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Thanksgiving on a Budget

Updated on November 11, 2017
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Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.

Perfect roast turkey


The word Thanksgiving is often followed by the word feast, and that can put a chill on the heart of those trying to make arrangements for the holiday while laboring under budget restrictions. For whatever reason, this year seems to have hit more of us with financial strain, but that doesn't mean that the holiday has to go out the window.

There are actually some simple ways to cut back on the amount of money needed to feed everyone at your table this Thanksgiving, and none of them are that difficult to tell the truth. Some of them are common sense, some of them are rather tricky, but none of them are difficult.

So relax. Even if you have to work with limited means, you can still do it, and there's a good chance most of your guests won't even realize that you've done 'less'. In my opinion, this is the way to celebrate anyway - giving what you can with an easy mind, so that you can all actually enjoy the day!

Need help with your menu?

Want a great tasting menu using all my tips? Go fresh, local, traditional, seasonal and homemade - and check out the photos in this article. A classic roast turkey with dressing, butternut soup, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, sweet potatoes, Parker House Rolls and Sweet Potato (or pumpkin) Pie is perfect - and very budget friendly!

Classic stuffing


Start early

The best thing you can do is to start early with your planning - the earlier the better. If you need help with this, check out Thanksgiving Preplanned - How to Have a Stress Free Holiday. That article contains a lot of information that is even more important if there are financial restrictions. But starting early means you can watch for sales!

Many grocery stores start running big sales on turkeys late in October or early in November. Where I live, whole frozen turkeys are normally about 1.69 a pound most of the year. But if you watch, you'll be able to find them for under a $1 a pound - I bought several last week for .69 a pound. That's a huge savings.

In addition - many stores will offer 'free turkey' promotions. They work in a variety of ways - some will give a free turkey if you make a purchase of a certain amount - say $100. Some will give points per dollar spent toward a free turkey. If you are careful, and work your standard grocery purchases around these promotions, you can often get your bird for free. The trick is to look for these early in November - they rarely happen later in the month.

Starting early will also let you check for coupons, manufacturer's or store specials and 'buy one get one' promotions. If you don't already do this, start. It can seriously boost your grocery budget, as long as you are purchasing foods you already use. Even better? Many companies will publish a coupon, and the following week the stores will place that item on sale, making it worth twice as much or more. And on top of that, many items that are popular at Thanksgiving are the target of these specials. Again though, start early in the month to maximize this.

Butternut Soup


Mashed potatoes


Make a Plan

Planning can't be over stated. I know - it's not really the fun part. but it's critical. Decide early how much you have to spend, and stick to it. It could very well be that you have to manage getting a holiday meal together for no more than you would an everyday weeknight meal. So be it. If you have a little extra, you'll know exactly how much.

This also means pulling together a guest list early. Find out as early as possible exactly how many will be coming, and if they are adults or children. This lets you set a menu, and you'll know exactly how much of what to purchase. You may have a coupon AND a sale on pumpkin, but if you need one can - the other fourteen you bought that will just sit in your cupboard mean you can't purchase something else you really need.

Decide on your menu as well. Seriously think about what needs to be there. Tradition in your family might call for lobster bisque, but fresh seafood this time of year, and lobster anytime, is horrendously expensive. Make it shrimp, or substitute a beautiful butternut soup. Decide as well how many side dishes you need. It might feel fun to have ten or twelve - but think practical here. Also - think seasonal. Squashes and pumpkin are traditional at Thanksgiving because they are in season. This also means they cost far less than something like asparagus or strawberries. They'll also taste better. So adjust your menu to use what's local and fresh. Your taste buds will thank you as much as your wallet.

Once you have a guest list, and a menu though, you can make the first serious boost in your budget. How? Ask each one on your list to bring something. It might be your preference to do it all yourself but if you take a look at what you want to do, and the money needs to be cut, allow your family and friends to help. Most people actually want to bring something - I almost guarantee the first thing they'll say after accepting your invitation will be 'what can I bring?" Have an answer ready. Tell them the menu you have planned, and let them have a couple of choices. And if anyone asks what happened to the lobster bisque, let THEM bring it.

Homemade Green Bean Casserole

Making green bean casserole completely from scratch cuts the cost, and improves the flavor. It's also easy - Win-win!
Making green bean casserole completely from scratch cuts the cost, and improves the flavor. It's also easy - Win-win!

Parker House Rolls


Watch the sneaky things...

There are things that don't seem like terribly expensive items, but can seriously add up once your purchase enough for a group. Alcohol is tops on this list, as are soft drinks. Take it back to basics then for drinks. Go with coffee and iced tea. These can be prepped ahead, and if you want to add a bit of festivity to your drinks - go ahead. Add a splash of cranberry or orange juice to the tea, or a bit of cinnamon to coffee, and you still have festive drinks. But wine or liquor can seriously add up, so that might have to go.

If you have a little to splurge with, choose one type of good, moderately priced wine to serve. Most liquor stores are happy to help with these choices - so make friends with the nice people behind the counter just as you would your butcher or fishmonger. They'll be glad to point out budget friendly options, and help you know exactly how much to purchase.

Decorations can also put you over the top. Do you really need a fresh floral centerpiece? Try making arrangements of seasonal produce instead - which you can then put to use the next day. Or if you want to go casual, have your children decorate the table. Or ask one of your guests to bring something. If you have a someone on your list good at that sort of thing - put them in charge. They'll be flattered and most likely glad to help, and it's one more thing you can cross off your list.

Pumpkin Pie

Go homemade...

For the most part, every single component on the Thanksgiving table can be made from scratch for less money than an equivalent store bought item. Off the top of my head I'm thinking first of breads and rolls. Not only do homemade taste better (and are easy! don't be afraid!), but large batches can be made for literally pennies. And your house will smell of freshly baked bread - a fragrance that is to die for. Pie crusts are the same - cheaper, better tasting and they can be made ahead and frozen.

Stuffing or dressing is also one of those things can be done for pennies - especially if you start saving your stale bread, and leftover bits and pieces in the freezer for several weeks before you'll need it. The only additional ingredients you need for a delicious, basic stuffing are a few veggies, some herbs and a little stock.

Watch the prices on herbs by the way. Fresh herbs are almost always my preference, but honestly, they can be expensive. Check the prices on fresh vs. dried - chances are dried herbs are far less money for larger amounts. Not always though - a few can be high if they are dried. Stick to the basics as well. Saffron is lovely, but you don't need it. No you don't. Rosemary, parsley, sage, and thyme will do just about anything you wish done on Thanksgiving.

Stocks are another thing you can do for pennies on the dollar, vs. purchasing them premade. Even better, they can be made in advance and frozen. Start early (hint, hint), and you have the opportunity to skip purchasing any premade or canned broth. Not only are they less, the flavor is so much better you'll probably become a homemade stock convert entirely.

Don't forget...

 Have fun.

I'm not kidding. You may not be able to pull out all the stops this year, but it doesn' matter at all. You're still going to get to spend the day with your family and friends - and that's priceless. Give yourself permission to take pride in the fact that you can do so much - and enjoy your guests. I almost guarantee not one person will realize that you spent so little. If you enjoy yourself and your family, they'll enjoy it just as much. So have fun. And Happy Thanksgiving.

How to Roast a Turkey

Perfect Stuffing

© 2010 Jan Charles


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