When it is best to obtain your Thanksgiving turkey will depend on multiple factors. In some cases you can get it the same day or the day before; in others you might need to order it weeks or more in advance.
First there is the matter of whether you’ll be buying a fresh or frozen turkey. If you’re going with a fresh turkey, then that obviously greatly narrows when you need to get it. A fresh turkey, if refrigerated, should be fine for 2-4 days. To be on the safe side, it’s probably better to say 1-2 days. So if you can’t pick it up earlier in the day on Thanksgiving itself, figure no later than Tuesday or Wednesday.
Note, however, that though you’re picking up your turkey within two days of Thanksgiving, you might still need to order it considerably earlier.
So it depends where you’re getting your fresh turkey. If you’re just going to a conventional supermarket, then, yes, you buy it a day or so ahead of time.
But what if you’re special ordering your turkey? For example, it’s possible to order an organic turkey through a farmers market or family farm near you. (The website Local Harvest is a great resource for finding out what’s available near you, for all kinds of produce and meat.) But if you do that, even though you pick it up on or just before the holiday, you need to put your order in considerably before that, as it’s first come first serve. If they’ll have 100 mature turkeys on their farm by Thanksgiving, you need to be one of the first 100 people to order one, or you’ll miss out.
It’ll vary from farm to farm just how far in advance you’ll need to order, so check with wherever you’re considering purchasing your turkey to get the details. As a rule of thumb, most farms suggest ordering at least two to three weeks in advance to be sure of getting a turkey, but some will warn you that if you don’t order at least a month in advance they might run out.
Now if you’re getting a frozen turkey, you have much more flexibility on the timing, as frozen turkeys should be fine up to even a year.
Because of that flexibility, you can better take price into account. If you’re just going to stick it in your freezer until Thanksgiving, you might as well get your turkey whenever it’s cheapest, whether that be a week, a month, or ten months in advance.
However, that flexibility may not even come into play, since there’s a good chance you’ll pay the least for turkey right before Thanksgiving anyway. It is common for supermarkets to have drastic sales on turkey immediately before holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, treating it as a loss leader to get shoppers in their store. So even though you could just as easily buy your frozen Thanksgiving turkey in July if that’s when it’s cheapest, chances are it won’t be. Wait until just before Thanksgiving (though not too close; remember, you’ll need about 24 hours of defrosting in your refrigerator for each five pounds of bird), and you’ll likely find the best deal.
You could, in fact, stock up on turkey that week (or whenever it happens to be cheapest). If turkey’s on sale at a great price, and you figure you’ll cook a turkey at least four times in the next six months to a year, you don’t have to just get the one for Thanksgiving-get four.
Don’t forget, though, that you need the freezer space. It’s great to get a good deal on turkey and stock up, but not if you arrive home lugging four massive turkeys and realize you’ll be lucky to be able to squeeze one of them into your little freezer.
So there are many things to consider when deciding when to buy your turkey, including whether you’re getting a fresh or frozen turkey, whether you’re buying on the spot or ordering in advance, when turkeys will be cheapest where you’re buying them, and how much freezer space you have for frozen turkey(s) you pick up ahead of time.