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18 Tips for an Amazing Thanksgiving on a Budget
Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, appreciating family, and wondering how you will possibly afford the wonderful holiday meal you’re planning. This year is also a time to wonder how your usual traditions will adapt to the age of COVID.
It might not be a normal Thanksgiving dinner, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a special time of year full of food and tradition.
Regardless of how you are spending Thanksgiving this year, any celebratory recipes or plans may come with a cost that exceeds your regular budget. Read on for tips on how to turn your Thanksgiving into a Thanksaving!
No. 1: Plan ahead
If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year, you may be looking at a smaller guest list. Still, it’s a good idea to get the best possible headcount you can before you start shopping for groceries.
“Although it's very difficult to lock guest numbers down at the moment, the sooner you do this, the sooner you can start planning a meal that minimizes waste,” says John Bedford, founder of cooking website Viva Flavor.
Once you have your list, Bedford advises bringing it with you whenever you go out, as you never know when you’ll come across deals for pie crust, whipped cream, or brown sugar to save just a little more on the perfect pecan pie. Or apple pie. Or pumpkin pie. Or all three! With ice cream!
No. 2: Buy in season
As lovely as it might be to have a literal cornucopia overflowing with every kind of vegetable you can imagine as part of your Thanksgiving centerpiece, you’re better off sticking to what’s in season. Sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and pumpkin should be more affordable than out-of-season produce, and other than a roast turkey, they’re about as traditional as you can get. Brussels sprouts should also be in season, and despite what you may remember from your childhood, they can actually be quite good if you don’t skimp on the olive oil.
No. 3: Don’t be afraid to think inside the can
Fresh sounds better, but it can be much more expensive. And when it comes to something like pumpkin pie, how many people will really be able to tell whether the filling originally came from a fresh pumpkin? You can even get the cranberry sauce from a can. We won’t tell. Just make sure to smash it up so it isn’t still shaped like the can before you bring it to the table.
No. 4: Don’t be afraid of frozen vegetables
Pretty much everything we just said about canned goods applies here, but for frozen vegetables. Trust us: Nobody will know if the green beans you put in that green bean casserole were purchased from the frozen section of the grocery store. Most frozen veggies are flash-frozen shortly after they’re picked, so it’s cheaper, and they likely will hold up much better than if you purchase them fresh and freeze them yourself.
No. 5: Collect the right deals for your shopping list
Why shop harder when you can shop smarter?
“My number one recommendation for a more affordable Thanksgiving is to shop strategically by collecting or looking up all of the Thanksgiving grocery store [advertisements] the week before Thanksgiving,” says Katie Moseman, food blogger at Recipe For Perfection. “You’ll be able to compare prices between stores on all the items you need, then make a shopping plan to pick up everything at the most affordable price.”
However, don’t buy something just because it’s on sale. You can lose a lot of money that way.
During the holiday season, there are a lot of displays and promotions on things like canned pumpkin and baking supplies, says Lisa Hugh, founder and CEO of Single Ingredient Groceries. “Yes, they might be a good price,” she says, “but if you don't really need these items and aren't going to use them, go ahead and pass them up.”
Of course, if there are nonperishables that you’d likely use at some point, Hugh suggests grabbing them while they’re cheap.
No. 6: Get your phone in on the action
There’s something to be said for the lost art of manually clipping coupons from those pamphlets that appear on your front stoop or in your mailbox. But we also have technology your grandmother’s coupon drawer could only dream about. Consider checking out some savings apps so you can get the best prices on all of your Turkey Day provisions.
No. 7: Recipe for success
No doubt you already have a whole collection of classic Thanksgiving recipes, but it doesn’t hurt to learn some more. There are many budget-friendly recipes online just waiting to be found. Moseman even shared two she created herself that shouldn’t tap too deeply into your bank account: southern style squash casserole and foolproof boneless turkey breast.
No. 8: Sometimes more is too much
There’s a tendency to go overboard on the food when it comes to your Thanksgiving menu. But making too many different dishes won’t only cut into the budget, it may lessen the enjoyment of the later dishes. Correale warns against serving your guests too many appetizers or stuffing them with dinner rolls so they’ll be nice and hungry when the Thanksgiving turkey -- or whatever entree you settle on -- hits the table. Simple dishes can be the best ones.
No. 9: Take stock of what you already have
Got any old cans in the back of your cabinet that you totally forgot were there? What about frozen vegetables in the back of your freezer? Instant mashed potatoes under the sink? Parmesan cheese in your socks? Before you get started on shopping, see what you can make with what you’ve already got lying around. Unless you have a spare turkey in your yard, you’ll probably still have to do some shopping, but you may as well cut expenses where you can.
No. 10: Buy in bulk
While you’ll be making a lot of food for your Thanksgiving meal, odds are you’ll eventually be hungry again one day. Buying in bulk saves money, and you can probably find a way to use any leftover ingredients.
“If you do have leftovers after the main meal, refrigerate them as soon as they've cooled down and put them to work in the days following Thanksgiving,” Bedford says. “You can casserole anything with minimal effort, and any leftover meats are perfect for a quick lunchtime sandwich too.”
No. 11: Limit the beverage options
It might impress your family to have a fully stocked bar so they can DIY any cocktail they can imagine, but additional options invite extra costs. If you’re serving the hard stuff, don’t be afraid to go for the cheap option and get some bottles of juice or soda to mix with it.
No. 12: Do a little math
“Do you want or need a whole turkey?” asks Hugh? “Maybe roasting a turkey breast or some turkey thighs might be better.” Thighs tend to be moist, and are easier and quicker to cook.
Or maybe, just maybe … you don’t need a turkey. We know, we know, that’s bordering on blasphemy, but if you have family or friends who prefer chicken anyway, it could be the cheaper option.
No. 13: Make your own stale bread
You’re not going to buy stale bread, or as they try to call it, “croutons,” from the store, are you? That’s a sucker’s game! Save up your bread for a week or so before Thanksgiving and use that for crispy stuffing. Just make sure it doesn’t get moldy. Store it in the fridge to help prevent catastrophe.
Then drizzle that turkey gravy over the stuffing … mmmmmm. Sorry, we got distracted for a second there.
No. 14: Change up recipes as needed
We already mentioned looking for budget recipes, but you can turn many recipes into budget-friendly ones. It might take some experimentation, but any recipes that aren’t already written for the budget-conscious probably have cheaper substitutions you could consider.
No. 15: Minimize the meat
Speaking of substitutions, meat can be expensive. Unless all your guests are vegetarian or vegan, you may not be able to get away with skipping it entirely. However, you might be able to be more frugal if you’ve got some tasty brussels sprouts or a filling potato casserole as part of your Thanksgiving feast.
No. 16: Go for dried beans
We already mentioned that canned goods can be cheaper than fresh, but when it comes to beans, dried is usually cheaper than canned. Soak ‘em up or use a slow cooker if you’ve got one. Beans are cheap and filling, and you can have them as a side dish or add them to rice or stuffing to stretch a tight budget.
No. 17: Make your own condiments
Thousand Island dressing? We know you know that’s ketchup and mayo. You can easily make your own Italian dressing, too. Here’s an option at allrecipes. Don’t get trapped under the heel of Big Condiment!
No. 18: Remember it’s about friends and family
Whether you’re having a big turkey or a series of small turkey sandwiches, Thanksgiving is about being with friends and family and appreciating each other. That might mean having separate meals together over Zoom. But you’ll still be sharing this favorite holiday with your loved ones, and that’s priceless.
And if you do have people coming over, you can save even more money by turning it into a potluck!
With these tips, we hope you’ll turn your Turkey Day into a turkey yay! While it may be an odd one, we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!
John Bedford is the founder of Viva Flavor, a site dedicated to helping amateur cooks explore the world of food and drink.
Andrea Correale is founder and CEO of Elegant Affairs based in Glen Cove, New York, and serving New York City, the Hamptons, and the Gold Coast of Long Island. Andrea has catered for some of the most discerning A-List taste buds including Brooke Shields, Mariah Carey, Russell Simmons, P. Diddy, Jimmy Fallon, and Liam Neeson – to name a few!
Lisa Hugh is a Registered Dietitian with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She holds a Master of Science in Health Science from Trident University International (TUI). She has completed coursework as a doctorate student in the business administration program at William Howard Taft University.
Katie Moseman is a freelance writer, photographer, and recipe developer whose work can be found on her blogs, Recipe for Perfection and Magnolia Days, as well as in numerous national publications.