On the Cheap

13 Money-Saving Tips for an Epic Thanksgiving Meal That Doesn't Break the Bank

Plus a tart-and-tangy side to serve at your feast.

November 14, 2018
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Soon after we got married, my husband and I staked a claim to host the family Thanksgiving. It’s our favorite holiday because it’s centered around the people and the food we love most. Each Thanksgiving we’ve hosted has been a little different; we have an open-door policy for family and friends, so there’s always a new combination of guests gathered around every available counter and table space in our home.

In 15 years of preparing these feasts, we’ve learned some lessons the hard way: a mountain of potato peels should not be shoved down a garbage disposal (we washed Thanksgiving dinner dishes in the bathroom sink that year) and cleaning-up as you go is really the only way to avoid unsightly piles of dirty dishes (broken garbage disposal or not!).

But my biggest take-away is that hosting Thanksgiving doesn’t need to break the bank. Yes, it can be easy to get carried away, either overestimating the food needed or undertaking recipes with specialty ingredients that cost a small fortune. The most memorable spreads have more to do with thoughtful preparation and who’s around the table than the size of your budget.

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I’ve gathered my best tips for preparing a feast that’s easier on your bank account, whether you're hosting Thanksgiving for the first time or the 20th, plus my recipe for Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Balsamic-Cranberry Glaze that I’ll be serving at my own feast this year.

Photo by Julia Gartland

The Big Bird

  • Some years, we’ve blown the whole dinner budget on the turkey alone. I’m not here to tell you what kind of bird to choose, but buying a supermarket turkey is one of the best ways to save money. (Frozen birds can cost well under $1 per pound, compared to fresh heritage birds from speciality shops at over $10 per pound.) I’ve cooked turkeys with varying labels and price tags, and what matters most to the deliciousness of your bird is the quality of your preparation.
  • I’m a huge fan of brining (either wet or dry) to enhance a turkey’s flavor and juiciness. I once put ten dollars' worth of ingredients into a brine, when a simple salt-and-sugar solution would've been just fine. If you still want to doctor it up, put some extra herbs or spices (like parsley or peppercorns) from other dishes you’re prepping to work.
  • Do the math to determine how big of a bird you’ll really need. Abundance is synonymous with the holiday, but that shouldn't mean wastefulness. Plan 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per person, which should provide enough for leftovers. Also consider how many days you’ll realistically want to eat turkey sandwiches!

On the Side

  • Start from scratch—it’s one of the easiest ways to cut costs if you plan accordingly. Instead of paying $8 for an artisanal loaf of bread, make your own for significantly less. The same is true for pie dough, stock, and salad dressing.

  • Similar to the turkey, plan your number of side dishes wisely. You'll need 1/3 to 1/2 pound of potatoes per person, for example, and a little less for Brussels sprouts and other vegetables.

  • I’m a big fan of fresh herbs, but purchasing multiple bunches can quickly add up (and dried ones are pricey, too). Rethink the salad that calls for a teaspoon of minced tarragon not used in any other dish, or a stuffing recipe with four herbs. Stick with one or two heavy hitters to save money—fresh thyme and Italian parsley are my favorite go-to herbs for their versatility.

  • One of my favorite tips is finding dishes that share ingredients. It saves money and time at the grocery store and in the kitchen. Plus, it’s a great way to unify the flavors of different dishes on the table. This year, I’m making these Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Balsamic-Cranberry Glaze. By reducing an everyday variety of balsamic vinegar and stirring in butter and a dollop of cranberry sauce (this is the one I’m serving), your roasted Brussels sprouts transcend to a whole new tart-and-tangy level.

For the Sips and Sweets

  • Instead of making multiple desserts, pick one thing and stick to it to save time and money. Pumpkin pie is not only classic, it’s one of the most economical pies to make. (Or consider these easy-to-make salted pumpkin crème brûlées as a non-pie alternative.) If your sister-in-law just has to have sour-cream-and-raisin pie, let her bring one!
  • Drinks are another big-budget item deserving of your careful attention. Create a festive mood with a big bowl of punch, warm apple cider, or spritzes, and save the wine for dinner.
  • For the main meal, pick one type of red wine (or one white and one red) with the help of your local wine shop. They will often stock quality wines for under $20 for the occasion. Better yet, ask your guests to contribute a favorite bottle or two.

Stocking Up Your Kitchen

  • Make a detailed list of ingredients and where you should buy them. Get as many ingredients as possible where you know you’ll get the best prices and quality. For me, that means buying my turkey and dry goods at my neighborhood supermarket; nuts, cheese, and dairy at Trader Joe’s; and seasonal produce at my local farmer’s market.

  • Don’t buy more than you can use! While it is tempting to save money by buying in bulk, if you only need one lemon, don’t buy a full bag. (Same for onions, apples, and so many other things!).

  • The first Thanksgiving meal relied on the generosity of guests, and yours can, too. Don’t be afraid to ask your guests to contribute dishes or wine to the meal, and with specificity (if you want a leafy green salad, ask for a leafy green salad!). They’ll appreciate the opportunity to share, and it’s a great way to include other traditions and make the menu more diverse.

What are your best budget-friendly tips for Thanksgiving? Share 'em all in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • liz schneider
    liz schneider
  • Lyrajayne
  • Gibson2011
  • EmilyC

Written by: EmilyC

I'm a home cook. I love salads. Two things you'll always find in my refrigerator are lemons and butter, and in my pantry good quality chocolate and the makings for chocolate chip cookies.


liz S. November 16, 2018
My favorite way to embrace giving thanks is to always make a few memories from childhood (usually molded cranberry salad with pineapple-walnut-celery a la Mrs. Rombauer as the cranberry portion and Indian Pudding with vanilla Hagen Daz, The Countryman's recipe, to honor New England). Always, of course, the bird-stuffing-gravy, but the rest is whatever came out of the garden. This year it's our own braised pearl onions, garlic mashed potatoes, butternut squash with brown butter-sage and the cutest tender carrots I just harvested. Some years it might be brussels or parsnips or rutabagas, what ever we grew. Tomatoes and field peas and all kinds of beans and peppers will be for other feasts, because these humble vegetables are what say 'Thanksgiving' most at my table.
EmilyC November 17, 2018
May I come over please?? The vegetable sides at Thanksgiving excite me most, so I couldn’t agree more with your last point!! Thanks for sharing Liz!
Lyrajayne November 16, 2018
I just decided at the last minute to host 8-9 of my friends and my budget wasn't expecting it. So it's all about what's lurking in the pantry or what I can make for little cost. I'll make ricotta and crackers, pull out the fancy pickles, some type of crudite for snacking. Plenty of fish sauce and a giant stalk of brussels sprouts = momofuku's. Persimmons in the yard and a sad pomegranate my kid forgot about = an appetizer salad. The four sweet potatoes and little squash in the pantry will get sliced and glazed with the walnuts in the freezer. 2lb bag of carrots in the back of the fridge = roasted with turmeric and nigella seeds. And I avoid preparations that want loads of cream and butter - some butter will go in the potatoes, but I'll also fold in roasted garlic and caramelized onions to add rich silkiness. Dairy and specialty ingredients are what kill me - if it's not in the pantry already, sub it or find a new recipe.

Basically, my shopping list is twelve items long and (other than the turkey) will add under $20 to the budget. To be fair, there's always *plenty* of booze in the house. So mixing up a bottle or two of Manhattans to go with dinner is free. My friends will bring flowers and do dishes...it's perfect.
EmilyC November 16, 2018
Wow, this is so inspiring! Anyone would be lucky to be invited to your feast. Thanks so much for sharing your game plan with all of us!
Gibson2011 November 14, 2018
For me, saving money at Thanksgiving comes down to being realistic versus nostalgic. My tiny family of four lives far away from extended family, so it will just be us for the holiday. Instead of blowing my grocery budget for the week and buying a turkey, we'll have a really good roast chicken. I'll make our favorite sides, but won't feel like I have to make every traditional side. Since our favorite part of Thanksgiving is the pumpkin pie, I'm making Erin McDowell's big pumpkin cobber so we have lots of leftovers.
EmilyC November 14, 2018
All great points, and your meal sounds lovely! (Roast chicken is a great choice for a smaller crowd.) I’ve got my eyes on Erin’s cobbler for my Thanksgiving dinner too, by the way! Thanks for your comment!