The $30 Thanksgiving

This month's Nickel & Dine proves you can make an exciting holiday meal on a budget.

October 27, 2021
Photo by Bette Blau Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi

Nickel & Dine is a budget column by Rebecca Firkser, assigning editor at Food52. Rebecca usually shares an easy, flavor-packed recipe that feeds four for $10 or less—this is a special edition: a $30 Thanksgiving for six.

Do you hear “Thanksgiving dinner” and start to fret about your checking account balance? Because when I volunteer to host such a meal, I’m not worried about what anyone thinks of my mismatched plates or nervous about who won’t love what I’ve made (to these, I say “so what, who cares!”). But I do stress about money.

Calculating what the average American spends on Thanksgiving is a challenge, considering that no two families observe the holiday the same way. Just look at the surveys: A 2020 Lending Tree report discovered, after speaking with folks from numerous generations, that hosts planned to spend an average of $475 for a nine-person meal, shaking out to $52 per person. On the other hand, the American Farm Bureau found that in 2020, the average cost of Thanksgiving for 10 was about $49, or less than $5 per attendee (calculations made with the lowest possible price averages in the U.S.). I know that I myself typically end up spending over $100 for the food alone, regardless of the number of guests. For some, perhaps, this isn’t much, but for many, it’s simply out of the question, even on holidays.

Worse yet, the New York Times reports that 2021 might be the most expensive Thanksgiving on record. From the national food supply and supply chain to labor shortages and climate change, “nearly every component of the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, from the disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan to the coffee and pie, will cost more this year, according to agricultural economists, farmers and grocery executives,” writes Kim Severson.

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Top Comment:
“Thanksgiving is about the people AROUND the table, much more than the food ON the table. I really LOVE that non traditional menus are being featured on Food 52. Thank you very much!”
— theconfusedquilter

So what to do? I set out to find a solution. And, in an exciting turn of events, I discovered that you can make a great Thanksgiving dinner on a budget—for six people with $30, in fact.

This budget-friendly Thanksgiving menu was developed with current prices in mind, with ingredients purchased at real grocery stores in one of the U.S.’s most expensive cities. For context, Nickel & Dine isn’t about spending as little as possible; rather, sticking to a firm budget using money-saving tips to make meals that are deeply flavorful and exciting, not just cheap. Still, it felt only appropriate to shoot for about $5 per person here, exactly double the per person price of the usual four-serving, $10 Nickel & Dine meals—it is a holiday after all.

I know nothing says “Thanksgiving” like turkey, but turkeys, especially animal welfare-approved or certified humane birds, tend to cost upwards of $2 per pound, and more for Organic (plus, much of that weight counts for bones, and most turkeys available around Thanksgiving-time are at least 10 pounds). So, the question is, do we need a whole turkey, when chicken—tender, easy-to-prep chicken—is at the ready? Nope! Do we need multiple sides and multiple desserts when you could focus on one of each and, by the way, totally knock it out the park? We do not!

Behold, a budget-minded Thanksgiving menu that makes no apologies along the way. We’ve got a centerpiece-main (chicken, not turkey—don’t freak out!), a rich vegetable side (sweet potatoes and green beans make an appearance), and a dessert that’s so, so much easier than pie (and fills the cornbread-shaped hole in your heart).

Thanksgiving Dinner in $30

Tender Chicken Legs With Schmaltzy Croutons

Chicken leg quarters (aka whole chicken legs) are one of the cheapest cuts of chicken per pound compared with the amount of meat on each bone (and speaking of bones, always save them after the meal in the freezer for stock). Roast the legs with lemon, onion, and garlic, then toss crusty bread in the rendered chicken fat until crisp and packed with flavor—all the holiday vibes of turkey and stuffing, with less cost, and less work too.

Blistered Green Beans & Sweet Potatoes With Tahini

For me, Thanksgiving is all about the sides, so I combined two classics—green beans and sweet potatoes—into a side dish anyone would welcome on their Thanksgiving table. While beans tend to be on the pricey side, sweet potatoes are cheap-cheap-cheap; a pound of each balances out each other, for a total of $5. The vegetables are charred, tossed in lemon and garlic, and served over a thick, creamy tahini sauce.

Apple-Cranberry Cornbread Biscuit Cobbler

I simply couldn’t decide between cornbread, apple pie, and cranberry sauce, so, why not all? Which led me to something special: a sweet, tangy cornbread biscuit cobbler. Significantly easier than a full-blown pie (who decided the most difficult dessert should be a thing on an already action-packed day?), this cobbler is just as good warm as it is room-temperature. You can bake it off first thing in the morning—and if you prefer, heat it up before serving when the oven’s free again.


Grocery Shopping

As with every edition of Nickel & Dine, this meal was envisioned with a few assumed ingredients (olive oil, salt, pepper, and a couple other pantry staples). The price is also tailored to the amount of each ingredient you’ll need—for example, a 10-ounce jar of tahini may cost $6, but you only need ¼ cup in the recipe, so just about $1 goes into the budget breakdown. Still, everything you’ll need is included in the shopping list below. And if you’re curious, head to the individual recipes for the specific price breakdowns.

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“What can I bring?” is a question a (good) guest will inevitably ask pre-Thanksgiving. Take them up on it! This meal doesn’t include drinks or appetizers, or other “extras.” Ask a guest to grab some seltzer cans—for drinking plain and cocktail-mixing; a few bottles of wine, beer, aperitifs, or digestifs; a bag of ice; some chips or crackers and a package of hummus; a plate of cut vegetables; post-meal tea or coffee. And I certainly wouldn’t be mad if anyone showed up at my door with a dish of homemade spinach-artichoke dip or a pumpkin pie. They’re extras, sure, but they’re never extra.

Would you make Thanksgiving dinner for $30? Let us know your time-honored holiday budgeting tips and tricks in the comments!
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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.


theconfusedquilter November 23, 2021
Such a lovely meal full of contrasting colors, textures and flavors. Another big plus is that the cook did not slave for days to make it, will not be exhausted when it's time to eat, and most of all will be better able to enjoy the food and the guests. Thanksgiving is about the people AROUND the table, much more than the food ON the table. I really LOVE that non traditional menus are being featured on Food 52. Thank you very much!
Janet M. November 18, 2021
While this looks yummy, my family wouldn't eat chicken dark meat on a bet. Today I bought a 5 lb turkey breast for just under $7. I could have had a 15 lb bird for even less, but no one on my list will eat the dark meat. 1 12 oz bag of fresh cranberries was $.99, 1 lb of Brussel sprouts was $1.69, 2 lb of sweet potatoes for $.50, 1 lb butter $1.99, 1 doz eggs $.87, 1 package celery $.99, 3 lb bag of onions $1.59, 1 box cornbread mix, $1.19, 1 orange, $.57, 2 qt milk $1.59. this is $18.97. With some flour, sugar, baking powder, and a few spices from my pantry it will produce turkey with cornbread dressing and gravy, cranberry chutney, roasted sweet potatoes with onions and Brussel sprouts. Cream cheese ($1.59), whipping cream ($2.39), and some chocolate ($1.59) plus the butter, eggs, milk, and celery in the original list, will cover a couple of appetizers (herbed cheese stuffed celery, homemade rosemary crackers) and dessert (chocolate cream pie)--gets me to $22.95. $30 is no trick at all as long as one is ready to plan ahead, do some careful shopping and manage some from scratch efforts. I'll make yeast rolls, too. I could have picked up 5 lb of flour for $.99, 4 lb of sugar for $.99, and 3 pks of yeast for $.79, but had enough of those for pie crust and rolls. I just found a 1 lb package of spinach in my freezer--cost $1.69, so will do creamed spinach as a second veg. I'm still well under $30. I shopped at Aldi, with a stop at another supermarket on the way home for the sweet potatoes and could have picked up the cheap flour and sugar there had I needed it.
Susanna November 18, 2021
This may be a very tasty meal, but it is most definitely not Thanksgiving.
Rosalind P. November 19, 2021
I get that traditional food is what makes Thanksgiving for you. But think about the name of the holiday and imagine that a satisfying, well prepared, even delicious meal of the foods liked best by the people around your table, the joy of being together, the (not incidental) fact that this is probably the most important and meaningful holiday observed by ALL (i.e., it's not a holiday associated with a specific religion or culture) and you get a great holiday. Good wishes to you in making a beautiful holiday that fits your family, but imagine that a great holiday can look different as well.
Susanna November 19, 2021
I certainly agree that people can and do make different types of Thanksgivings, adding to their own traditions from their own cultures, etc. I myself am not making a big spread this year. But I don’t think that a food blog should tout something as a Thanksgiving dinner for $30 and then have it not look like a Thanksgiving dinner at all. That’s not what readers expect when they’re looking for Thanksgiving dinners/recipes.
judy October 31, 2021
Some of these ideas have great merit. I like the chicken hind quarters idea instead of turkey. Over the last few years I have done turkey thighs instead of a whole turkey. Great flavor of turkey without the whole bird. But they are hard to find and expensive on their own. I think, for me I would miss the poultry seasoning of sage and rosemary. So instead of roasting the legs in lemon I would embrace the poultry seasoning by adding some to oil and rubbing on the legs before roasting. As for the croutons for "stuffing" effect, cut up an apple and chop some celery and onion along with the croutons, and toss them in a little chicken stock with poultry seasoning and bake in the oven under the chicken to absorb the fat. When the chicken and stuffing are done, remove from pan to a warm platter and cover. I could not do without the gravy. So add a little more butter to the bottom of the roasting pan if more fat is needed, then some flour and make a roux, then deglaze with some chicken stock. This can be done in a few minutes while finishing off the rest of the meal. Bake a sweet potato in the microwave, or bake in the oven along side the chicken legs. Then steam some green beans in the microwave and toss with some almonds and a little salt or the tahini if desired. That sweet potato? mash with a little butter and pepper. I would miss cranberry sauce too much not to have some. I always make some as soon as cranberries appear in the store in the fall, and use it all season long for a lot of things. Cornmeal biscuits can be made earlier in the day and held over covered, warmed to serve. I also could not give up pumpkin pie. And yes, piecrust is my nemesis. To this day I still simply use store prepared. But there is a wonderful recipe on Food52 ( placing the piecrust ON TOP of the pumpkin custard instead of underneath. NO soggy crust. Same recipe you always use, but cut the crust into pieces and carefully lay on top of the custard, leaving a few gaps for the steam to escape. Bake as usual. Beautiful flaky crust, and pumpkin pie. this I do first thing in the morning and the pie cooks and cools while the rest of the preparations are going on. Then simply whip some cream to serve with the pie when it is Tim for dessert. So, for me I could not give up the sage and rosemary, the gravy or cranberry sauce, or the pumpkin pie. But I certainly can embrace this modified approach, with my own twists to the meal to keep the more traditional flavors intact. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
garlic&lemon October 27, 2021
Because of work schedules and a host of other pandemic related issues, my kids will be visiting for a few days in the first week of December, rather than actually during either major holiday. They hinted for a holiday meal and this one is now TOP on my list! What's not to like here? Thanks for these delicious suggestions!
Stephanie G. October 27, 2021
I love this!
Kristen M. October 27, 2021
This all sounds so good! What a brilliant menu.
Rebecca F. October 28, 2021
thank you thank you, Kristen :)
Maurine H. October 27, 2021
This looks so delicious—and I love how each dish brings together multiple Thanksgiving flavors!
Rebecca F. October 27, 2021
thank you so much, Maurine <3