Like the patron saint of pumpkin pie, you've decided to host Thanksgiving. And you're a pro. You've anticipated the Turkey Day nightmares: You made a plan for when Aunt Ginnie and your mother get into it; you have a thawing schedule for your turkey; you've even made and frozen the pie crusts in advance. What you may not have suspected, however, is how expensive hosting such a significant meal can become.
Not to fear. Below, Melissa d'Arabian, host of the Food Network's "Ten Dollar Dinners" and "The Picky Eaters Project" web series, and Kimberly Morales, creator of the Poor Girl Eats Well blog, share tips for dishing out a low-cost, high-class Thanksgiving:
Go traditional. Here's a reason to give thanks: Traditional Turkey Day foods are pretty cheap! No hams or steaks for this holiday. Poultry, usually an inexpensive meat protein, is the Thanksgiving star, joined by potatoes - its trusty (and dirt cheap) sidekick. D'Arabian points out that we spend more when we turn up the wow factor, by adding fancy sides and drinks, and possibly a second main course meat. "It's the bells and whistles that are expensive in a Thanksgiving dinner," she says.
Stick with the classics: turkey, gravy and sides such as potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole and cranberry sauce. And make large batches of these few classic side dishes, instead of making smaller amounts of several extra sides. If you offer guests a dozen side dishes, you're subtly communicating that they should take some of each, d'Arabian says, and those extras can add up. To save your wallet (and perhaps some stress), focus on really nailing the traditional dishes. "People will automatically eat less when presented with fewer options, so just make more of the classic dishes," d'Arabian says.
Spruce up a discount turkey. You've got your Butterball turkey, organic, heritage and wild. And some of those birds will gobble up your budget. "You can easily turn turkey into a splurge item, but the more classic you are, the cheaper it's going to be," d'Arabian says. Her suggestion: Buy a basic on-sale turkey that hasn't been pre-injected with flavor - the kind that's majorly discounted or even free from the grocery store if you spend a certain amount of money. Then, after you properly thaw the turkey, brine it. "Brining makes an inexpensive, pedestrian turkey fantastic," she says, adding that she thinks the brine recipe of Food Network veteran Alton Brown is the best.
Or skip the turkey altogether. OK, OK, maybe a turkey-less Turkey Day doesn't exactly fit into the traditional Thanksgiving theme. But if your budget is miniscule, or your dinner party consists of just a few people, a 15-pound turkey isn't always practical. Morales plans on serving a Cornish hen or two. These tiny birds look festive and consist of less meat, for which you pay less money. (Plus, they're more manageable for storing and preparing.) On her blog, Morales says that after hunting around, she's found game hens for about a dollar per pound at stores such as Costco and Safeway.
Another option is to enjoy a meatless Thanksgiving. Skip the turkey expense and make your main dish out of hearty, in-season (read: cheap) veggies. Morales suggests serving butternut squash stuffed with cauliflower and cranberry couscous. You can find more plant-based Thanksgiving ideas in the transcript of our Healthy Holidays chat.
Take an inventory before you shop. Step into a grocery store around this time of year, and the message seems clear: Buy everything. While ads, discounts, promotions and the classic Thanksgiving fantasy of food overload may tempt you to grab every item, there's a good chance you already have some of what you need at home. "Shop from your cupboards and fridge first," Morales says. Look at your recipe lists, and take inventory of what ingredients you already have. You may have forgotten about certain nonperishable items, like the canned yams you bought last fall, which will come in handy on the 28th. Also check for items with long shelf lives, such as potatoes, spices, sugar and flour, to avoid double-buying.
Be a smart shopper. Scour sale ads. If you live near multiple grocery stores, compare prices, d'Arabian says. One store may have super cheap turkeys without much else on sale, while another place may slap heavy discounts on everything but the turkey. In this case, it may be worth making trips to the two different stores. However, as d'Arabian points out, you'd want to consider if the savings from the two trips is worth your time and gas money.
At the store, take advantage of deals that make sense for you, but don't raid the bargain bin just because you can. For example, d'Arabian advises that you closely examine the cost of potatoes. She says most grocery stores will sell loose potatoes, as well as 5-pound and 10-pound bags, and 95 percent of the time, the 10-pound bag is the cheapest per pound. The 10-pound bag is likely ideal, given that Thanksgiving is a potato-heavy meal, and potatoes have long shelf lives. But also consider this: "The most expensive ingredient is the one you throw away," d'Arabian says. At that point, "it's not really worth the farmer's time to pluck it." So if you're feeding only a few people, or are unlikely to cook potatoes after Thanksgiving, don't spend money on food you might waste.
Try a potluck. If guests offer to bring something to share, take them up on it. Passing off side dishes and desserts to guests, or asking them to bring drinks, can take a lot off your plate in terms of spending and stress. Plus, having guests contribute, "makes it a more fun, communal process." Morales says. "It brings more meaning to the event."
Manage your leftovers. "Leftover management is a key strategy that's often overlooked," d'Arabian says, adding that pitching leftovers after a few days is a common way to waste money. As you put away the food, post-feast, d'Arabian suggests setting aside about two days' worth of turkey to refrigerate as leftovers. For the rest of the turkey, make bags of each dark meat and light meat, and then freeze them that day. By freezing the turkey on Thanksgiving, "you'll have nice, fresh turkey for some day in January when you don't feel like cooking."
With your refrigerated leftover turkey and sides, you may enjoy them as-is for the next couple days, but after that, d'Arabian says we become vulnerable to "leftover burnout." The Thanksgiving taste palate my lose a bit of its charm come December, so to prevent simply pitching these foods, d'Arabian suggests getting creative. "I start thinking ethnic," she says, listing ideas such as turkey pad thai, sweet potato empanadas, pumpkin pie butter and cranberry sauce on a crumble or ice cream sundae. "There are lots of ways you can repurpose these leftovers so they don't feel super Thanksgiving-y," she says.