Tips for a Budget Friendly Thanksgiving Dinner (Eat Well, Spend Less)

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As I mentioned yesterday, Thanksgiving Dinner is an all-time favorite at our house. My kids start dancing and breaking out in song when they see anything remotely resembling mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and oh yeah, the turkey. We have a smaller version of that meal throughout the winter and there are rarely leftovers.

But, having lived through some really tight times, I am aware that hosting a big holiday dinner can pinch the wallet. You want to be hospitable. You want to splurge. But, if you’re really serious about sticking to a budget, that can be a tough thing to pull off.

While November is traditionally the month for fantastic stock-up sales, I’m not really seeing that in my local stores. In years past I’ve seen free turkeys or $5 turkeys abound. This year? Not so much. In fact, one store I went to recently didn’t even have turkeys in stock. And many of the “bargain” turkeys that I did find were chock full of solutions and foreign substances.

Likewise, potatoes, onions, baking ingredients, and other traditional ingredients, are not yet low enough in price for me to call them bargains. There’s still a week until Turkey Day. I am hoping that tomorrow’s food section and the accompanying grocery ads will bear better news, but as I’ve said before, “I will not go quietly.”

So, what’s a girl to do when the prices are a little too high for comfort?

1. Consider your priorities.

Thanksgiving Dinner is a big deal. For some families it’s the one time that you get together in the year. For hobbits like mine, it’s an occasion for feasting. But, that doesn’t mean you have to go all out and make everything. What are non-negotiables on the meal plan and what can you omit without a riot?

The other day on Facebook, I suggested opting out of turkey (due to my aforementioned frustrations of the costs of a quality bird) in favor of a less expensive main dish. Chicken breast is 99 cents/pound in my neck of the wood and still goes with the traditional side dishes. I figure the Pilgrims would have eaten whatever was readily available.

Some folks had no problem with it, others thought it was near blasphemy to lose the turkey. My son, the gourmand, merely shrugged his shoulders. Find out what works for YOUR family.

(If you haven’t already, download this FREE booklet designed to help you determine your holiday priorities this year.)

2. Make a menu plan and a grocery list.

Don’t think that you can run to the store and just grab whatever. It certainly can be done, but you’ll pay more than you should or even want to. So, write a thorough menu plan right down to drinks and appetizers. Double check your list and see if you could serve a lower priced alternative. Consider that maybe two desserts would be just as good as four. Audit yourself so that you are planning a pleasing feast that won’t make you a pauper.

Once you figure out what you want to serve create a grocery list, consulting your pantry and freezer as you go. You may not need to buy as many ingredients as you think if you know you can shop your pantry first.

3. Find the best price — on most things.

Unless you have endless time and gas at your disposal, you realistically can’t get every good deal there is. Nonetheless, scan your grocery stores’ flyers and narrow down what the best prices are in each store. Then find the store with the best deals for most things. Get the biggest bang for your buck. Don’t be afraid to buy a generic equivalent on the things that are lesser in priority.

4. Accept help.

If you are hosting a big dinner with guests who are offering to contribute to the meal, let them! There’s no rule that says you have to do it all yourself. The Pilgrims and the Native Americans both contributed food to the feast. Folks love to share food and lighten the load on the hostess.

5. Remember, “Enough is as good as a feast.”

I am the first one to admit how easy it is to go overboard at the holidays. This year, however, I’m trying to celebrate a simpler season.

It really doesn’t matter if you have three kinds of breads, four different appetizers, and ten desserts. Thanksgiving is not about impressing. Rather, it’s about enjoying the bounty you’ve been blessed with. Some years there is plenty, and some years there isn’t.

And that’s okay. Enough is as good as a feast.

This post is part of an ongoing series about how to eat well and spend less. Along with some fabulous foodies, organizers, and frugalistas, I’ve been bringing you suggestions on how to eat like a king without becoming a pauper to do it. This month we’re discussing how to celebrate Thanksgiving on a Budget.

Be sure to check out what the other ladies are sharing this week or browse their archives:

How do YOU make Thanksgiving Dinner budget-friendly?

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  1. I definitely agree with sharing the responsibility. We have done that for years. Our extended family has stretched and spread out, so we actually have less at the gathering and for a few years we were still fixing as much food. I finally got my sister-in-law to back down and reduce the number of dishes we have. Has helped us all, plus there was not as much leftover to pack up.
    Great post!
    Do the holidays throw you off balance?

  2. My mom was stressed about thanksgiving dinner this year so I took the initiative last week and sent an email to the siblings who would be coming to dinner with a list of traditional thanksgiving menu items and suggested that everyone claim one or two things they wanted to bring. I even suggested we ditch making a whole turkey in favor of something simpler, like just getting turkey breasts. One sister was appalled and offered to be the one to make the turkey since she wanted the whole bird tradition. Well, at least my mom still doesn’t have to make it! Here’s hoping my mom still doesn’t get stressed on turkey day 🙂

  3. We’re going to keep it fairly simple. I’m not compromising on the quality of food — I’m spending $3/lb. to buy a locally raised turkey — but I don’t need a ton of gourmet ingredients and many dishes. I’ll make my favorites: turkey, homemade gravy (cheap!), mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing. I’ll probably make an apple pie, as we don’t care for pumpkin, and I’m sure homemade ice cream (we make that a LOT). But that’s it. I’ll bake the bread for the stuffing myself and I’ll be making everything truly from scratch (no canned soups in my green bean casserole) and that will keep costs down too. Plus I’ll use the leftover turkey for other meals, and the bones for stock. Using everything means I’m really not worried about spending too much. 🙂

  4. This year, we’re going to my brother’s house for Thanksgiving, and we’re tag-teaming it. He’s making the ham, stuffing, and a store-made pie, and I’m bringing the turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Sounds like a plan to me!

  5. I have guests help bring food and I settle for some storebought and check the grocery sales for multiple stores. And just generally keep things pretty simple.

  6. I so agree with #4. We trade off Thanksgiving and Christmas with the cousins and everyone who comes shows up with a dish. Or two or three. The host is in charge of the turkey and the table. We’re lucky to have so many to contribute, and it sure makes it easier on everyone on the big day.

  7. Whenever our family gathers year round, we potluck it… depending on ability, time, etc. It helps a lot, and is fun for us.

    One family always bring great wine to our routine Friday pizza gathering, while another brings an armful of soda–not equal, or someone with plenty of time cooks a time intensive dish… (That’s me, I make the dough which costs nearly nothing, but bakes into the best pizza.) We love sharing, and it’s a joy when my kids yell “Thanksgiving–it’s time for Auntie Elaina’s pies!”

  8. I ABSOLUTELY agree that enough is as good as a feast.
    I have also found that keeping things simple instead of turning them into casseroles has made a huge difference. It was absolutely delicious, cheaper, and healthier. I’ve also been trying to just keep things simple. Sure, I could make 18 different pies and do everything from scratch but why??? Who am I showing off for?
    Here is our menu from last year:
    We did have a turkey, roasted like mom does.
    Stuffing was the boxed stuff bought on sale, as was the canned cranberry sauce.
    We roasted the asparagus instead of drowning it in hollandaise sauce.
    I just served a hot bowl of corn (from frozen) instead of a cornbread casserole.
    I made rolls in the bread machine (The Betty Crocker recipe)
    And instead of a candied yams, we made Tyler Florence’s roasted sweet potatoes with honey and cinnamon.
    We also made a pumpkin pie, and whipped our own cream.
    I can’t remember if I put out the usual relish tray of pickles and olives or not.
    It was not a stressful day in the kitchen, our table was colorful, everyone enjoyed the meal.
    I plan to keep it equally simple this go around.

  9. I’m pretty sure the Pilgrims had lobster at the first Thanksgiving.

    We had our wedding reception at Plimouth Plantation and had our pictures taken in front of the Mayflower so yeah, I like Thanksgiving a lot. But, I agree 100% that everyone should pitch in.

    I’m scaling back my menu this year. I’m still going to do the turkey roulade that we love, but I’m leaving out the corn bread stuffing with chorizo and butter nut squash. I’ll make simple bread stuffing in the crockpot instead.

    I haven’t seen many sales either.

  10. I’ve heard that putting on a Thanksgiving meal will cost 13% more this year than last year. This topic must be top of mind, I also wrote a similar post.

    Rule # 4 is in my opinion that most important. Not only as a hostess should you ask for assistance but as a guest offer up, even to buying the turkey if you know it’s going to be a hardship for someone. My mom has not gotten a paycheck (or unemployement) for nearly two months following a medical crisis. While she’s still having the dinner at her house I told her I would buy the turkey and bring my usual stuff. Helps relieve the stress a little bit.

  11. Well I am all in favor of being less rigid and traditional in favor of not crying over the grocery bill LOL.

    I host a medium sized dinner here and one thing I’ve learned, aside from sharing the load [mom brings fresh fruit platters for before and after – I hate dealing with that when I’m busy cooking – MIL brings bakery pies and FIL likes to make cranberry sauce – god bless LOL – other guests bring wine] is that the dishes that I used to make that were very time and ingredient intensive were simply not worth the money or time. I now make a few traditional sides that I know everyone loves [stuffing, mashed potatoes, cornbread] and a variety of roasted vegetables, generally with different seasonings but basically cooked the same, prepped the same, no sauces, no saucepans, no finicky stuff] and everyone over a certain height loves them – and it all basically was one ‘recipe’ with tweaks for time and seasoning. This year we’re having roasted onions, portobellos, sweet potatoes, asparagus and garlic.

    As for the turkey/grocery price thing I have found that it makes one thing easier for me – I have been wanting to move more toward farm raise, local, grass fed etc in our meats. It makes it so much easier when the price gap [sadly] is so much less than it was in times past – looking forward to our more naturally raised bird this year, and to emptying enough of my freezer to place a meat order at a new farm I’ve found!

    1. Yes, the price gap is closing with conventional being higher priced. It’s a blessing in disguise, isn’t it?

  12. I definitely agree with #4 – I grew up with all holidays being large family gatherings where everyone contributed. As soon as you were married or lived on your own, you were assigned something 🙂 My in-laws don’t do it that way and it was so strange for me to have Thanksgiving with them the first time and not being able to bring anything.