Plan & Prep

5 Strategies to Help Avoid Spending a Fortune on Thanksgiving Dinner

published Nov 3, 2015
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(Image credit: Jessica Fisher)

I remember the first time I prepared a Thanksgiving meal on my own; I was a young mom, we’d just bought a house, we were barely scraping by. I planned out the traditional meal that my mom had always served and headed to the grocery store.

I was stunned when the groceries for that one meal equaled the cost of a week’s worth of groceries for our family of three. How was this possible? Luckily my dad, one of our dinner guests, bailed me out with a $100 bill. But I learned my lesson: A holiday feast can put you in hock if you’re not careful.

Over the years I’ve developed some strategies that help me curb the spending, while still allowing us to share a special meal with family and friends.

1. Prioritize the meal plan.

What are the most important items to include in your Thanksgiving dinner and what items can you do without? It’s good to figure these out and let your priorities direct your meal. If you’re a stickler for tradition, it may be hard to shave recipes from the roster, but if you’re willing to think outside the box, you can find ways to save.

For example, I realized we were wasting a lot of the turkey because of how the white vs. dark meat crowd was divided. I now buy chicken drumsticks for the kids because they’re inexpensive and I know the kids will eat them. They’re much easier for little hands to wield than a turkey leg, too!

I roast a turkey breast, knowing that my husband can revel in all the white meat he desires — and I won’t be scrambling for recipes to hide the dark meat in later. While it’s a little unconventional, I prioritize our meal plan to include the foods I know we love and won’t let go to waste.

For you, it may be bypassing the green bean casserole that no one eats or making only two different kinds of pies instead of three.

(Image credit: Jessica Fisher)

2. Shop your pantry.

You know that shopping the pantry is one of my favorite tips, right? Chances are you’ve got ingredients there that you don’t need to buy again. Be sure you know what you have before you go to the store.

At this time of year, it’s particularly important to check your spice cupboard. Holiday baking spices are not cheap! See what you already have before you buy more. (And if you buy more, consider storing your spice purchases in the freezer to extend their shelf life.)

3. Shop the sales.

This month, sales should start rolling out on key ingredients to include in your holiday meal. If you’ve got your Thanksgiving dinner planned out now, you can pick up a few items each week when you see them on sale instead of loading up during turkey week when the sale might have passed. You can also spread out your spending over the month so you don’t take a big hit all at once.

4. Let folks contribute.

Depending on your personal traditions, you may feel great about letting folks contribute a dish to the meal — or you might not. I know some people feel pretty strongly about providing everything.

However, tradition implies that Thanksgiving guests contribute out of friendship and thankfulness, so I’m good with baking the pies to take to my in-laws’, or letting a friend bring a basket of rolls to dinner at my house. I think it adds to the beauty of the holiday.

5. Recognize that enough is as good as a feast.

Grocery shopping, particularly at the holidays, is one of my favorite things to do. But I tend to get distracted and stray from my list when I see all those yummy ingredients that I could make into this or that. I have to be rather strict with myself, not going beyond the meal plan or the shopping list. I want enough without having so much that it goes to waste.

This hit home one year when I attended a large potluck Thanksgiving and saw all the food that got left behind. What a waste! I love Thanksgiving leftovers, don’t get me wrong. But, enough really is enough. Not only can you prevent waste, but you can save money if you don’t go overboard.

These are a few of the tricks I use to keep our grocery budget from taking a huge hit at Thanksgiving. I’d love to hear what strategies you use to make the most of your holiday funds.

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