By Jennifer Reese
Author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter
Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is expensive, almost by definition. As the host, you’ve agreed to provide an abundant feast for family and friends, and while it may be possible to produce a truly cheap meal, the very idea runs contrary to the spirit of this great national holiday. Thanksgiving is about sharing and generous bounty. It is not about cheeseparing.
That said, there are ways to save a few dollars here and there with no sacrifice whatsoever to dining pleasure. In fact, some of the most delicious foods you can serve are the most affordable.
The first and easiest way to cut the cost of your Thanksgiving is to share the love. When Aunt Hazel offers to bring her marshmallow and yam casserole, say, “Yes please!” Tell your cousin sure, he can bring the wine. Most people like to contribute and you should let them.
The biggest single expense of the meal will be yours to bear alone: the turkey. The cheapest birds cost as little as 99 cents per pound, making this one of the most affordable meats on the market. You will spend substantially more if you want an organic heritage bird, which can cost as much as $7 per pound. There are many excellent reasons to buy one of these premium turkeys: They’re sustainably produced, they’re healthier, and the animals lead less miserable lives. (Whether or not they taste better is endlessly debatable.) But if you’re truly strapped for cash, this is probably not the wisest use of your resources. Consult your conscience and your bank account, then shop accordingly.
As for stuffing, don’t feel you need to get fancy with oysters or sausage—unless that’s what your family has been doing since Revolutionary times, in which case, tradition trumps budget. Basic bread stuffing is delicious and costs about 99 cents per cup if you make it yourself. But if, as I do, you have a sentimental attachment to the little custardy cubes of Pepperidge Farm stuffing, there’s no shame in that. You’ll even save about a dollar over homemade, one of the rare instances where store-bought is cheaper than scratch.
To make cranberry sauce, empty a 12-ounce bag of berries into a saucepan, add a cup of sugar, a cup of water and turn on the stove. The berries puff up and burst, then collapse into a tangy, crimson jelly over the course of about ten minutes. The only thing easier is to open a can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce— but it will cost you. How much? On three cups of cranberry sauce, you’ll save 60 cents by making your own. That’s just about enough to cover your next pack of gum. Don’t make the cranberry sauce because it’s cheaper; do it because it’s better.
Green beans are a time-honored side dish, but they’re a warm season vegetable and should be phased out of our Thanksgiving menus. Brussels sprouts and broccoli, on the other hand, flourish at this time of year, which means both better produce and better prices. Currently, string beans cost $3 per pound at my local supermarket. Brussels sprouts: $2 per pound. Broccoli: $1.30 per pound. Some traditions, like late November green beans, may not be worth preserving.
Potatoes are a perennial must on the Thanksgiving table, and homemade mashed potatoes are a cheap luxury. There is no question you should make these from scratch, as they cost 20 percent less than instant and are worth every last calorie. The best complement to your mountain of fluffy spuds: gravy, which was invented as a way to turn the flavorful bits of meat and fat that stick to the bottom of a pan into a rich sauce. Fabulous gravy is your free reward for roasting a turkey; you just have to claim it. There is absolutely no need to pay $2 for a can of flaccid Heinz “gravy” or $1.50 for an envelope of vile mix.
People are needlessly intimidated by pies, and we pay for it. Historically, pie was how frugal farm wives converted humble ingredients— fruits, squashes, eggs, buttermilk—into dessert. You can save serious money if you learn the simple art of making a pie, which, yes, includes the mixing and rolling of a crust. (Homemade crust: about a dollar. Frozen: almost double the price and not half as delicious.) A pumpkin pie from a quality bakery will cost between $15 and $40; from the freezer aisle of your supermarket, at least $6. A sublime homemade pumpkin pie: $3.70. If you go with pecan, which costs about $7 per pie, be sure to shop around for the nuts, as prices vary dramatically, even within the same supermarket. Typically the bargains are found in the bulk bins, but sometimes packaged brands (like Diamond) will surprise you with a deal.
To top your wonderful homemade pies: Real cream, whipped by you. It tastes expensive, but is actually cheaper than the whipped toppings that come in canisters and plastic tubs. This is the beauty of preparing food from scratch: You will save a little money and everyone will end up eating a lot better.