12 Tactics for an Inexpensive Thanksgiving Meal

During Thanksgiving week, both my wife’s extended family and my extended family host a Thanksgiving dinner with untold numbers of side dishes, leaving everyone feeling absolutely stuffed afterwards from the huge delicious meal. As everyone cleans up and then retreats to the living room in a turkey coma, something I can’t help but observe is the expense of all of it.

No matter how you slice it, a big turkey dinner with lots of sides is expensive.

As anyone who has read The Simple Dollar for the last several years knows, I can’t help but look at a situation and wonder how I could retain what’s good about that situation without reducing the quality while spending the least amount of money possible.

So I asked. I’ve been asking our Thanksgiving dinner hosts for years how they pull off a great dinner without breaking the bank. I’ve also shared the tips I’ve learned from various dinners with different hosts.

Now, we’ve never hosted a large Thanksgiving dinner ourselves. We are geographic outliers for both of our extended families, so it makes sense for others to host. The tips below aren’t from our initial Thanksgiving fumblings, but from many years of experience from others who have hosted many dinners over the years.

Here are the 12 best tactics they shared.

Shop for a turkey based on cost per pound. When you’re shopping for a big turkey, the number one thing to think about is the cost per pound of the turkey (aside from any other personal considerations you might have, such as an organic turkey or a free range turkey). The reason is simple: The lower the price per pound, the more food you get for your dollar. It’s that simple.

Include lots of grocers in your search. Here’s the thing: Among grocers, the price of a Thanksgiving turkey is a convenient way to attract new customers, so turkeys are almost always a loss leader for grocery stores. They’ll advertise an absurdly low price on turkeys in order to get people in the door. They’ll even give away turkeys at some stores if you spend enough money.

So, widen your search. Don’t just examine the prices at your preferred retailer. Look at the cost per pound for turkey at every grocer in your area. While you’re at it, price out the ingredients of many of your other dishes.

Make it a potluck dinner for local guests. Again, it’s easy: Just have every guest bring a side dish or some other element for the meal. Of course, this only applies to local guests; it’s pretty hard to expect people from out of town to bring side dishes.

Still, every single side dish or beverage that’s provided by a guest is one that’s not paid for by you. It distributes the cost of the meal and takes some of the burden off of the shoulders of the host.

Limit the side dishes you actually prepare yourself. Regardless of the number of dishes that other guests bring, put a reasonable cap on the number of side dishes you prepare yourself. There’s no need to have three different variants on potatoes – pick one and make it wonderful. There’s no need to have four casseroles – pick one and make it well.

Not only is it expensive to make a lot of different sides, you’re often going to find that much of the food goes to waste unless you have a ton of people, in which case you’re probably better off just making a ton of the favorites rather than a lot of variations (some of which simply won’t be as popular).

Buy ingredients in bulk. If you’re focusing on just making plenty of a few sides, then buying ingredients for that side dish in bulk is going to save you quite a bit of money. The cost per pound of potatoes, for instance, goes down as the bulk you buy goes up.

Thus, not only is there a good reason to make fewer sides (and make more of them) for convenience, it also saves money because the ingredients cost less per pound.

Make your own spice mixes, such as poultry mix and pumpkin spice mix. Yes, mixes such as poultry mix are really convenient, but the truth is that they’re expensive for what you get. They’re just mixes of other spices and you can easily find the recipes for those mixes online. For instance, you can make a great pumpkin pie spice with seven parts ground cinnamon, two parts ground ginger, two parts ground nutmeg, one part ground allspice, and one part ground cloves. That’s almost perfect for pumpkin pie and it’s going to be less expensive than buying your own pumpkin pie spice.

Turn down your home thermostat. When you start cooking your Thanksgiving dinner on the big day, kick your home thermostat down a few degrees. The heat produced by your kitchen plus the heat produced by a lot of people in your home will keep your home nice and warm, so turning the thermostat down will keep your furnace from needlessly kicking on throughout the day, thus saving you money on your energy bill.

Make as much as you can yourself from basic ingredients, and start a few days early so you’re not time crunched. It can be really tempting to just buy a container of pre-made gravy, for example, but the truth is that the gravy is pretty expensive. Instead, make as many items as you can from scratch (or at least partially prepare them) and store them in the fridge for a day or two before the meal.

If you’re going to host year after year, buy reusable kitchenware and flatware that can be used over and over again. It’s never a bad idea to have a box of reusable plates, napkins, and silverware stowed away in the pantry in case you have guests. Many families who have large dinners will simply turn to paper plates, but the cost of paper plates year after year really adds up (and it’s not environmentally wise to boot). While this might not be a smart strategy for this year, it’s worth your while to keep your eyes open for inexpensive deals on dishes, napkins, and silverware, just to store away for big holiday meals.

Use leftovers in creative ways. It’s easy to just toss the leftovers on the table, make a plate of leftovers, and microwave them, but the truth is that it gets tired pretty fast. A much better approach is to find creative ways to use those leftovers.

I am a huge fan of potato pancakes, which are essentially mashed potatoes formed into the shape of a disk and then fried in a skillet until the edges are browned. Absolutely amazing. One of our family members often makes turkey enchiladas two days after Thanksgiving, using the turkey as the meat content in an otherwise typical enchilada recipe. Turkey tortellini is another delicious and unexpected option for leftover turkey.

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Package your leftover turkey for freezing in individual recipe-ready bags. Eventually, you’re going to decide you’re done with turkey for a while, and that’s usually reached at a point where you have some turkey meat left over. Don’t just toss that meat. Instead, find a few recipes that use turkey meat (like, perhaps, the turkey enchiladas noted above), measure out and prepare the meat for easy inclusion in that recipe, and package it for freezing so that you just need to thaw the package and put it straight into the recipe. Boom – easy turkey enchiladas in a month or so!

Use the turkey carcass to make a large quantity of poultry stock. This is my favorite tip of all as I love stock. It’s so useful – you can use it as the basis for soups and stews and as the liquid component of casseroles. All you have to do is take the bones and cartilage from the turkey, break them down a little so that they fit in a big pot (or, even better, a slow cooker), then add some leftover vegetable scraps (onions and celery, for instance, but you can add whatever you want) and some peppercorns. Then, cover all of this with water so that there’s perhaps an inch or two above the top of the bones, then let it simmer all day. If you’re using a slow cooker, you can actually let this cook on the Monday after Thanksgiving while you’re at work.

After several hours of simmering, just strain and save the liquid, discarding the bones and vegetable scraps and peppercorns. I usually separate that liquid into serving sizes of two cups and then save those individual servings in the freezer. For soups, I’ll pull out two servings; for casseroles or other uses, one will do.

These strategies together can really maximize the value of your Thanksgiving holiday dinner, enabling you to cut the total cost and get more value out of the things you prepare. Good luck!

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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