This story was originally published in November 2019.
Thanksgiving can be pricey, can’t it? But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to enjoy a budget-friendly Thanksgiving this year.
When my parents and siblings gather with me around the table this Thanksgiving, there will be all of their favorites: flavorful turkey breast with garlic mashed potatoes, ciabatta stuffing and turkey gravy, lemony sauteed Brussels sprouts, sweet roasted butternut squash, green beans with roasted garlic lemon vinaigrette and more. It’s no secret that I go big for Thanksgiving with a rousing array of side dishes.
And yet, I will do so on a budget — the same budget I set every year. There will be five of us around the table (my two children will be with their father) and eight of us eating those leftovers for lunch for a few days. With that in mind, I will spend about $75 so that we can feast big and indulge in the leftovers later, too.
What I spend is above the national average. According to the American Farm Bureau, the average cost for a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 in 2017 was $49.12, which was 75 cents less than the previous year. In 2018, the average was $48.90, continuing the decline in food costs.
(In case you’re wondering, that cost includes “turkey, bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and coffee and milk, all in quantities sufficient to serve a family of 10 with plenty for leftovers,” according to the Farm Bureau.)
Clearly, my budget is higher because my spread is bigger than the one the farm bureau uses as an example. But even as I select fresh bread as the base for my stuffing (actually, it’s dressing — I never actually stuff it in the bird) and purchase a pricier cut of turkey (I use a split breast so that I can cook it in the slow cooker instead of tying up the oven. Plus, white meat is better for us), I always keep an eye on the bottom line — I want every dollar I spend to count.
So how can we both indulge our preferences and spend less this Thanksgiving?
1. Decide what your non-negotiables are. For me, it’s that turkey. I used to cook full turkeys (and bought the most local and natural ones I could find) but these days, a turkey that fits into a slow cooker is essential to my Thanksgiving dinner. I end up paying a premium for the cut (though it’s still less than I used to pay so …) and I am okay with that. Also non-negotiable? Having many, many side dishes. What is it that your Thanksgiving dinner won’t be complete without?
2. Formulate your menu. This is important. Now that you know what you want to splurge on, write your menu and keep to the harvest theme. Why? Recently harvested produce will be the most cost-effective for your Thanksgiving menu. Consider what’s on sale (Brussels sprouts, green beans, etc) and choose those produce items for side dishes. Storage crops like carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes are in season, so these — which also happen to be traditional Thanksgiving foods — will be the most wallet-friendly. Also, make sure as you are planning your menu that you consider what is feasible to make in your kitchen. When you’re fully planned, write a shopping list. Don’t forget to include stocks, butter or anything else you might need.
3. Head to the farmers market. Storage crops are in season at the farmers market, where you can often find big bags of carrots, bins of onions and a selection of potatoes just waiting. Don’t assume you can’t afford this fresh, local produce either. Prices are competitive, and the selection is good. Plus, there’s an added bonus that you are supporting local farmers — which helps them keep on growing for local families like yours.
4. Shop your pantry and freezer. If you’ve put up dilly beans and frozen green beans, now’s the time to get them out. Those dilly beans (and other pickled veggies) make wonderful holiday appetizers. And the veggies you froze or pressure canned can be employed in your meal too. Is there anything better than celebrating Thanksgiving with the spoils of your summer labor?
5. At the store, pay attention to price tags. Inevitably, you’ll need something from the grocery store. But when you go, buyer beware: there’s a hidden wallet buster hiding in plain sight. Although those cups of Brussels sprouts or bags of green beans might look convenient, that’s a convenience you’ll pay for. How do you know? Read the price cards near each item. The large number tells you what you’ll pay per bag, per pound, per item, etc. But the smaller number tells you how much something costs per unit, which is an equalizer — it breaks the cost down for comparison. For instance, loose green beans are currently $1.99 per pound at my local grocery store. Ones bagged by the store are $2.69 a pound. Want the washed and pre-trimmed ones from the brand name? That’s $3.99 for a pound. Skip the convenience and grab a bag to fill with what you need. Your wallet will thank you.
6. The more you DIY, the more you’ll save. At grocery stores these days, you can find everything from baguettes pre-cut and toasted into convenient crostini slices to veggies already cut, chopped or cut into spirals. These convenience items will save time, but at what cost? Not only are they not as fresh as their unprepared counterparts, but they are also a spendy alternative disguised as a timesaver. Instead, choose fresher, whole items and prepare them yourselves. It’s easy to roast butternut squash and way more fun to choose your own cheeses for a cheese plate.
7. Skip the things that you serve out of obligation. Yes, I am giving you permission to just not serve things your family doesn’t really like. If no one really likes cranberry sauce, don’t serve it. If leftover green bean casserole languishes for days, don’t make it. Making something just because it’s always been served on your family’s holiday table is silly. Save the money. Enjoy the meal.
Thanksgiving needn’t be a costly, wallet-stretching endeavor. With good planning and smart decision-making, you can create a delicious meal without breaking the bank.