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The cost of Thanksgiving dinner is down slightly from last year

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As friends and families gather around the dinner table later this week, some will be giving thanks for lower inflation. Grocery prices are still high, but they're not climbing as fast as they had been. And for many people, the cost of cooking up a Thanksgiving feast is actually a little lower this year than it was last. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Standing outside a supermarket a few days before the most food-centric holiday of the year, Angelina Murray has a familiar complaint about food prices.

ANGELINA MURRAY: They are high. They are high. But that's the cost of living. That's what it is. It's nothing that we can do. Until prices come down, we're just going to have to deal.

HORSLEY: The American Farm Bureau Federation, which has been tracking Thanksgiving prices for almost four decades, agrees this year's bill is historically high, but not quite as high as last year's. That's welcome news for Bridget Kaiser, whose menu includes turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and lots of pie. She and her husband are hosting nearly two dozen people this year.

BRIDGET KAISER: My mom, his mom, his brother, his brother's wife, friends of my kid's from her school, from families that don't celebrate, and a family that lives in my mom's basement.

HORSLEY: The Farm Bureau says the overall cost of a traditional feast is down about 4.5% from a year ago, largely thanks to falling turkey prices. Food economist Michael Swanson of Wells Fargo says turkey farmers raised a lot more birds this summer in preparation for this week's meal.

MICHAEL SWANSON: All of them put a lot more birds in the barn, and they're heavier birds. So there's a lot of turkey available right now, and they just have to price it down to move it.

HORSLEY: But some of the money shoppers save on turkey may get gobbled up elsewhere. Sweet potato prices are slightly higher than a year ago, and Swanson says russet potatoes are a lot more expensive.

SWANSON: A year ago, the Pacific Northwest was in a terrible drought, and that really hurt the potato seed for this year. So they're still kind of doing the catch-up. They had a good year this year, but it takes a while to get that supply chain to un-kink.

HORSLEY: And then there's the great cranberry conundrum. The price of fresh cranberries is way down this year thanks to a bumper crop. But if your family likes the canned variety, the kind where you can still see the ridges of the can even when it's on the plate, expect to pay a lot more as a result of higher processing and packaging costs.

SWANSON: The entire canned market is up. Whether you're talking about beans or cranberries or pumpkins, canned prices really shot up.

HORSLEY: David Chavern, who represents packaged food companies as head of the Consumer Brands Association, warns the price of canned goods could go even higher next year if the Biden administration slaps new tariffs on imported steel.

DAVID CHAVERN: We've been pleased that the Department of Commerce has held off on those tariffs for the most part, but there's going to be a final determination at the beginning of 2024 that we're watching very closely.

HORSLEY: In the meantime, Chavern's planning his own Thanksgiving feed with plenty of friends and family.

CHAVERN: We're expecting it to be pretty big ourselves. It is still some element of this pent-up post-COVID demand to connect with people. It's great. From our perspective, we love having people around.

HORSLEY: Back at the supermarket, Colton Parker and Carrie Murray are loading groceries into the back of their car. By now, they've gotten a little numb to high prices at the supermarket, but they still did a double take at the long receipt.

COLTON PARKER: It was - we weren't looking at the prices until we stepped out. And then looking at the receipt, you say, oh, wow.

CARRIE MURRAY: Yeah. I think I was surprised that a lot of the produce was on sale. Like, that was kind of a nice surprise. Things that are expensive - it's the stuff that has been expensive for a while.

PARKER: But, you know, it's for family. It's for the holidays.

HORSLEY: Some shoppers say they are cutting corners here and there - switching to store brands, for example. But most say Thanksgiving is a time to count blessings, not hunt for bargains. Overall, grocery prices have risen just over 2% during the last 12 months, after a jump of more than 12% the previous year. If other food prices, like turkey, actually start to come down, that will be gravy.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.