A Guide to Inexpensive Holiday Cooking (and Why You Should Get Started Now!)

Last week, I shared a lengthy article on how to make meal prep more efficient. Over the weekend, however, I started to look ahead at the coming months and recognized that the late fall and winter holidays are coming up quick on the calendar, with Thanksgiving just a few weeks away and the December holidays right on their heels.

I realized, based on my past experiences with holiday cooking, that the big meals that many families prepare for holiday gatherings are prime examples of the value and practice of meal prepping. Most of the strategies that I discussed in the article last week apply perfectly to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and other winter holiday meals. Wherever families gather for a big meal, these strategies are valuable to employ.

Thus, I thought it might make sense to walk through how to use those strategies specifically to plan a family meal. I’m going to use Thanksgiving as a model here, but this strategy works for any big meal for any family gathering.

The best part? You can get started right now – and, in fact, you probably should.

Figure Out the Guest List and the Meal Plan

This is something you can start doing now for Thanksgiving, if possible, and it’s always a good idea to start thinking about this at least a couple of weeks in advance if you’re preparing a big meal with lots of dishes for lots of people in your home and you’re also working full time. The more you start planning in advance, the easier it will be on the day of the meal, the more time you’ll actually have to spend with people, the less expensive it will be, and the less stress it will produce.

Simply make a list of everyone who will be coming to your big holiday meal, while noting any specific dietary concerns that any of the guests might have. What you’re aiming for is an approximate head count – it doesn’t have to be perfect, but you don’t want to plan for 8 and have 20 show up (or vice versa).

At the same time, start making a meal plan. Give yourself plenty of time for this so that you can give it some real thought, look at a variety of ideas for main dishes and sides, and make sure you’re meeting everyone’s dietary needs (what can you serve that’s vegan that everyone will enjoy, for example).

A good place to start with this would be to look at some sample Thanksgiving menus. Don’t be afraid to pull elements from one and add them to another, or to substitute in a traditional family dish that you have a recipe for into a meal plan, or to cut out a few items because it seems overwhelming.

Transform the Meal Plan into a Grocery List

The next step is to turn that meal plan into a grocery list. Again, you’ll want to do this as early as possible – even this week or this weekend.

Again, this is pretty easy. Just pull out all of the recipes for the things you want to make for the big meal, look at what items you already have and are confident you will have when it gets close to that meal, and then make a giant list out of everything that’s missing.

The reason that it’s a good idea to make it now rather than later is that you don’t have to shop for this whole list all at once. Rather, you can – and should – shop for it in parts since you have so much lead time. You can bring home ingredients well in advance of the big day and store them in your cupboard or freezer or refrigerator as appropriate.

Shopping for the list in pieces lets you utilize grocery store flyers to get the items on sale. Each week, for the two or three weeks leading up to the holiday, you can look at your grocery store flyer, figure out what items on your big list are on sale, and buy those items immediately. Then, when you’re several days out from the event (perhaps the Saturday or Sunday before), you can get everything still on the list that doesn’t need to be super-fresh, and then pick up a few final items that must be fresh two or so days before the big event.

Doing things this way will cut your meal cost tremendously. In the weeks leading up to a big holiday, lots of the usual elements of big holiday meals go on sale at grocery stores. You’ll find sales on turkeys and hams and potatoes and bread and rolls and flour and all kinds of things in those weeks leading up to the holiday, but they won’t necessarily appear all on the same week.

Make a Prep Plan

The next thing you should do, once most of the ingredients are in hand, is to make a “prep plan.”

Essentially, a “prep plan” is just a division of all of the recipes into a giant pile of steps in which you identify which steps can be done days in advance of the big day and you do all of them early.

So, let’s say you have a recipe, we’ll call it Recipe A, with a list of ingredients that includes some tasks like chopping and then includes seven steps, and you have another recipe (Recipe B) that has a list of ingredients with some more inherent tasks, like cooking some rice, and then includes six steps.

On your “prep plan,” then, you have a bunch of steps you can include. You have tasks for all of the various ingredient preparations, then tasks for each of the steps in each recipe, and so on.

Here’s the thing: most of the steps on that prep plan can be done well in advance of the big day. You can spread most of those tasks out across the week before your big meal so that you’re not overwhelmed with tasks on a single day.

So, one great approach is to simply sort these tasks by day. Which tasks can be done three or more days in advance? Which tasks should be done one or two days in advance? Organize all of those tasks by day so that you have a checklist of things to do each day, with each individual checklist small enough as to not be overwhelming.

Planning like this makes it easier to not spend extra money on convenience steps, like buying expensive pre-cut onions or pre-cooked mashed potatoes. Those convenience foods are often far more expensive and often aren’t as good as the real thing, but the real thing does take time. However, if you spread out the tasks like this, you can do the real thing and save money and have better results.

The Sunday Before Should Be a Huge Prep Day

The Sunday before a big meal (or the last day beforehand where you don’t have to work) is a great day to do a lot of prep work. You can do almost everything short of actually putting dishes in the oven on that day. Your “prep plan” should have a lot of tasks for that last fully free day before the big day.

Some of the things you can take care of:
+ Full assembly of some dishes. While you might not want to fully assemble everything this far in advance, you can definitely assemble some dishes and keep them covered in the fridge until the big day. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you can definitely prepare a lot of the ingredients and prepare them the night before the big event. Your goal is to have the meals ready to be put directly in the oven or put on the stove top.
+ Chopping of all vegetables. Many dishes require chopped vegetables of some kind – chopped onions, chopped pepper, chopped carrots, and so on. Chop all of your vegetables in advance and save them in small containers in the fridge so that they can be easily added to meals. When doing this, I usually label the containers with a bit of masking tape and marker so I know what they’re for so that they’re easy to grab when I’m actually assembling the dishes.
+ Making of sauces and gravies. If any meals require a sauce or a gravy, you can make all of that in advance and save it in a container in the fridge. As with the vegetables, label the containers with masking tape and marker so you know what they are and what dishes they might go in.
+ Sauteing of vegetables and meats. If you have any meats or vegetables that need sautéed, you can do this in advance, save the sautéed vegetables or meats in a container in the fridge, and deglaze the pan by dumping a bit of water or broth in there and then pouring that right in the container to maximize the flavor. Again, this can all be saved until you actually need it so you’re not having to do this on the day. Also, as with the chopped vegetables and the sauces, labeling the containers with masking tape and marker helps tremendously.
+ Cooking rice or beans or other pre-cooked sides or ingredients. If any of your sides or dishes require beans or rice, you can absolutely cook all of that in advance and store it until it’s actually needed. I often do this during regular weeks when we need beans for meals. As with the other stuff, small containers in the fridge that are labeled with masking tape and marker are perfect for storage.

Isn’t that a lot of containers? It sure is, but you can easily buy bundles of very cheap food storage containers at most grocery stores. The best part is that if you have a lot of food storage containers on hand, they’re also going to make for great leftover containers after the meal, and if they’re cheap ones, it’s not a big deal if people just keep them.

Spread Out Other Prep Tasks Throughout the Evenings Beforehand

While I definitely recommend using your last full day at home before the big meal for a lot of meal prep, some tasks need to wait until closer to the meal. In those cases, use your evenings for some of the tasks.

For example, there are many meals that you don’t want to fully assemble until closer to the big day, but you might want to chop the vegetables further in advance. So, you can chop the vegetables on Sunday and then assemble the dish itself on Tuesday to store in the fridge for final cooking on Thursday. You might want to wait to cube the potatoes for a potato dish until Wednesday, for example, and then let them soak overnight.

If you do five tasks a night for three nights, that’s 15 tasks you don’t have to deal with or stress out about on the big day.

Utilize the Slow Cooker

A vital element that many people overlook when preparing big meals is the utility of a slow cooker. Slow cookers are invaluable when preparing all kinds of things, from cooking beans to cooking potatoes to cooking meat.

If you have a slow cooker, you should absolutely include it in your meal prepping plans if you have any use for it at all. It’s great for cooking vegetables or beans or other ingredients while you’re at work so that you can come home and the ingredients you need are immediately ready for use.

Even better, slow cookers are almost perfect for cooking and mashing potatoes and sweet potatoes on the big day. You can start them early in the morning and just forget about them entirely until it’s time to drain the potatoes, season them, and mash them. You may have even more uses on the big day, so you may want to consider borrowing one from a friend or a family member to use that day.

Again, it’s all about getting simple tasks out of the way so that you’re not overwhelmed with other tasks at the last minute, which often results in a lot of stress and a lot of last minute problems and a lot of time spent away from family and guests.

Aim to Have As Many Things As Oven-Ready as Possible the Night Before

One great target to have with your “prep plan” is to have as many dishes ready to go in the oven (or to the stovetop) for final cooking as possible on the night before the big meal. This ensures that you mostly just need to put things in the oven, on the stove top, or in the slow cooker the next day.

Yes, there are some things that will just have to wait until the last minute, particularly if you’re trying to make fresh bread items, but if you’re aiming to have everything ready to go in the oven the night before, you leave yourself with absolutely minimal tasks for the big day.

Carefully Plot Out Your Final Cooking Strategy

One vital thing to do on the last day is to carefully plot out your cooking plan. What dishes need to go in the oven when? What temperature does the oven need to be set at? What goes in the slow cooker when? Plan it all out and give yourself a little breathing room at every step so that everything doesn’t fall into chaos if something’s not done in time.

For example, you might want to serve a meal at 4 PM. In that case, you might have a plan like this:

10 AM – Potatoes go in slow cooker
11 AM – Turkey goes in oven at 375 F
2 PM – Set the table
3:30 PM – Turkey comes out of oven, given to Uncle Bob for carving, casseroles go in oven at 400 F
3:30 PM – 3:45 PM – Drinks are put out on the table
3:45 PM – 3:50 PM Drain potatoes and mash them
3:50 PM – 4 PM – Put out other dishes on the table
4 PM – Casseroles come out of oven and go on table, turkey goes on table, gather everyone to eat

Yours might be more detailed than this, but you get the idea.

This kind of plan, especially coupled with the prep work already done, gives you a lot of breathing room and flexibility on the big day. The only time you really need to be in the kitchen is during the last half hour, with a few steps into the kitchen beforehand throughout the day. You can enlist other family members for tasks like setting the table (a good task for preteens and teenagers).

Again, this is all about minimizing your stress on the day of the event. If you have a clear plan in place that has some breathing room for a few missteps, your day will probably go off quite well and you’ll get to spend a lot of time with family. Even better, everything will have come together with minimal expense.

Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that a lot of these strategies revolve around planning, and that’s intentional. A big family holiday meal almost always comes off much more smoothly and with much lower stress and, perhaps most importantly, at the lowest cost if you invest some planning and forethought into the meal and take care of as many steps in advance as you possibly can.

While I’m not preparing a Thanksgiving meal this year thanks to some wonderful friends and family members, I am going to be preparing a Christmas dinner for my immediate family and (likely) a few additional relatives and friends, and this article basically outlines the strategy I’m going to use. I’ll have the meal planned likely three weeks in advance. I’ll be buying ingredients off of the grocery flyers for at least two weeks, probably hitting three different weekly flyers. I’ll be doing lots of prep in the evenings for the last few days before the holiday, and I’ll be running off of a “cooking plan” on Christmas Day in between unwrapping presents and spending time with family and I don’t want to be stressed out or in the kitchen all day on the big day.

I’m sharing this article now because I know that many people will want a similar experience with their own holiday moments, and Thanksgiving is a big holiday for many families in America. Some families even combine all winter holidays into one family gathering and celebrate it on that last weekend in November, and I hope that these strategies will help make it all inexpensive and low stress.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.