Louisiana cooks shopping for Thanksgiving will find the costs of basic dinner items down this year. The 2011 Thanksgiving market basket will average $39.10 for 10 people, according to an LSU AgCenter survey.

“That’s a decrease of $1.49 from last year’s Baton Rouge average of $40.68 – or a decrease of 3.6 percent,” said LSU AgCenter family economist Jeanette Tucker.

The Louisiana survey was based on an American Farm Bureau Federation shopping list and includes turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a relish tray of carrots and celery, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and beverages of coffee and milk – all in quantities sufficient to serve a group of 10.

The cost of a 16-pound turkey at $13.87, or roughly 87 cents per pound, reflects a decrease of 15 cents per pound or a total decrease of $2.45 per turkey. “This is the largest contributor to the overall decrease in the cost of the 2011 Thanksgiving dinner,” Tucker said.

She said the cost decrease could potentially be attributed to higher turkey production throughout much of the year, yielding increased supplies and inventories. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected fourth quarter 2011 prices for whole bird turkeys to be up 3 percent to 7 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010.

While this year’s price reduction is significant, Tucker said turkey is a consistent bargain for the frugal shopper – healthy, delicious, lean meat for around $1 per pound. The LSU AgCenter and Farm Bureau surveys both looked for the best possible prices without taking advantage of special promotional coupons or purchase deals.

Research suggests that four out of five Thanksgiving turkeys are sold on a holiday special. USDA research in 2004 found that whole, frozen turkeys sold in November were two-thirds of the cost consumers paid for similar turkeys during the other 11 months of the year.

“This suggests that many consumers will probably purchase Thanksgiving turkeys for less than either survey reports,” Tucker said. With projected holiday price decreases, wise shoppers may wish to purchase a second turkey to keep in the freezer for future low-cost meals.

Other items that showed a price decrease include 12-ounce cubed stuffing mix, $1.36 (down $1.48); 12- ounce bag of fresh cranberries, $2.50 (down 35 cents).

Six items showing a price increase this year include 12-ounce brown and serve rolls, $2.35 (up 72 cents); 16-ounce frozen green peas, $1.82 (up 51 cents); one gallon of whole milk, $4.43 (up 36 cents); 30-ounce pumpkin pie mix, $2.02 (up 19 cents); and 8 ounces of whipping cream, $1.77 (up 15 cents); and two 9-inch pie shells, $2.29 (up 14 cents).

The price of sweet potatoes remained constant this year at 89 cents per pound or $2.66 for three pounds.

The Farm Bureau study didn’t provide enough information to replicate the costs for a group of miscellaneous items such as coffee, celery, carrots and other ingredients necessary to prepare the meal – onions, eggs, sugar, flour, evaporated milk and butter. “Thus, the AgCenter used last year’s national average of $3.22,” Tucker said.

Consumer Price Index data indicate the cost of food at home increased 3.9 percent during the 12-month period ending in September 2011. The 3.6 percent decrease in the cost of the Thanksgiving market basket suggests these items saw lower price increases than the market as a whole.

The Farm Bureau survey was first conducted in 1986 when the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 was $28.74. According to Consumer Price Index data, the 1986 Thanksgiving market basket would cost $59.50 in 2011 dollars, indicating the real cost of the holiday meal has actually decreased over time.

“On average, American consumers have enjoyed stable food costs over the years, particularly when you adjust for inflation,” Tucker said.

Consumers can enjoy a wholesome, home-cooked turkey dinner for under $4 per person – less than a typical fast food meal. “That’s a real bargain in these challenging economic times,” Tucker said.

The family economist offers several tips for saving money when shopping for the Thanksgiving meal:

– Always use a list and minimize the number of trips to the store.

– Develop the list based on store layout to save time as well as money.

– Shop alone and avoid going to the store just before a meal.

– Check store ads and flyers for money-saving specials.

– Use coupons to reduce the cost of products you usually buy and use.

– Purchase generic or store brands when practical and money-saving.

– Remember that items placed at eye level on shelves are often more expensive.

– Purchase fruits, vegetables and fresh seafood in season to avoid higher prices.

– Purchase fresh, unpeeled, unwashed, unpackaged vegetables.

– Determine the cost per serving when selecting meats.

– Check unit pricing to save money.

– Avoid expensive single servings and snack packs.

– Be flexible to take advantage of in-store specials.