When turkey is the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving feast, you want to make sure you choose the right bird for the job. There's a lot to consider: How much turkey to buy? Should it be fresh or frozen? What's the difference between natural and organic turkey? Here's what you need to know before you buy a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

By Vanessa Greaves and Allrecipes Editors
Updated September 10, 2020
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Here are some of the key questions you'll want to ask yourself before you buy a Thanksgiving turkey so you'll make the right decisions:

How Much Turkey to Buy

One of the most frequently asked questions is what size turkey to buy. This chart can help with that decision. The suggested amounts are based on the number of adult guests you're planning for, and whether or not you want leftovers. If your guest list includes a lot of kids, lean towards a smaller size turkey. If your guest are big eaters, lean towards a larger turkey.

Number of Adults

Pounds of Turkey
(with leftovers)

Pounds of Turkey
(without leftovers)

2 to 4

3 to 6

2 to 4

6 to 8

9 to 12

6 to 8

10 to 12

15 to 18

10 to 12

14 to 16

21 to 24

14 to 16

18 to 20

27 to 30

18 to 20

22 to 24

33 to 36

22 to 24

Leftovers or No Leftovers?

If you do want leftovers OR if you're expecting big eaters, go with approximately 1½ pounds of turkey (whole, bone in) per guest. You could also cook two smaller turkeys instead of one large turkey. Or cook one large turkey and maybe a turkey breast.

If you don't want leftovers OR if you're going to have lots of substantial side dishes, allow approximately 1 pound of turkey (whole, bone in) per guest. If a whole turkey is more than you need, you could also buy turkey parts, such as turkey breasts or turkey legs.

Credit: Meredith

Fresh or Frozen?

Buying a fresh turkey or a frozen one depends on your time and resources: A fresh turkey usually costs more but doesn't need thawing. Frozen turkeys are less expensive, but need enough time to thaw before cooking, about one day for every five pounds of turkey.

Credit: Meredith

What do Turkey Package Labels Mean?

Here are a few of the labels you might find on the package when you go turkey shopping, and more importantly, what they mean:

Self-Basting: The meat has been injected with a flavored solution that adds moisture during roasting. While this can free you up from brining and basting, you won't have complete control over how the meat tastes or how much sodium is in the basting liquid itself.

Natural: The turkey has been minimally processed without added flavors, brines, rubs, or salt. You get to choose exactly how to flavor your bird.

Organic: The turkey was raised without antibiotics in its feed. To ensure your turkey is truly organic, look for the label USDA Organic.

Kosher: The turkey has been brined with kosher salt during processing. This helps the meat retain moisture, but it also means you should not use a salted brine or dry rub when you cook it; that will only make it saltier.

Free-Range or Cage-Free: Turkeys are raised in a facility where they are allowed to roam for some part of the day.

Heritage: This term is used to describe turkey breeds that meet standards set by the American Poultry Association. In general, heritage turkeys are closer to the wild indigenous breeds the pilgrims might have feasted upon back in the day. And yes, they're a whole lot pricier than commercially bred turkeys. But many turkey-fanciers say they prefer the deeper flavor of heritage turkeys.

To learn more about where your turkey came from and how it was raised, you can talk to your butcher or contact your turkey farmer. If you're interested in specialty turkeys such as heritage breeds or those raised on organic farms, you may have to order those a month or more in advance.

Check out our collection of Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes.

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