1.5 hours. Additionally, it offers a lineup of oven-roasted and smoked turkeys that are fully cooked.

On the less traditional side and still a smaller category, fresh seafood is performing really well with strong distribution, IRI reports.

Due to uncertainty caused by the pandemic, it is hard to predict how 2021 meat, poultry, and seafood holiday sales will compare to 2019.

“I would expect seafood to have a decent Thanksgiving oddly enough, and really have a great presence around Christmas and New Year’s,” DuBois says. “I would expect it to be better than 2020.”

Along with seafood, DuBois expects high-end prime beef cuts to do well, which was up more than 50 percent last year. While it makes up a small part of the market, retailers who had prime beef in their meat cases grew 10 percent faster than retailers who didn’t, DuBois says. Additionally, turkey should see a large return. “In other words, this should be a very big year Thanksgiving wise,” he says.

DuBois also expects to see more interest in exotic meats, like bison, and more experimentation around high-end seafood like lobster, tuna, and swordfish.

“Last year, we found that 30 percent of consumers really expanded their cooking knowledge and experience,” DuBois said. “They bought a lot more cuts than the U.S. average, and a lot more than the year before. That 30 percent drove 97 percent of all the growth in the meat case last year. That’s almost $20 billion of incremental growth.” 

Diestel also expects specialty poultry products will be popular this year, as consumers seek something out-of-the-ordinary. Products like Diestel’s Organic Heirloom Turkey, for example, are a mix of rare Auburn, Black, and American Bronze turkeys dating back to the 1920s.

IRI also expects this to be a pivotal holiday season for e-commerce, with fresh foods already growing faster than center store sales, IRI reports. IRI research has found that consumers are much more loyal to brands online vs. shopping in stores. IRI also finds that online basket sizes in many cases are twice as large as the average basket size in-store or bigger.  

“I think e-commerce will play a huge role this year in who wins the holiday,” DuBois says. “It's no longer about what price is your turkey at. It's more about how easy can you make the shopping experience.”