10 Last-Minute Tips for Frugal Holiday Cooking

Over the next few days, many families across America are celebrating Thanksgiving with a big dinner to be shared with family and friends, a big meal that requires a lot of planning and likely generates a lot of leftovers.

As many households gear up for this big meal, don’t forget to keep in mind that there are a lot of little money-saving tactics that you can pull together, even at the last minute. Here are 10 such tips, most of which I expect to see in action over the next few days.

Ask your guests to bring something simple, but ask today! Go through your list and ask each guest to bring something simple in lieu of a host/hostess gift. Perhaps you can ask a few guests to bring a bottle of wine, or ask another guest to bring dinner rolls.

Not only does this trim your cost a little, it makes your guests feel better about not showing up empty-handed to an elaborate meal without having to put in a ton fo work and it reduces the stress of preparation.

(If you’re wondering about what to do with the wine if they show up with a bottle that needs to be chilled, don’t worry — we’ll get back to that in a second.)

Do everything you possibly can — and even some things you didn’t think of — the day before or the morning of the meal. Every single possible thing you can do in advance, do it in advance.

Chop the vegetables tonight and put them in small containers in the fridge. Make the sauce tonight and refrigerate it so all you have to do is let it warm up a bit tomorrow. Do 80% of the work for all of the casseroles in the morning so you can just push them in the oven in the afternoon. Make your salads the night before and chill them in the fridge.

How does that make things frugal? It saves tons of last minute effort and drastically reduces the chances of food items and whole dishes going to waste because you’re overwhelmed. I’ve seen many holiday dishes and ingredients go to waste because people were overwhelmed with tasks at the last minute. Spread them out. You’ll be glad you did.

Save your vegetable scraps. As you’re chopping those vegetables, you’ll sometimes wind up with some edge pieces that are perfectly good, but tricky to chop, or some pieces that are marginal. Save those bits. Put all of them aside in a great big mixed bag of vegetable scraps and stow that bag away in the deep freezer.

After the holidays are over, pull out that bag and dump it in a slow cooker. Add some salt and a few peppercorns, then fill it with water and turn it on low. Let it run for a long time — 12 hours or even more if you want. Then, strain it and save the liquid.

That liquid is vegetable stock and it’s useful in all kinds of casseroles, soups, and other things. Any dish that uses broth or stock can use that liquid gold. Save it in the freezer in quart-sized batches so you can easily make soup going forward.

Use a slow cooker (or two) to keep an item warm while other items are cooking in the oven … or even cook an item in the slow cooker. You don’t have to make everything at once and perfectly time everything for the table at the same time. Rather, make some items a little earlier in the day and then use a slow cooker to keep them warm until it’s time to eat.

A slow cooker is perfect for things like sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, collard greens, dressing or even gravy. Almost all of those can rest for a while in a slow cooker on “keep warm” mode for an hour or two while you finish other dishes.

You can even make many of those dishes in the slow cooker, and even serve them if your slow cooker has a nice removable crock for serving.

Use a pitcher as an extra chiller. This is one of my favorite little tricks that seems to show up all the time during the holidays. Do you need to quickly chill a bottle of wine and there’s just no room to do so and it won’t get cold enough in the freezer in time? Just take an empty water pitcher, put your bottle in there, fill it about halfway up with ice, then sprinkle in some salt (a tablespoon will do), then fill it the rest of the way with water. Leave it sitting out on the table and rotate the bottle every few minutes. It’ll be really cold in about twenty minutes or so, and then you can just dry it off and serve it.

You’d be surprised how often someone will show up with a bottle of wine and you want to serve it but it’s supposed to be served chilled and the bottle is room temperature and the freezer won’t get it cold enough fast enough and you don’t want to serve mildly chilled wine and you’ve got fifty other things to do. This is such a simple way to handle it, as long as you have an extra pitcher or similarly sized container big enough for the bottle to fit in.

If you need last minute table decorations, go on a walk. Go outside and gather up natural elements for your table centerpiece rather than some prepackaged and expensive items. Find things like pinecones, leaves, pine tree branches, and other such items that will easily create a natural, rustic and festive look on your Thanksgiving table.

Most leftovers are freezable in resealable containers, so label them and save them. Almost everything served at a typical Thanksgiving dinner can be frozen and then reheated. After a day or two in the fridge to be eaten as short-term leftovers, save the items that are left in individual meal-sized containers and freeze them. Thaw them out at a later date.

You can do this with almost everything from mashed potatoes to sweet potatoes to dressing to casseroles, and most of it will turn out quite good. You can have a Thanksgiving dinner redux in a month or two.

Chop up every bit of leftover turkey and freeze it, as it can substitute for chicken in many dishes later on. Turkey is a special case because chopped up turkey can be used in so many different recipes. Any leftover turkey you have should be saved on its own in relatively small batches in the freezer.

You can use that turkey later for things like soup or stew or turkey tetrazzini or as an ingredient in a casserole. It can basically be used in anything that chicken would be used in.

Save your turkey carcass and scraps, too. This goes along with the earlier tip of saving vegetable scraps. It turns out you can make delicious turkey stock in much the same way, and that turkey stock is useful as the backbone of all kinds of casseroles and soups and stews.

Just save all of the scraps, break down the carcass a little, and save it all in a big bag in your freezer. When the holidays are over, pull out that bag, get out a big slow cooker or a big pot, and put the carcass and scraps in there. Add a few teaspoons of salt and some peppercorns and maybe some other herbs and spices of your choosing, then fill it with water such that the carcass is covered. If you’re using a slow cooker, turn it on low and leave it for a good 12 hours (or more). If you’re doing it in a big pot, put it over just enough heat for the liquid to barely simmer and occasionally refill it with water so that the carcass is always covered by a few inches of water and let it simmer all day. In either case, strain it when you’re done and save that liquid, as it’s turkey stock and it’s the delicious backbone of countless soups and casseroles.

Freeze that liquid in quart-sized containers (quart sized freezer bags are fine) for future uses of all kinds. You’ll find yourself making an amazing homemade soup in a month or two using that liquid gold.

Go grocery shopping on Black Friday. While there are a lot of shoppers out on Black Friday, they’re usually not in the grocery stores. However, grocery stores are typically unloading Thanksgiving items on Black Friday at a discount, so that’s a perfect time to pick up things you can store for the future.

Grab an extra turkey for the freezer — you can always cook it up in February. Grab some pre-made dinner rolls. Stock up on sweet potatoes and other vegetables. Everything you might have on a Thanksgiving table that doesn’t have a far-off expiration date is going to be on sale, so stock your pantry.

The best part? It won’t be very crowded because everyone is shopping at the department stores.

Although careful meal planning is the biggest holiday meal money saver, there are lots of things you can do at the last minute to cut costs and get the maximum value out of your holiday meal. It just takes a little clever thinking and a lot of leftover containers!

Good luck!

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.