‘Which bit of the turkey is this supposed to be?!’ I ate 12 Christmas dinners in 12 days – here are the best and worst! | Christmas food and drink

When we hear Roy Wood singing about how he wishes it could be Christmas every day, most of us don’t think of disappointing presents, endless ads for the DFS Boxing Day sale or passing out, sherry in hand, in front of a Bond film. No, we think about the nice bits – time spent with friends, family, peace to all men and, of course, the food.

I love a traditional turkey dinner so much I’ll eat one at every opportunity. It might not be good for me, but, after 40-plus years of doing it, I think I’ve worked out how to keep the damage to a minimum. The average person is said to scoff more than double the recommended calories on 25 December, but that’s surely more down to snacking than what amounts to a souped-up version of meat and two veg. The secret, then, is not to gorge yourself stupid on vol-au-vents, mini sausages on cocktail sticks, mince pies and Quality Street, and concentrate on the main event.

I should be in heaven right now as we enter the festive period. Despite all the warnings about a poultry shortage, almost every lower-budget, carvery-style restaurant has a traditional turkey dinner on the menu. But how good are they – and could I really eat a Christmas dinner day in, day out? I spent the best part of two weeks finding out. Read on to find who does the best roasties and most succulent turkey.

Day one: Wetherspoons

Sliced turkey breast and winter vegetables

Rich Pelley with his Wetherspoon’s dinner. Photograph: Rich Pelley

Four slices of turkey breast; pork, apricot and cranberry stuffing; roasted chantenay carrots and parsnips; maris piper mash; two pigs in blankets; peas; cranberry sauce; gravy. 997 kcal. £10.69 (with soft drink), £11.99 (alcoholic)

Where better to attempt to be the first man in the UK to eat a Christmas dinner than midday, mid-November, at my local Wetherspoons? There are plenty of other punters to toast. This is actually OK, until you realise it’s served with mashed potato. This is such a heinous Christmas-dinner crime that (like William Wallace) whoever was responsible should be hauled to the Tower of London, stripped, tied to a hurdle, dragged through the streets by horses, hanged, drawn, quartered, and his bowels incinerated before him. And don’t get me started on the total non-existence of sprouts.
Score: One sprout out of five

We dined at: The Holland Tringham, 107-109 Streatham High Rd, SW16 1HJ

Day two: Brewers Fayre

Festive turkey

Brewers Fayre.
Brewers Fayre.

Roast potatoes; yorkshire pudding; stuffing; pig in blanket; root vegetable mash; honey-roasted parsnips; carrots; garden peas; brussels sprouts; red-wine gravy. 1,400 kcal. £13.49 (two courses); £16.49 (three)

At least this one’s got six (yes!) sprouts and proper roasties (albeit rubbish, that I suspect were frozen). But at 1,400 kcal, it’s so stodgy it leaves me seriously considering checking into the attached Premier Inn to sleep it off.
Score: 1/5

We indulged at: Haywain, Dorking Rd, Epsom KT18 7LB

Beefeater.
Beefeater.

Day three: Beefeater

Turkey with all the trimmings

Turkey slices; roast potatoes; honey-glazed parsnips; brussels sprouts; peas; carrots; stuffing; pig in blanket; yorkshire pudding; red-wine gravy; cranberry sauce. 1,284 kcal. £19.95 (two courses); £22.95 (three)

Traipsing up another A-road, I feel like a prize turkey for failing to realise many of these chain pubs are attached to Premier Inns in the middle of nowhere. It occurs to me I could be hacked to death outside this Beefeater and not be found for weeks, which might be preferable to its Christmas dinner, which comes with cardboard yorkshire pud, boring boiled carrots, what look like Aunt Bessie frozen roasties and turkey roll seemingly processed by the ghost of Bernard Matthews.
Score: 2/5

We ate at: Coombe Lodge, 104 Coombe Rd, Croydon CR0 5RB

Frankie & Benny’s.
Frankie & Benny’s.

Day four: Frankie & Benny’s

Yuletide stuffed turkey

Stuffed turkey breast with apple and cranberries; carrot batons; broccolini; spring onion mash; parsnip; gravy; crispy bacon. 780 kcal. £16.90 (one course); £18.99 (two); £22.99 (three)

After three days of hefty eating, at 780 kcal, this feels like the Weight Watchers of Christmas dinners including – uniquely – broccolini. But it just doesn’t seem Christmassy enough, with underwhelming stuffing, bacon (huh?) with – do I hear the sound of the bowel-incinerators I mentioned at Wetherspoons being sharpened? – mashed potato instead of roasted.
Score: 2/5

We gorged at: Frankie & Benny’s, 355-357 Strand, WC2R 0HR

Day five: Mum’s house

There’s no place like home

Mrs Pelley’s traditional turkey roast.
Mrs Pelley’s traditional turkey roast.

Turkey (assume Waitrose); roast potatoes; roasted carrots; broccoli; cauliflower; broccoli and cauliflower cheese; peas; red cabbage; brussels sprouts; buttered mushrooms; leeks; pigs in blankets; cranberry sauce; gravy. Kcal unknown. £ free.

“Isn’t it about time you got a proper job?” scolds my mum when I call in the mother of all favours – a full Christmas dinner, “for work”. But every experiment needs a control, and this is it. Expertly sliced turkey (by Dad), a plethora of veg and a choice of steamed *or cheesed* broccoli and cauliflower, although it seems harsh to deduct marks just because “there wasn’t time” to prepare the usual signature stuffing. Mrs Pelley’s secret to the perfect roast potato? Dripping and semolina. I’d give this 10 out of 5 if I was allowed. Pub chains, take note.
Score: 5/5

We treated the place like a hotel at: Mr and Mrs Pelley’s, Bristol

Day six: Hungry Horse

Traditional Christmas dinner

Thanks, but no thanks … Christmas dinner at Hungry Horse.
Thanks, but no thanks … Christmas dinner at Hungry Horse.

Turkey breast; sage and onion stuffing; pig in blanket; yorkshire pudding; roast potatoes; seasonal veg; cranberry sauce; gravy. 1,034 kcal. £15.99 (two courses); £18.99 (three)

Cranberry and stuffing missing in action … Hungry Horse.
Cranberry and stuffing missing in action … Hungry Horse.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a decent Christmas dinner. They say the first bite of any meal is with the eye – so what in the name of all things festive is this? Where’s the green? Which bit of the turkey is that supposed to be – its biceps? The advertised cranberry sauce and stuffing are awol and the gravy tastes of petrol. I wouldn’t feed this last turkey in the shop of a Christmas dinner to my dog, but, in the interests of journalism, I eat it anyway.
Score: 0/5

We lunched at: Kiss Me Hardy, 131 High Street, Colliers Wood SW19 2PP

Day seven: Slug & Lettuce

Very Merry burger

Burger and chips, but make it festive …
Burger and chips, but make it festive …

Beef burger, streaky bacon, melted cheese slice, pork, cranberry and fig stuffing, cranberry sauce; pigs in blankets; skinny fries; maple and Bourbon BBQ dip. 1,549 kcal. £14.49

“Supply issues” means turkey is off the menu today, so I’m forced into ordering the Very Merry burger that clocks in at double the suspiciously low-calorie all-the-trimmings turkey dinner (749 kcal) I was hoping to sample. The Christmas pizzazz arrives courtesy of the pork, fig and cranberry stuffing, of which – so long, ketchup – I’m an instant fan. The chips could use some gravy but my taste buds are so acclimatised to the stuff that I believe my cornflakes could use some gravy.
Score: 4/5

We troughed at: Slug & Lettuce, Riverside House, Richmond TW9 1TJ

The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage joins Rich Pelley in Ashford.
The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage joins Rich Pelley in Ashford.

Day eight: Harvester

Christmas dinner

Turkey; sage and onion-seasoned roast potatoes; Cumberland pig in blanket; green beans; garden peas; red cabbage; sprouts; pork and sage stuffing ball; yorkshire pudding; cranberry sauce; gravy. 1,027 kcal. £16.99 (two courses); £19.99 (three). Booking required

I’m so sick of dining alone, it’s absolutely, definitely, totally worth a 120-mile, five-hour round trip just so fellow Guardian journalist Stuart Heritage can guest-review this one instead.

Succulent turkey at Harvester.
Succulent turkey at Harvester.

Stuart Heritage: Pelley seems to have unfortunately succumbed to what doctors refer to as “turkey madness”, boring me through a mind-numbingly tedious slideshow of near-identical Christmas dinner photos on his phone. Fortunately, unlike the company, lunch is good. Succulent turkey, expertly judged potatoes, plus my veg comes with half a stray chip from someone else’s order. It’s a Christmas miracle!
Score: 4/5

We wolfed at: The Bybrook Barn, Canterbury Road, Ashford TN24 8QQ

Day nine: Greene King

Hunters turkey

Sizzling … Greene King’s platter.
Sizzling … Greene King’s platter.

Flattened, flame-grilled turkey breast, smoked streaky bacon, chopped pigs in blanket, melted cheese, BBQ, cranberry sauce; clementine and sage roasties, sprouts, tomato, peas, fried onions, served on sizzling skillet. 1,172 kcal. £16.99 (two courses); £19.99 (three). Booking required

Dr Ramsay visits Greene King.
Dr Ramsay visits Greene King.

I’m beginning to worry how my one-meal-a-day, binge-roast diet is affecting my health, and so consult my GP, Dr Bob Ramsay. “Such an intense calorie intake puts strain on every organ,” he says over his third roast potato. “You risk gallstones, blood vessel disease, kidney, liver and heart failure, impotence, blindness, amputation and possibly a stroke. Nor have I ever been served anything other than a curry on a cast-iron sizzling skillet. And why is there no gravy?”
Score: 3/5

We tucked in at: The Greyfisher, Ayleswade Rd, Salisbury SP2 8DW

Day 10: Toby Carvery

Festive yorkie calzone

If in doubt, fold it into a giant yorkshire pudding.
If in doubt, fold it into a giant yorkshire pudding.

Turkey breast, pigs in blankets, stuffing and camembert cheese folded into a giant yorkshire pudding; roast potatoes. 1,095 kcal. £12.49 (two courses Mon – Fri), £15.99 (three). £13.49 (two courses Sat), £16.99 (three). £16.49 (two courses Sun), £19.99 (three).

To yorkshire, or not to yorkshire, that is the question. Turns out, an entire Christmas dinner stuffed inside a giant, rolled yorkshire pudding is so utterly delicious, I begin to worry that if my mum doesn’t serve this on Christmas Day, she may lose my custom for ever.
Score: 5/5

We scoffed at: Toby Carvery, 415 Brighton Rd, Croydon CR2 6AN

Day 11: All Bar One

Roast turkey

Christmas dinner perfection …
Christmas dinner perfection …

Paupiette of turkey rolled in streaky bacon with pork, cranberry and sage stuffing; sage and onion crispy potatoes; stem broccoli; roasted carrot; parsnips; butternut squash; pig in blanket; cranberry sauce; red wine jus. 1,000 kcal. £27.50 (three courses Sun – Tue); £30.50 (Wed – Sat). Booking required

I had no idea what a paupiette was, until now. Forget twizzlers and dinosaurs: paupiette is the most luxurious form of turkey ever. The pigs are minus their blanket and the extremely friendly staff clearly think I’m a mystery diner or a serial killer, but other than that – roasties included – this is Christmas dinner perfection.
Score: 5/5

We ate our body weight at: All Bar One, 32-38 Northcote Rd SW11 1NZ

Youngs … ‘the best potatoes since Mrs Pelley.’
Youngs … ‘the best potatoes since Mrs Pelley.’

Day 12: Youngs

Crown of English turkey

Turkey; pig in blanket; goose-fat roast potatoes; crushed winter roots; creamed leeks; brussels sprouts; maple roast parsnip; cranberry sauce; gravy. 1,158 kcal. £35.00 (three courses). Booking required

That’s it. I’m stuffed. A dozen days of Christmas dinners have nearly killed me. My clothes smell of roast, I wake up craving gravy, and I fear – as my mum always warned – one more bite and I’ll turn into a turkey. This is the pièce de résistance of traditional Christmas din-dins: al dente sprouts; a pig in blanket so posh it probably went to Eton; the best potatoes since Mrs Pelley’s and a cracker. I’ll quit while I’m ahead. I’m going cold turkey and am never eating a Christmas dinner again.
Score: 5/5

We nearly burst at: The Victoria, 28 Victoria Rd, Surbiton KT6 4JT

Day 13, 10am. Monday

Rich Pelley … ‘one more bite and I’ll turn into a turkey.’
Rich Pelley … ‘one more bite and I’ll turn into a turkey.’ Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Hmmm, I’m starving. Anyone fancy a Christmas dinner?

Total spent (on me): £215.47
Total calories: 11,349 (+ one Mrs Pelley dinner)
Doctor’s prognosis: “Put that man on a diet, pronto!”

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