10 Tactics for a Cheaper (and Saner) Thanksgiving Dinner

By this time next week, most Americans will have gathered with friends and family and eaten the traditional Thanksgiving meal. I’ll be gathering for three separate Thanksgiving dinners during this holiday weekend.

Quite often, I’ll see people spend exorbitant amounts of money on lavish Thanksgiving spreads. While I completely understand the reason for doing this – often, it’s the one time in the year that we can gather around one table with a lot of people we love – there’s still a lot of simple things we can do to reduce the financial outlay and the stress of the meal without reducing the quality of the day in any way (and often improving it). Here are ten ways to do just that.

Cook and slice the turkey on Tuesday. What? No beautiful turkey on the table? Whatever will we do? In truth, though, the turkey on the table during Thanksgiving dinner often results in lots of problems: it keeps someone away from the meal because they’re carving the bird, the bird is often dry because it hasn’t had a lot of time to rest, and the finished bird often arrives later than expected, delaying the whole meal and often reducing the quality of the other food. Solve all of these problems by cooking the bird on Tuesday or Wednesday, slicing it at your own pace, then putting all of the meat on a platter along with all of the juice and a few pats of butter. Cover the serving platter and put it in the fridge, then just turn on the oven (or the electric roaster) on Thanksgiving to thoroughly warm the meat.

Use nature for your decorations. During the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, there are thousands of colorful leaves all over the place, free for the taking. Be picky – go outside and look for some nice, clean, colorful leaves. All you need is a plain tablecloth and a row of colorful leaves sprinkled down the middle to create a very festive setting.

Get the slow cooker into the act. Many Thanksgiving side dishes can easily be prepared in a slow cooker. Slow cookers consume less energy and quite often can be used in a “fix-it-and-forget-it” mindset. It’s the perfect tool to make cranberry sauce, for example.

Be creative with your Thanksgiving dinner leftovers. By the third day, turkey sandwiches start to get tired. Instead of allowing that to happen, share some of your extra food with people in need (for example, make a couple plates of food for shut-ins you know and deliver the plates) or make something interesting, like kugel or tetrazzini, out of the leftovers.

Round up when you estimate. I’ve been to two different Thanksgiving dinners in the past three years where there was just barely enough food to make ends meet for the number of guests (to put it politely). People showed up bringing unexpected dining companions and estimates for how much each person would eat were strangely low. Don’t fall into that trap. Estimate high, but estimate realistic. After all, you can always eat leftovers, but you can’t undo unhappy guests.

Don’t be afraid of potlucking it. Ask your guests to bring a dish or two with them so that you can focus your time, energy, and money on a few key dishes. Most people are quite willing to help (provided, of course, that they’re not coming from out of town).

Save the bones. Seriously. Put the entire carcass in a large Ziploc bag and save the bones and small pieces of meat for a day or two. Then, take all of the leftover vegetables (potatoes, corn, non-glazed carrots, etc.) and the carcass, stick them all in a crock pot, then add enough water to just cover the bones. Turn it on low overnight (this is perfect to do on Saturday evening after Thanksgiving). Then, in the morning, save the liquid. What will you do with this delicious turkey broth? Freeze it (along with a pound or two of leftover diced turkey meat). Then, in a few weeks, use it as the base for an amazing soup – just add vegetables and/or dumplings to the stock and the turkey (along with perhaps a bit of water to thin it).

Have appetizers. Inexpensive appetizers – like a selection of vegetables – helps people keep the edge off of their appetites and keeps them from over-eating during the main meal. Not only does this make the overall meal more healthy, it often makes it cheaper, since a vegetable tray can be really inexpensive. Much like the turkey, this can also be assembled the day before.

Don’t try to “impress” with your wine. There are countless great wines under $10 (here are five of my favorites from a few years back). Don’t feel the need to buy an expensive bottle of wine to impress anyone. Just stop by your local wine and liquor store and ask for a low-cost full bodied wine for the Thanksgiving table. They’ll be happy to point out something great for you.

Save your recyclable containers for leftovers. Instead of just tossing large containers of items like margarine or whipped topping, save the containers. Then, on Thanksgiving, fill the containers with leftovers and give them to your guests. There’s no responsibility at all for them to return the container and it gets an extra use out of the items that would normally be tossed.

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  1. Daniel says:

    “Cook and slice the turkey on Tuesday.”

    I disagree. My father makes an amazing smoked turkey, and there’s nothing softer or more moist than when he takes it off the grill, slices it and brings it to the table when it’s still soft. I don’t care how inconvenient it is, you shouldn’t sacrifice quality. I will be using his recipe for the rest of my life.

  2. Craig says:

    Get a couple of glasses of wine in the family before dinner starts, that combined with turkey will have everyone likes out cold nice and early, making it one sane evening.

  3. Matt says:

    I would go the other way, almost everything else can be made ahead of time leaving only the turkey for the big day.

  4. Kevin M says:

    Agree with Daniel and disagree with Trent about the turkey. There’s nothing better than freshly cooked turkey on Thanksgiving. Cooking it before and letting it reheat in a crock pot or whatever just doesn’t work.

    My tip – don’t even think about making “cranberry sauce” from a can. The stuff is junk. Real cranberries with a bit of sugar and orange zest is so easy to make and tastes like actual fruit.

    My first Thanksgiving is this Sunday – I can’t wait.

  5. BirdDog says:

    Invest in a turkey fryer. It only takes about 45 minutes (make sure the bird is thawed) and it will be some of the most moist and flavorful turkey you will ever put in your mouth. I know it isn’t the most healthy thing to do but one day of the year won’t hurt. I’ve found that since my family has been preparing the turkey in this manner, we don’t have the platters of leftover turkey.;)

  6. Maureen says:

    Out of town guests could bring a dessert or salad or something that only requires a quick zap in the microwave to get table-ready. I’ve been doing this for the last 26 years with great success.

  7. Peggy says:

    A wine tip –

    A Pinot Noir (especially Oregon Pinot Noirs) goes really well with Thanksgiving Day dinner, and I’ve found most of them are under $20 a bottle, and a lot of them are right around $10 a bottle, depending on the local taxation structure.

    Thanks for the tips!

  8. I agree with birddog…deep fryed turkeys are totally the way to go, they cook faster and they taste so much better. A no brainer in my book.

  9. Catherine says:

    Agree with all of it except #1 – people want to see that turkey!

  10. Molly says:

    Oh we don’t even cook a turkey (we’re vegetarians). And when we’re hosting, we tend to host for grad students, and we all drink tea. I don’t remember ever having wine at a Thanksgiving dinner.

    Don’t make a ton of side dishes… just the ones that are key to your people. Otherwise, your wallet gets emptied and your oven gets stuffed.

  11. Michele says:

    I usually make two turkeys- one on Tuesday, and then slice and serve it in gravy in the roaster, and a smaller one in the oven on Thanksgiving. We have a LOT of people, so we satisfy both groups! I also highly second what Trent said about saving the turkey bones and making stock. We are using the last 4 cups from last year’s turkey stock to make the gravy for the Tuesday turkey and have used oodles of turkey stock all year. Of course, I have an extra freezer in the garage to store freezer bags full of stock. My one big piece of advice for making the most incredibly moist turkey ever- BRINE IT for 24 hours. There are zillions of great websites with instructions for brining. My all time favorite is Alton Brown’s turkey brine.(www.foodnetwork.com)

  12. Emily says:

    I think the turkey is the easiest part of Thanksgiving – except having to get up early to put it on! To simplify I use my crockpots. Green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, corn – all in crockpots. I make my pies and cranberry sauce – the real stuff – the night before and get everything else ready in the crockpots. In the morning I take them out of the fridge and turn them all on. I also wash all the dishes I used to make the side dishes the night before. So on Thanksgiving Day there’s nothing much to do but enjoy the company!

  13. *sara* says:

    We always barbecue the turkey whole in our weber. Here’s 8 of many great reasons why:
    1. It cooks quick (3-ish hours)
    2. It frees up the oven for other uses
    3. Its safe even when power goes out or there’s some other unexpected kitchen problem
    4. Gives my hubby (and other gentlemen guests) a specific job and a good something to chat about
    5. Its always super moist
    6. Its very easy and hard to fail when you follow the Weber’s instructions – it tells exactly when to add how many briquettes
    7. The drippings have a delicious smoky flavor which makes a fantastic gravy!
    8. It frees up precious kitchen space since the whole turkey process is taken care of outside, and then brought in to rest just before serving!

    mmm… BBQ turkey

    But lots of other great suggestions here, like making things ahead and using the crock pot. Great ideas!

  14. Bavaria says:

    Like Emily, I use my crockpot to warm up the monster batch of mashed potatoes I make the day before-I mash in cream cheese and sour cream so they are moist and yummy. And we ask others to bring side dishes and desserts. It makes it easy on me, and others like to share their culinary skills.

  15. Scott says:

    As for the wine….

    Studies show not even the pros can tell the difference. Just buy what you like cheap or not. I’m finding a lot of great wine locally (in the state anyway) produced. If your area or state produces wine, give it a try, support your local vineyards. It usually costs a tad more but it’s more fun and interesting to discover, learn about and support your local economy.

  16. J says:

    I’ll concur with the “bird on the grill” idea. Bird cooked on Tuesday … no. I also really like to brine the turkey in a maple brine.

    Turkey/stuffing/cranberry sauce/gravy sandwiches never get old, either :)

  17. Kevin says:

    If I went to someone’s home for Thanksgiving dinner and learned that they’d cooked the turkey a day or two before, I’d be disappointed. This is akin to someone greeting me at the door and saying, “Welcome to our home for Thanksgiving! We’re having lasagna.” Sacrilege!!

    Part of the fun of Thanksgiving (for me, anyway) is trying to cook the turkey to a point at which it’s absolutely perfectly done… with moist, juicy meat. I totally agree, however, that casseroles and the like ought to be prepared beforehand.

    Another benefit of making soup is it somewhat simplifies clean-up: just plunk the carcass in a giant Ziploc bag.

    Finally: you need to spend what you can afford when it comes to wine, and I certainly HAVE found decent bottles for under $10, but much of the Two Buck Chuck stuff is a perfect example of “getting what you paid for.” IF YOU CAN AFFORD IT, don’t skimp on wine (and booze).

  18. Tammy says:

    We have a roaster, so it is basically put the bird in and forget it for the next several hours. I think it is much more challenging to get all the sides on the table and still have everything be hot.

    My stepmother does not own a dishwasher since it seems foolish for 2 people. So on Thanksgiving, when we have about 20 people over, she rents a portable one for the weekend. She always says it is the best decision she ever made regarding the holidays. That way everyone can visit with family instead of fussing over mountains of dirty dishes.

  19. Bill says:

    If your going to cook it 2 days early, why not just buy it pre-cooked and frozen. Then you can just zap it. YUM!!!!

  20. almost there says:

    I miss the turkey rolls the cooks used to prepare on the submarines I served on. No bones to deal with, just bake and cut the string netting for great turkey. I don’t miss the dehydrated potatoes though because the paper instructionsost likely ended up on someone’s plate. Going to a buffet works if you don’t want the cleanup and work involved.

  21. Des says:

    Isn’t that sort of like serving leftovers?

  22. Rosa Rugosa says:

    I would love some lasagna next Thursday! What’s the big deal about turkey? A second-rate entree at best. Let’s start a national holiday built around lobster!

  23. Kate says:

    There is no way that I could cook a turkey on Tuesday and it would still be in the fridge on Thursday. My husband would sneak and take just a little bit and then just a little bit more and just a little tiny bit more.

  24. Peggy says:

    “Save the bones.” To get the richest stock, break whatever bones you can. Put the bones in a crockpot and cover with cold water and a tablespoon of vinegar (draws minerals out of the bones and helps break down cartiledge.) Add carrot, onion and celery and let simmer on lowest possible heat for 3 days. In the last 12 hours, uncover it to let it simmer down a little when you are home and awake and add a little parsley. Strain into canning jars and freeze.

    This makes a very rich, flavorful broth that has amazing health benefits!

  25. I love these ideas! Usually the stress is so high, and cooks are exhausted by the end of the day. I think all families should have a rule that cooks don’t clean up, esp on Tgving.

    Personally, I could keep on eating Thanksgiving sandwiches for a week, I like them better than the actual Tgiving meal. It’s the one time of year you can rationalize a sandwich that is horrible for you, but SO GOOD! I love a sandwich built from: soft potato bread, turkey slices, mashed potatoes, a bit of cranberry sauce, a bit of horseradish for zing, and a little cold gravy (spread like mayo on the turkey). Nom nom nom!

    I am totally with the lasagna thing, I’d be down with lasagna for Tgiving! This year I tried to tempt the fam into a nontraditional Tgiving dinner (“hey, we could try Thai or Mexican Thanksgiving!”)… yeah, good try girl! Didn’t work. Oh well :)

  26. Kate says:

    I did a big spaghetti dinner for Xmas one year. I loved it but I think that my family wasn’t so hot about it. Too untraditional.

  27. Kathy says:

    I brine my turkey ahead of time, but I wouldn’t cook it on Tuesday. I do my baking and I cook up my sausage and some of the stuffing components to save time on Thanksgiving day.

  28. Sara says:

    Frying a turkey is definitely not a frugal choice (nothing against those who want to spend the money to do something special, though). Buying a turkey fryer and oil can easily triple the cost of the meal. Even if you already have a fryer, the oil alone costs as much as the turkey. Plus, it can be dangerous!

  29. chacha1 says:

    I’ve hosted T-day for a small group for years, and I’ve only cooked the turkey once. Have gotten smoked whole ones (Greenberg’s from Texas) and “honey-glazed” style breast(from Allen Brothers) that was as juicy and tasty as ham. Having no BBQ or fryer and a small oven, it’s just not happening to do a turkey AND the sides. And frankly, my guests find the turkey the least important part of the day. As to what to drink … pinot noir is great, but prosecco or cava is also terrific, cheap, and festive.

  30. Kasandra says:

    Love Thanksgiving and the turkey is the easy part, stuff it and put it in the oven early so its ready!!

    As for dishes….we learned the DICE GAME from some friends years ago and use it all the time,works especially good with kids. One washer, two dryers and you rotate…who ever rolls doubles with the dice has to take a turn! It gets everybody involved and having fun and the dishes are done lickety split with no complaining!! My kids always suggest it now…

    WE don’t do wine at my house but we love punch….limeade, lemonade and seven up with a couple of scoops of lime sherbert on the top and you have an inexpensive wonderful punch!!

  31. KathyD says:

    My Italian father-in-law always prepared lasagna and turkey for Thanksgiving and spaghetti and meatballs for Christmas. Sometimes he alternated but there was always a homemade Italian entree along side the turkey.

  32. Marie says:

    Why is everyone so afraid of turkey leftovers? Don’t try and eat them – just stick them in appropriate sized packets in the freezer. Cooked shredded poultry in the freezer is a requirement around here – we’ll plan a roasted chicken just because we’re running low on shredded poultry.
    Stir fry
    Fajitas and quesadillas
    curries
    plain meat in gravy made from stock over rice
    pitas with a Greek cucumber sauce
    simmer it in salsa and then serve either with corn chips (kids like) or over rice
    wraps
    pasta salads
    we don’t do casseroles or soups but that would give you even more variety

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