Cooking with Scraps

How to Have a Good and Cheap Thanksgiving

November 12, 2015

I’d like to propose something radical: Let’s make Thanksgiving easier on ourselves and our wallets—unless you absolutely relish doing everything yourself (and all power to you if that’s the case).

This isn’t out of reach: The traditional Thanksgiving meal uses the whole turkey, in-season vegetables, and usually results in some leftovers. Well, you guys, these principles are at the heart of what it means to eat Good and Cheap (Apologies for the poor grammar. I’m referencing my book, Good and Cheap.)

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You can still have a big Thanksgiving meal that feels bountiful without breaking the bank. Here’s how:

Start saving bits for stuffing and gravy and broth now.

This is my mother’s trick and you should all do it. She freezes the leftover ends of bread for stuffing and leftover vegetable bits for broth. Come Thanksgiving, she pulls the bread bag out, tears it up—and isn’t far from stuffing. Not only is it economical since you’re using up scraps, but using different types of bread makes the stuffing super interesting.  

Your gravy will be that much better if you use homemade broth, which again can be made from the leftover bits (this time, vegetables). Just make sure you have lots of onion, carrot, and celery involved. And not TOOOO many beets. That can get weird (speaking from experience).

Don’t be too tied to the fresh stuff.

Canned or pickled beets can be great. So can canned pumpkin purée. Frozen green beans can be fantastic quality—just be sure to cook them quickly at high heat so they don’t defrost slowly and get mushy.

More: A genius pumpkin pie that goes for canned pumpkin.

Buy in bulk where you can and consider a potluck.

A big bag of potatoes is usually cheaper than just buying a couple of each. So how do we take advantage of that without sacrificing variety and flavor? Consider a potluck.

If each person makes bigger batches of fewer things, it will be more efficient and cost-effective. Whoever does mashed potatoes best can make a large, plain batch and then maybe add different flavor combinations to smaller quantities. You could add butter and sage to one batch, dill and sour cream to another—or browned butter and thyme. You get the idea: Simply changing flavor combinations on basic foods like mashed potatoes can add variety without tremendous cost. Plus, we can all get new ideas from our friends and family. Sharing the workload is sharing the love!

A note on nuts: They’re expensive. So if you love pecan pie, go for it obviously. But shop for whole pecans in the bulk section instead of packaged. Enjoy the pie tremendously, and if you have extra pecans, they won’t go to waste: Add them to your salads or roast them with a little sugar and spices for a snack.

Get efficient with your pie choice.

If you prefer pumpkin, sweet potato, or pecan, then be sure you use pumpkin, sweet potato, or pecans in other parts of the meal as well. You probably don’t need more than one orange side dish, so if you’re making pumpkin pie, then go for it: Get yourself a pumpkin (or winter squash), roast it, and use half for the pie and half for a savory dish.

More: A genius squash soup that's anything but bland.

Ditch the crust (I’m sorry).

I know this won’t fly with everyone, and really I ADORE pie crust, but if you’re looking to save time and money (those butter costs are sometimes nuts during Thanksgiving!), you can skip the crust and make amazing pumpkin or sweet potato pudding by just baking the custard filling in small individual tins or a casserole dish.

More: How bakeries pay for all that expensive butter.

Don’t cook for more than you’re feeding.

If you’re on your own or it’s just a small group, consider streamlining your meal (there’s some wisdom here for larger groups too). Make a Thanksgiving meal all on one sheet pan with a turkey leg or two, some brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. Roast them all with garlic, salt, pepper, a couple slices of lemon, and call it a day (or a good but cheap Thanksgiving).

Rethink Thanksgiving “musts.”

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, urges us to only keep what brings us joy in our closets and drawers, and we should do the same on our dining tables. Make only those foods that bring you joy! Your Thanksgiving will be happier (and less costly) because of it.

More: We tried Kondo's methods—here's how it went.

This article originally appeared on November 5, 2015. We're re-running because Thanksgiving's just less than 2 (!) weeks away.

Second, fourth, and fifth photos by Mark Weinberg; all others by James Ransom

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Saffron3
  • Alexandra Stafford
    Alexandra Stafford
  • AntoniaJames
  • Leanne Brown
    Leanne Brown
Cookbook author, cook and good food advocate


Saffron3 November 12, 2016
I have a question.
"Make a Thanksgiving meal all on one sheet pan with a turkey leg or two, some brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. Roast them all with garlic, salt, pepper, a couple slices of lemon, and call it a day (or a good but cheap Thanksgiving)"
I tried this and the turkey legs didn't roast well. 400, 30-45 minutes, great veges.
Any advice? I'm not sure one can do this on a single pan. .
Leanne B. November 12, 2016
Ooh yes you are right for sure. The turkey needs longer than the vegetables. I said it very casually in this article but you need to use one sheet pan but kind of do it in layers. I did a more fully explained version of this recipe here:
Saffron3 November 12, 2016
Ah, I see it. Thanks, I appreciate the update.
Alexandra S. November 5, 2015
Loved this, Leanne! Also, I was talking to a friend recently who I trust dearly as a cook, and I asked her if she had been cooking anything fun recently, and her answer was that she had been cooking a lot from Good and Cheap and LOVING everything. Hooray!! So many great tips here. Thanks.
Leanne B. November 9, 2015
Aw, thank you so much for the kind words Alexandra!
AntoniaJames November 5, 2015
Thank you, Leanne, for this excellent article.

Turkey cutlets are quite reasonable, there is no waste, and you can buy whatever quantity you need.

One year there were only three of us, and I wanted to go Italian with the sides, so I made this:

I made a double batch so we'd have leftovers for sandwiches.

These take all of about 10 minutes, total active and cooking time, plus a minute or two to make a quick pan sauce. If you don't need a whole turkey on the table, this is one way to go. ;o)