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The Ultimate Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

With the top food-related American holiday happening this week, I wanted to figure out the ideal meal for Thanksgiving dinner. I set up a head-to-head battle with 97 different dishes — gathered by casual office poll, a review of past New York Times food columns on iconic regional dishes, and other Thanksgiving guides — and asked FiveThirtyEight readers and social media followers to choose the best. The battle was simple: Two dishes were shown; one dish emerged victorious.1 We’ve used this same strategy to explore pressing cultural questions, such as how to make the best James Bond movie, find the best Christmas TV special, and figure out the complex relationship between Matt Damon’s attractiveness and intellect.

It’s an unscientific poll, sure, but more than 7,700 people chose a winning dish in over 377,000 individual matchups last weekend. So there’s reason to give it some credibility. Here’s a guide to building a menu for the best Thanksgiving meal possible.

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People do not appear to care for Thanksgiving appetizers. Deviled eggs (51 percent) were the only polled appetizer to have a winning record.2 Polled seafood options — shrimp cocktail (37 percent) smoked salmon dip (30 percent) and oysters (25 percent) — all fared miserably.

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DISH WIN PERCENTAGE
Turkey (roasted) 88%
Gravy* 79
Turkey (smoked) 74
Turkey (deep fried) 70
Spiral ham 58
Roast beef 50
Turducken 46
Fried duck 43
Meatloaf 29
Tofurky 13
Thanksgiving meats, ranked

Note: Gravy is included on this list as it pairs rather nicely with turkey.

The main dish of the evening is turkey, obviously. But how to prepare it? Roast it. A roasted turkey was considered the best Thanksgiving dish across all categories, winning 88 percent of its head-to-head matchups. But other preparations are solid contenders. A smoked turkey (74 percent win rate) still beat out all the non-starch vegetables that were in the survey. A deep fried turkey — the best way to get a savory bird while rolling the dice on the strength of your homeowners insurance — won 70 percent of matchups, an 18-point drop from the simple roast that leads me to believe that a contingent of our voters are firefighters tired of putting out deck fires. Other meat aside from turkey is apparently acceptable: ham and roast beef, more Christmas fare if you ask me, won at least half of their matchups.

But a line is drawn for the Turducken, a matryoshka doll of a hen jammed into a duck, which itself is crammed inside a turkey. That beast won only 46 percent of matchups, indicating that people seem to crave simplicity over decadence in their lives.

Tofurky, which is tofu made into the form of a turkey, was among the worst performers in the entire matchup system, with a mere 13 percent win rate. Stick to the basics, people.

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DISH WIN PERCENTAGE
Stuffing 85%
Mashed potatoes 84
Roasted potatoes 75
Mashed sweet potatoes 70
Scalloped potatoes 70
Cheesy potatoes 66
Butternut squash 65
Sweet potato casserole 61
Mac and cheese 58
Funeral potatoes 53
Acorn squash 53
Baked potatoes 53
Mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows 52
Lobster mac and cheese 45
Sweet potato dumplings 44
Potato salad 40
Spaghetti squash 34
Pasta salad 28
Rice salad 26
Frog eye salad 13
Thanksgiving starches, ranked

Stuffing (85 percent win rate) and mashed potatoes (84 percent) are the unrivaled champs of Thanksgiving starches.

The thunderdome shed substantial light on the best way to make potatoes. Mashed potatoes finished nine points better than roasted potatoes (75 percent), which in turn narrowly beat out scalloped potatoes (70 percent). Adding cheese unintuitively detracted rather than bolstered: Both cheesy potatoes (66 percent) and funeral potatoes (53 percent) underperformed their de-cheesed counterparts. The homely baked potato (53 percent) still had a positive win rate, so it seems that even the most basic of preparations is desirable on the Thanksgiving holiday.

Mashed sweet potatoes (70 percent) slightly underperformed their normal-potato counterparts, and the addition of marshmallows (52 percent) only undermined them further. On the miscellaneous gourd front, butternut squash (65 percent) was a strong contender, presumably bolstered by a strong performance in the Northeast. Mac and cheese (58 percent) is a positive addition to a meal, but lobster mac and cheese (45 percent) lost more often than it won. Frog eye salad (13 percent), which The New York Times heavily implied was a thing, is right out.

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DISH WIN PERCENTAGE
Green beans 72%
Cranberry sauce (not canned) 71
Green bean casserole 65
Glazed carrots 62
Brussels sprouts 62
Asparagus 60
Steamed broccoli 53
Peas 52
Cranberry sauce (canned) 51
Salad 50
Corn pudding 49
Sautéed mushrooms 49
Creamed corn 47
Corn souffle 47
Collard greens 47
Creamed spinach 42
Roasted parsnips 42
Celery root 39
Stuffed artichokes 39
Artichokes 38
Creamed onions 35
Stuffed peppers 34
Sauerkraut 24
Pineapple casserole 17
Grape salad 17
Jell-O salad 15
Thanksgiving veggies, ranked

Note: Cranberries treated as vegetables

Green beans are the veggie champ, winning 72 percent of matchups going stag and 65 percent of matchups when in green bean casserole. Canned cranberry sauce had a 51 percent win rate compared with non-canned cranberry sauce’s decisive 71 percent win rate. Let’s be honest with ourselves: Thanksgiving dinner has probably the only cranberries we will consume each year that aren’t juiced and mixed with vodka, so might as well treat yourself.

Brussels sprouts — the top-tier vegetable that has been slanderously maligned by children’s television as “gross” for a generation — still won 62 percent of matchups, tied with glazed carrots (62 percent) and ahead of staples such as asparagus (60 percent) and steamed broccoli (53 percent).

It was not a good year for corn. Creamed corn and corn souffle each had a measly 47 percent win rate, putting them behind salad. Salad! This year also saw a fundamental rejection of regional staples such as Jell-O salad and grape salad. The entire point of this study, really, was to use math to dunk on grape salad, a creamy and full-bodied mixture of grapes and dairy that presumably produces an intimidating texture I will never try. Grape salad was deemed universally gross, losing 83 percent of its matchups. Sauerkraut was considered a better Thanksgiving dish than grape salad. People hate grape salad about as much as they like mashed potatoes. Think about that.

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DISH WIN PERCENTAGE
Butter rolls 68%
Cornbread 67
Biscuits 64
Dinner rolls 64
Parker House rolls 63
Pumpkin bread 62
Garlic knots 52
Croissants 52
Popovers 50
French bread 48
Hush puppies 44
Yorkshire pudding 38
Thanksgiving bread, ranked

Butter rolls (68 percent win rate) emerged victorious, edging out cornbread (67 percent), biscuits (64 percent) and dinner rolls (64 percent) for the upper crust of the I’m not going to finish that joke because I know I’m better than this. Yorkshire pudding (38 percent) and hush puppies (44 percent) — the former being more of a Christmas deal, the latter being an inspired but likely regional part of the Thanksgiving feast — lost more often than they won.

To the dismay of the hipsters I work with who insisted on the inclusion of popovers in this thunderdome — all of whom I assumed shelled out $38 for a nonstick popover pan at Williams-Sonoma and are trying to make popovers a thing as a way of justifying the purchase — the hollow and fluffy rolls won a measly 50 percent of matchups, making them the mediocre dish of the Thanksgiving feast and in the bottom third of breads.

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DISH WIN PERCENTAGE
Pumpkin pie 81%
Apple pie 78
Apple crumble 69
Pecan pie 69
Sweet potato pie 64
Cherry pie 59
Baked apples 51
Chocolate cream pie 50
Cheesecake 49
Mulled wine 48
Pumpkin roll 48
Key lime pie 42
Fruit & sorbet 39
Coconut cream pie 39
Pralines 39
Peanut brittle 36
Mead 36
Chess pie 35
Four layer delight 35
Oatmeal lace cookies 30
Flan 30
Whoopie pie 28
Snickers salad 21
Thanksgiving desserts, ranked

The battle of the pies! Pumpkin pie (81 percent win rate) edged out apple pie (78 percent) to be the best. Other good showings included pecan (69 percent), sweet potato (64 percent) and cherry (59 percent). Less ideal confections were chess pie (35 percent) — whose low win percentage I attribute to a lack of knowledge regarding the delicacy, as its matchups were decided in a draw 18 percent of the time — as well as flan (30 percent).

Outside of the pie tin, apples dominated. Apple crumble (69 percent) and baked apples (51 percent) are staples. Less so for Snickers salad (21 percent), which is like a Snickers pudding and looks horrifying.


Enjoy the holiday, ideally with a roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, non-canned cranberry sauce, green beans, butter rolls, pumpkin pie and no relatives who think grapes have a place in salad. May it be free of Tofurky.

Do yourself a favor and check out our Thanksgiving Day football projections here.

Footnotes

  1. Presumably, after careful introspection as to whether the marshmallows make the sweet potatoes better than or worse than creamed spinach for a Thanksgiving meal. I selected the photo from a Google Images search, choosing the photo that emphasized the positive qualities of the dish.

  2. All win percentages are the result of comparing all foodstuffs against one another, not just other dishes in the same category.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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