Holiday dinner should be a time of sharing, not going into debt over dinner.
There’s a magic day in March or April where the average American pays off Christmas debt. Don’t let holiday dinner be part of it.
We host holiday dinner. I’m a vegetarian. I’m happy to give people four carrots and some hummus, but we usually cook something special. You probably do, too. Someone asked how to do this on a budget, though.
If Bob Cratchit can do it, I can, too. Here are some updated tips (there was an earlier Thanksgiving postout there).
Shop ahead and watch the fliers
Generally holiday dinner things go on sale before the holidays. Get a couple bags of fresh cranberries, your turkey, ham, yams, and anything that will keep well ahead of time. If you have an idea about the menu, you can do this well.
Plan the holiday dinner menu around the sales.
It’s all well and good to decide you want roast leg of lamb or lobster at Christmas dinner, but if you’re trying to keep costs down, you’re planning backwards. The best way is to see what’s seasonal or available then plan around that. For example, lamb’s generally on sale in the spring. Lobster’s generally on sale… never.
You’ll find turkey sales around Thanksgiving, then again turkey and ham around Christmas. There’s a reason Normal Rockwell has pictures of these things on the table–they were on sale. He ate those so he could afford to buy paint to capture the scene.
You simply don’t need seventeen side dishes, forty dips, and five desserts. Sure, it’s nice, but if you take some time to pare down the selections, you’ll find less waste and less expense. I started doing this. No one ever said, “Gosh, I miss your roasted asparagus.” They said, “Please pass the green beans.”
I tell people what I’m making and if they want to add to it, they can. I learned that trick after years of bringing things I eat to other people’s houses since I have a specific way of eating. I’d bring a dish I knew I could eat that everyone else would like, too. Soon, those became my signature dishes. Tell guests they’re welcome to bring theirs, but not required.
Recipes and Standbys
Here are some affordable holiday items and the approximate cost if you shop wisely:
This is the holiday dinner stressor for most people. We used to go all out for this, but you don’t have to. There’s no need to pay top-dollar for filet mignon or a prime rib if this is stretching your budget. Try one of these instead:
Turkey: In season, these go down to 59-cents a pound. It’s so affordable, I buy two or three and we cook them throughout the year. Try smoking it slow–it’s a whole new game.
Chicken: You can go fancy with little hens or roast a chicken or two.
Ham: They’re everywhere and on sale at every standard holiday. Get the easy-to-cut spiral or the juicy and delicious fresh ham.
Pork: Many people serve pork for holidays. It’s also affordable.
Pay particular attention to your cooking methods at the holidays, add a few garnishes or special sauces, and you just dressed up your Old Navy turkey in Louis Vuitton.
Baba Ghanoush: This is an eggplant dip. I love it. It’s also keto-friendly and gluten free (Cost: about $2-3. Eggplants aren’t expensive, and you’ll use some tahini, olive oil, and lemon).
Deviled Eggs: Eggs are healthy and affordable. Nothing’s more simple than a deviled egg, yet they seem really special. Put out a tray of these. There’s a basic recipe in the linked post, but go nuts–chop olives, capers, use smoked paprika–whatever you’ve got on hand to make them special.
Cheese plate: Hooray for Trader Joe’s again. I am a cheese snob. They have a ton of great cheese affordably priced.
Hummus: This is a classic. Serve with nachos or cut up veggies (Cost: Made from dried beans–$2.00 for the beans and a bit of olive oil, tahini, and lemon)
Salsa: fresh or canned.
Olive and pickle tray: Olives are better and cheaper at my local Middle Eastern deli. I get specialty foods in their global stores, never at the grocery store.
This is the danger zone. If you think holiday dinner can get expensive, you can go broke buying the booze. Here are some ways around it.
Don’t drink. I don’t. And look how fun I am!
If that doesn’t work: have a BYOB.If everyone in your circle likes Their Thing, tell them it’s a “Stock the Bar” and have them bring one type of alcohol and one mixer each.
Or… set a reasonable budgetand get a couple good bottles of wine for dinner. If you’ve recently graduated from college, Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” is decent. Fill the glasses ahead of time and no one will ever know. (Note: Trader Joes owns their own vineyard, called Charles Shaw. Their goal was quality wine that everyone can afford. It used to be $1.99, but now it’s $2.99. Hence “Two Buck Chuck.”
Ranch dressing: for your salad. (Cost: less than a dollar. I use a bit of full-cream yogurt I culture, some mayo, and ideally some buttermilk but often I skip that).
Kombucha: Normally this stuff’s $5/bottle. I make it by the gallon (method in the link) You’ll need some prep time on this–a week or so, and if you don’t have the culture, the SCOBY, you’ll need that. I have a million. Find me, I’ll probably send you one. They’re taking over my kitchen like “The Blob.” (Note: That’s an old movie with a creature that looked like the insides of a jelly sandwich multiplied and ate a city, ruining the one food I ate in elementary school).
Home-baked bread. I cannot tell you how easy this is. It takes five minutes of actual work. You do need a cooking scale, but once you start making this, you won’t buy bread again. (Cost: $2 for a couple loaves–King Arthur bread flour is $4-5, and yeast is a few bucks for a pound that’ll last your lifetime if you store it in the freezer).
Mashed potatoes: classic, with sour cream, flavored any way you want, with or without gravy. (Cost: You’ll get the potatoes on sale for $2-3 for a five pound bag).
Sweet potatoes: Casserole, candied, mashed. (Cost: $3-5)
Turnip: We boil ours, mash it, and add butter. (Cost: $1. Everyone hates this but me. I can’t get enough).
Pasta: We never make this, but my Italian friend does. She looked at me like I was smoking crack when I told her to leave the pasta course out of her seven-course wedding to cut costs. You can make a baked ziti, ravioli, or some other fancy pasta dish for the vegetarians in your life (Cost: $5 for pasta, sauce, cheese, or add-ins).
Brussels sprouts: most people underappreciate them. I roast them and serve them with Hollandaise sauce. It’s chef quality for pennies.
Green beans: Again, super easy, cheap, and simple. Or, you can make The Casserole.
Roasted roots: These are favorites because they’re so flexible–and always on sale for holiday seasons.
Dessert doesn’t need to be a separate event. We used to have three pies and a cheesecake–that’s nuts, especially when I’m already full from dinner. Now, I feature the cheesecake and one pie. Anything more comes from the “BYOP” category (Bring Your Own Pie). I tell people what I’m having and if they have another vision, they can craft and bring it.
Bread pudding: you can make for dessert or to use up the day-old holiday bread. (Cost: about a buck. I use day-old bread a half-dozen eggs, and baking stuff I have on hand).
New York Cheesecake: that’s easier to make than pie. (Cost: about $6-7 if you get the cream cheese on sale–which it always is around the holidays)
Ice cream, pies, etc… (I’ll put some recipes here)
But wait… there’s more.
I wrote this post specifically for a group I love on Facebook. I wanted to bring together some chef-quality recipes that wouldn’t look like anyone cut corners so everyone could eat, and enjoy–and save a few bucks in the process.
Photo credit: Camerique/Classicstock/Robertstock/Aurora Photos via Parade Magazine.