Thanksgiving's More Expensive Than Ever—Now What?

Our thrifty tips will help you execute a budget-friendly feast.

October 26, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

These days, it’s hard to go even an hour without hearing about supply chain issues, both in the United States and abroad. With shortages on everything from beauty products to toilet paper (again) to food, consumers are going to have to plan early and most likely spend more this holiday season. The Farm Bureau estimates that Thanksgiving 2021 will cost $46.90 for a group of 10, but to loosely quote our president, that’s a load of malarkey.

A typical Thanksgiving feast will likely feature at least a 12 to 14 lb. turkey, mashed potatoes, an assortment of vegetable side dishes, dinner rolls, a few kinds of pie, and most likely some good wine. Even if you’re not serving a heritage turkey, rolls with cultured butter, and mashed potatoes with truffles, Thanksgiving is pricy and this year, The New York Times says that it will be the most expensive feast ever. “There is no single culprit,” writes Times reporter Kim Severson. “The nation’s food supply has been battered by a knotted supply chain, high transportation expenses, labor shortages, trade policies, and bad weather.”

So what’s the best way to host Thanksgiving without breaking the bank? Before you start filling your cart with flour, cream of mushroom soup, pumpkin pie spice, and dinner rolls, "comb through your pantry and fridge for ingredients you already have on hand," says Allison Thomas, culinary standards manager at Whole Foods Market. "Keep an eye out for the staples you tend to stock year-round, like spices, vanilla extract, flours, and sugar. Not only will you save time at the store not having to hunt down items you don’t actually need, but you’ll also save money in the long run."

Oh, and there's no need to cut your guest list and opt for turkey burgers and fries instead of a glistening roast. There are a number of ways to host a budget-friendly Thanksgiving. Consider shopping local. “If you have the ability to source from local farms for your produce and meat, that will help curb costs,” says Justin Freeman, executive chef at The Greenwich in Denver. Freeman also says to think about serving things that you can repurpose into leftovers so you can stretch your dollar farther for a couple of days post-Thanksgiving. While we’re all for a Thanksgiving breakfast sandwich that makes use of a little bit of stuffing, a tablespoon or two of cranberry sauce, and a few slices of turkey, Freeman says that you can also freeze sides like cranberry sauce and gravy to save for a new meal altogether.

Alternatives to Whole Turkey

Although turkey is generally a lean meat, both in terms of price and fat, November is the one time of year when it is guaranteed to be more expensive due to demand. Instead of serving a whole turkey for roasting, consider turkey legs or turkey breast if you’ve having a smaller gathering, which are less expensive and easier to cook too.

Budget-friendly vegetarian alternatives to turkey include a whole roasted cauliflower or the classic tofurky (do people do that anymore? Please, let us know if you do!). “The turkey also doesn’t need to be the focal point. You can focus on preparing some really great sides like butternut squash with roasted marshmallows, pumpkin caponata, or even roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, maple syrup, and fresh lemon juice,” says Freeman.

When to Shop

The best time to go grocery shopping for Thanksgiving doesn’t just have to do with crowd-levels or availability, though both of those factors are important. In terms of price alone, the best time to pick up your meat, produce, and baking supplies is, well, now! “Do not shop the day before—it’s always more expensive and you end up buying whatever is on the shelf,” says Freeman. You can start buying canned goods, dry herbs, and non-perishable baking ingredients now. The weekend before Thanksgiving, stock up on hearty staple vegetables like sweet potatoes or squash, which tend to have a longer shelf life of at least four days.

You can also buy your turkey now and freeze it before prices and demand increase, says Freeman. Wondering how to defrost your turkey for Thanksgiving? We’ve got you covered.

Pick Your Produce Carefully

This doesn’t just mean looking out for what is fresh and ripe (though you should certainly do that, too). It’s also strategically choosing inexpensive vegetables for side dishes. As a rule of thumb, out-of-season fruits and veggies will tend to cost more. Freeman says the most affordable vegetables include spinach, red and white onions, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and turnips. On the other hand, fresh herbs, escarole, cauliflower, green beans, and cucumbers are generally the most expensive per pound.

For low-cost side dishes for your Thanksgiving feast, try these Melted Onions, Roasted Baby Turnips with Dijon-Shallot Vinaigrette and Tarragon, a five-ingredient Sweet Potato Bake, or Sheet-Pan Mac & Cheese With Pumpkin & Brown Butter, because honestly, what’s Thanksgiving without a side of macaroni and cheese?

And don't scoff at frozen veggies, either. "They're frozen just after being harvested so they're nutritionally comparable to fresh vegetables, and they're great for dishes where you don't have to worry about the texture difference (soups, stratas, stews, and frittatas, for example). Plus, they’re already washed and prepped for you," says Thomas.

Skip Organic

Even if you prefer buying all-organic produce and meat, doing so will cause your grocery bill to spike drastically. Instead, strategically add only certain organic items to your cart if it’s important to you. The EWG’s “Clean Fifteen” lists vegetables like sweet corn, onions, frozen peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and mushrooms as having some of the lowest levels of pesticide residue. This means that you can safely skip the organic label and save at least $1-$2 per pound on those veggies alone.

Buy Whole Vegetables

Although buying pre-cut produce will save you time in the kitchen, it won’t save money. Pre-cut or prepared (i.e. pre-roasted carrots) vegetables are more expensive than whole produce. According to Freeman, a whole butternut squash can typically feed five to six people, whereas pre-cubed butternut squash would be closer to two to four people. Plus, pre-cut vegetables tend to spoil more quickly than whole, which means there’s a chance you may have to discard the veggies—say halved Brussels sprouts or pre-chopped onions—before you actually get to cook with them for the feast.

If you end up with way more squash (or carrots or pumpkin or asparagus) than you expected, blanch or roast any extra. From here, freeze in a single layer on a rimmed sheet tray and then transfer to a freezer bag for a future soup or salad, says Thomas.

Make It a Group Effort

Even if you're the type of host who insists on cooking everything, buying three different flower arrangements, and curating the perfect playlist, allow your guests to lend a helping hand this year. "If someone offers to bring a dish, let them. If it’s not a side dish, ask for a specific wine varietal that will go well with your meal (or the very versatile Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc). Part of Thanksgiving is sharing those traditions," says Thomas.

What are your favorite ways to save money for Thanksgiving? Share your tips in the comments below!
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Former Food52 Staff Editor


jane.coombs88 October 28, 2022
My family likes me to debone and roll the turkey. I watched a Martha Stewart video with Todd English on how to do it. The work requires a good boning knife. Get creative with the stuffing. Bonus-no arguments over white or dark meat. Frees up space in the refrigerator. You can list it as a skill on your cooking resume. Practice with a chicken.
cosmiccook October 28, 2021
Turkey breasts ARE NOT less expensive than whole turkeys. I try to find higher welfare rated turkey's --not "heritage" but neither the massed produced "commodity" ones either. A 5, 6 lb. Turkey breast is the same cost (or more) than a 10,11 Turkey for the same brand. Its less expensive to buy a turkey and break it down. Some groceries will do this for you.
Karl October 27, 2021
One of the very most budget friendly vegetarian mains, and one that can be prepped 2-4 hours ahead (nice for single hosts), is the savory egg souffle. You just need a soup/appetizer course that can cover the time it takes to cook it (about 35-40 minutes). Contrary to their reputation, souffles are pretty indestructible. The assembly is quite easy if you can have a mise en place. If you can whip cream and make an omelet, you have the techniques for a souffle down pat.I made my first souffle in a humble loaf pan.

To quote an article from Amanda Hesser years ago:

"To begin, it is helpful to understand just what a soufflé is. It is, essentially, a flavorful sauce suspended in whipped egg whites and baked in the oven. As the soufflé bakes, the heat causes the air in the egg whites to expand, separating the base into a fluffy custard, sealing in any aromas and bursting vertically out of its baking dish.

When it comes out of the oven and begins to cool, the air contracts and the soufflé deflates, which is why it must be eaten quickly. If you let a souffle deflate, you will be left with an omelet. (But one that will be much lighter than a typical omelet. Any failed souffle can simply be turned out of its dish and served without shame, like an unmolded custard.)

A good souffle is rich with contradiction. It has a firm outer shell, while inside it is impossibly light; it is supported by egg, but its taste is not compromised by it; it defies gravity and yet is fragile. And if it is correctly made, spoonfuls of rich, gauzy foam and all of its contradictions will disappear on the palate. Anyone who can create that experience is worthy of praise.

And anyone who can make an omelet and whip cream can make a souffle.

Classic souffles are made up of two parts: the base and the whipped egg whites. The base is a kind of sauce, often thickened with egg yolks. Many recipes call for about one egg per person. So if you are making a souffle for four, you would use four to five eggs, reserving the yolks for the base.

Anything else that goes into the base has one of two purposes: flavoring or thickening. This could mean, for a savory souffle, making a bechamel sauce with flour, butter and milk and then adding egg yolks to enrich it. Or aromatics could be used: sauteed garlic and herbs, crab meat, cheese, even asparagus puree."