Thanksgiving on a Budget: Presentation Counts!

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.ย For more details, please see ourย disclosure policy.

Last year I was both pleasantly surprised and a little dismayed when a popular foodie magazine featured an $80 Thanksgiving Menu. Having read this particularly publication for years and years, I knew that for most of its readership, this was, indeed, a “bargain meal.” But having tracked prices for so long, I knew that they were still spending too much on a holiday supper.

While I did appreciate their efforts at curbing their budget and helping their readers, the truth is that for many of us, $80 is meant to feed a family for a week, not just a dinner. We have to find other ways to “wow” our guests than a high total at the checkstand. And that’s where a pretty presentation can do wonders for the wow-factor.

A Pretty Presentation
Many moons ago I worked for a small college catering company in an affluent community. There I learned some tricks to taking simple ingredients and turning them into fancy “froo-froo” food. Granted, we did often use more expensive ingredients, but high price was not a prerequisite to good taste or pretty presentation.

Whether you’ve got extra space in the budget to splurge on Thanksgiving or not, these techniques will help you make any spread a little more special.

Let’s Dish – Gather your serving dishes and trays to access what you’ve got at your disposal. White and clear glass dishes are best as they will match anything. You can purchase pieces a la carte at Target or Walmart for very little money and at yard sales and thrift stores for even less. With Thanksgiving over a week away, now’s the time to see what you have and what you’ll need. Don’t forget to ask friends and neighbors if you can borrow dishes they might not be using. If you don’t have a set of ramekins, hunt some down. They are great for holding sauces, relishes, olives, nuts, citrus wedges, and other condiments.

Go Textile – Likewise, survey your collection of baskets and linens. Cloth tablecloths and napkins can prettify your table as well as your buffet, if you have one. Roll individual flatware sets into napkins and tie with ribbon or twine. This makes for easy serving. Prepare more than you think you’ll need. Baskets are great for holding breads as well as your flatware-napkin bundles.

Vary the landscape of your buffet – Use candles, dried flowers, and other fall decorative pieces to embellish your serving and dining tables. Flowers and foliage always add interest and serve as a framework for the best part – the food. Add height by placing sturdy boxes and racks on the table, covering them with table linens. Then place the various dishes on these “risers.”

Create an ad-free zone – Remove foods from their original packaging. This may seem like some work, but if a pretty presentation is your goal, setting out a bottle of mustard or dip in its branded packaging is not the way you want to go. Instead, use the aforementioned ramekins to hold your condiments. If you have purchased any convenience items such as cut veggies or bakery items, move them to a tray or napkin-lined basket.

Enjoy simplicity – At Thanksgiving in particular, most people want tradition. They don’t want fussy and complicated. Thankfully, those traditional items are usually “loss leaders” at the grocery store this month. Focus on good, wholesome food and you can’t go wrong. The time that you save in simplifying your menu can give you a few more minutes to make a varied bread basket or to slice carrots just a little prettier.

Be fresh – use lettuce leaves, citrus slices and fresh herbs to garnish serving trays. A few lemon slices floating in a water pitcher add flavor as well as color. If you’re hesitant to spring for pricey fresh herbs, visit your local garden center and see if they have large pots of rosemary or sage. You can keep the plant inside over the winter.

Just desserts – When it’s time to dish up the sweets, think about how to make the plate just a little more. Large bowls of freshly whipped cream and gravy boats of chocolate and raspberry sauces will give dessert time a little extra flourish. Consider plating the desserts yourself and adding a little drizzle and a dollop yourself before serving.

Remember pretty is as pretty does. If you can’t swing “more” than a tasty meal at or under budget, consider yourself successful. But, if you can spruce up your spread even a little, you’ll feel like the hostess with the mostest and your guests will feel pampered.

What do you do to make your big dinner a little prettier? Share your ideas in the comments!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. Thank you for sharing these great ideas. I love to cook but presentation is something I really need to work on.

  2. Oooh – I love all your great ideas! I especially appreciate the dessert ideas – I seem to whip my cream in the stainless bowl and then bring it to the table, not so pretty!

    Thanks for all the great ideas!


  3. Simple is as simple does, as well. Some of the most attractive table arrangements I've seen are so basic – well, even I could do them. ๐Ÿ™‚ One of my favorite for Thanksgiving is a clear/pyrex bowl filled to overflowing with various colored, shiny apples. A few simple votive candles (varied in height) on either side and some colored leaves from the backyard and you're all set! I just love how the apples make the table pop… and hey, who couldn't use up the table decoration when the day is done?

  4. Great ideas! I usually use a tablecloth (we don't in general) and some candles for the centerpiece. I may have to try something different this year. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I love the "create an ad-free zone" tip. I always do this whenever I have a dinner party because not only does it look better, but the food appears fresher too.

  6. Thanks for the tips.

    One of the "cheap" center pieces I do is get a nice glass bowl, fill with water and some fresh cranberries. Maybe add a floating candle. It really pops on the table.

    I also bake my pies in clear glass plates, that makes the pies truly beautiful.

  7. I love this post. Great idea about creating an ad free zone. I've been taking inspiration from all of the glossy catalogues and using natural elements in my decorating this year — except I'm using what I can find in my yard or at the park instead of paying $35 for decorative acorns from Pottery Barn!

  8. These are all great ideas and the commenters have given some as well. I need all the help I can get!

  9. For table decor don't forget the acorns in the yard!… they would be great at the bottom of a glass vase of dried flowers or to serve at the bottom for some apples or around some candles.

    I did something similar to this for our wedding, but with white mardi gras beads to be the filler or water at the bottom of our dried flower arrangement.

  10. I always try to remember to bring some color to my food. Don't just serve a bunch of colorless side dishes. Try adding a sprinkle of chives to the bowl of potatoes, make compound butter, add a mint sprig or crushed candied pecans to the top of pie and whipped cream and add sliced lemon in the water. Oh, and candles! Everything looks more expensive with candles. I put mine in Ball canning jars filled with stones or cranberries or tied with raffia. Easy and cheap!

  11. Hey! Love this post โ€ฆ just wanted to let you know that Iโ€™ve linked to it over on my blog today.
    Happy Thursday!!
    ~ Joy ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. If you live in a mild winter area like I do, rosemary and parsley go all year-long. (And most people in our city have rosemary in their front-yard desert landscaping! If not, they could find a neighbor who does and ask!)

    This time of year, you can get rosemary topiaries at nurseries and places like Target, Lowe's, and Home Depot (and the grocery stores, but they're more money there). I know it has to stay indoors in colder climates.

    It's cheaper to buy an herb plant from the nursery than it is to buy herbs from the store most of the time!

    I don't have lots of ramekins. I do have vintage cut glass and pressed glass dishes in different shapes that were given to me by my grandmother (some came in other ways). I will be pulling some of those out as well.

    If you naturally have pinecones, acrons, or brightly colored leaves, you could use those. We don't have those here, but we do have some nuts in their shells that were given to us that I can use along with some herbs from the garden and some apples.

    I don't usually get the opportunity to decorate a table for Thanksgiving (never, in fact) because we always get together with my husband's family at someone else's house (around 50-80 people). This year it's at my house, with a much smaller number and my side of the family.

    I am also going to use some free printables from here

    and am putting my 7-year-old in charge of them (she is thrilled!)

  13. We always have some kind of yummy jello salad that we plate and put on the table before the meal starts. We garnish the plate with a sprig of parsley from the garden and two olives.