How to Have a Thrifty Thanksgiving Dinner

The holidays are wonderful, but they sure can be expensive. Many people don’t want to spend a month’s grocery budget on just one meal. Other families are having a tough time financially, because of a job loss, a foreclosure, or exorbitant looming bills. When that’s the case, the holidays can be a time for stress instead of enjoyment. To get our 78-page guide to a Thrifty Little Christmas ABSOLUTELY FREE, go here.

This is an excerpt from my book, The Ultimate Guide to Frugal Living

Contrary to what you may think, you don’t have to sell a kidney on the black market to put together a memorable and delicious Thanksgiving dinner. You can make a lot of it right from your pantry, and other items from reasonably priced groceries at the store.

If you’ve been building a stockpile, then the food in your pantry contains all sorts of basics for scratch cooking, purchased at the lowest prices available. Because of this, you can focus on purchasing only a few special items, like a turkey or a must-have goodie that is a tradition in your family, while you enjoy delicious yet thrifty treats for the rest of your Thanksgiving dinner.

Break out the vintage cookbooks when looking for creative ways to use your pantry stockpile. My favorite cookbook is my old Fanny Farmer cookbook, which was written in 1896 and updated in the early 1900s.

With these types of recipes, you won’t be scurrying around looking for some of those crazy Martha Stewart-esque gourmet ingredients like the breath of a yellow garden snail, captured during the 2nd full moon of the month.

Make the presentation lovely, with fancy toothpicks in the appetizers, colorful napkins, and your nicest china. If served with the proper flair – think candles, cloth napkins, and a beautiful presentation – any dinner seems just a little more festive

Following are some ideas for a festive meal that will make your guests feel well-fed and pampered, without emptying your pockets.

You’ll discover that many of the ingredients already reside in your pantry or are standard groceries that you’ll have on hand, like eggs and cheese.

Thrifty Appetizers and Party Snacks

  • Crackers (Usually on sale during the holidays)
  • Warm up a fruity jam and add some hot pepper flakes. Serve this over cream cheese for a deceptively elegant appetizer
  • Homemade yogurt mixed with herbs to make a dip for veggies
  • Breadsticks with marinara sauce
  • Chex mix made with melted white chocolate
  • Deviled eggs
  • Garlic roasted pumpkin seeds
  • Make hummus from canned chickpeas
  • Soup
  • Slice a baguette and toast the slices. Serve with dishes of high-quality olive oil for dipping.

Festive Platters

Platters of cheeses and meats are pretty expensive choices. Simply removing things from jars and arranging them on a platter will make them look far more elegant than their humble origins.

  • Place a variety of pickles on a dish for a relish tray.
  • Olives and marinated vegetables create a lovely yet inexpensive antipasto
  • Don’t buy the readymade veggie tray from the grocery store. Instead, peel and slice your carrots and cut up other veggies that you can find at a reasonable price.
  • Instead of a fruit tray with out-of-season luxuries, go with fruits that are well-priced at this time of year, like mandarin oranges, pears, apples, and grapes.

Thanksgiving dinner ideas

Don’t feel obligated to invest in out-of-season delicacies like fresh berries and asparagus in November. Splurge on a turkey and let the side dishes take a backseat.

And if you can’t afford the fanciest of dinners this year, don’t despair. Roast a chicken instead of a turkey or a ham, or make some homemade stuffing baked with drumsticks. Things like stuffing (or dressing, depending on what part of the country you hail from) were originally created as a way to use up something that would ordinarily be thrown out – stale bread.

Channel your Depression-era ancestors and make your goodies the frugal, old-fashioned way.

  • Homemade rolls or biscuits
  • Pasta or potato salad
  • Whip butter with a touch of honey- it makes the butter go further but looks fancy
  • Canned or frozen veggies will seem more festive when topped with breadcrumbs, bacon, and/or cheese
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Scalloped potatoes
  • Dumplings (maybe this is a Southern thing, but we always had dumplings with turkey dinner when I was a kid)
  • Stuffing – save up your bread scraps or make a batch of homemade cornbread for the base. Skip the fancy add-ins like water chestnuts and oysters and go back to the basics
  • Mashed sweet potatoes or winter squash with a sprinkle of brown sugar
  • Homemade cranberry sauce (far tastier and about the same price as canned)

Desserts

Don’t go all out on a bakery-made dessert. Make it from scratch from basic ingredients. Consider these humble ideas.

  • Decorate a cake (or cupcakes) with fall-colored sprinkles
  • Pies can be more expensive if you make the crust with pounds and pounds of butter. Try a single crust pie or make it with shortening.
  • Banana bread or pumpkin bread
  • Homemade cookies
  • A fruit crisp
  • Pudding with whipped cream
  • Brownies
  • Ice cream (put it in cones or add some toppings to jazz things up)

The most important ingredient.

Remember, Thanksgiving is a tradition based on gratitude for a good harvest. We have so many things to be thankful for in this country, even when times are tough.

The most important element of your Thanksgiving dinner isn’t on the table – it’s the ones sitting at your table.

What are your thrifty Thanksgiving tips? Share them in the comments!

How to Have a Thrifty Thanksgiving Dinner
Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is an author and blogger. She's the single mom of two daughters and credits extreme frugality and a good sense of humor for her debt-free lifestyle. She is the author of numerous books, the editor of TheOrganicPrepper.com, and is the founder of a small digital publishing company in the emergency preparedness niche.

5 thoughts on “How to Have a Thrifty Thanksgiving Dinner”

  1. You can also go cheap and beautiful on decorations – small pumpkins and squashes on the table, any pretty fall leaves the kids find (great excuse for a walk outside), interesting twigs and branches for wreaths or other decorations. Let’s not forget ye olde hand-shape turkey drawings! Dollar store table runners/table cloths.

  2. Another inexpensive option: My mom, God bless her, always used to do cultural Thanksgivings, which — in many cases — feature foods much cheaper than the standard US spread. She’d prepare traditional foods from Russia, or Mexico, or India, etc. She generally stayed with one theme per year, so there were only foods from that specific country. Not only did it give us some exposure to foods we wouldn’t normally try, but it was really memorable.

  3. Mom disliked making stuffing, or stuffing the bird, so my Dad did the deeds. As an Elder in our Church he was always on the Communion preparation committee so he was accomplished at cutting white bread slices into precision cubes. Flawless. Without even a smidgeon of crust. My mom made the best ever cranberry sauce from bags of whole berries from the Produce section of the supermarket. My parents passed 34 and 2 years ago, i miss them, the traditions they taught us, and their wise council in all matters of Life.

  4. Thanksgiving is much cheaper if you make it yourself. I never understood why people will pay much more for some company to make things like mashed potatoes at a substantial mark up when it’s just such an easy thing to make yourself. Same with buns, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pie. The dinner need not be fancy, it just needs to be filling and pleasant. The people you share Thanksgiving with are the wonderful part.

    As Daisy mentioned, items can be purchased over time and reserved for your holiday celebrations. Items such as pie filling, cranberries (freeze beautifully – just toss in the whole bag), sausage for the stuffing (freeze also), green beans and cream of mushroom, etc. I almost always have these things in my pantry and freezer anyway. Turkey is so cheap at this time of year that I always get 2-3 extra for the coming year. Same with ham at Christmas time.

    Most of our family celebrations involve everyone bringing a dish to pass. Making a couple of pans of homemade buns and a couple of pumpkin pies will cost me about $10 and my family loves them. (Pumpkin for 2 pies is around $3 a can and evaporated milk $1.25 each right now – 2 are needed.) Can’t bake? Anyone can mix up a green bean casserole or make scalloped corn. We always split the leftovers as well. I’ve never been at a Thanksgiving where it wasn’t a potluck, and now that I think of it, I’ve never been at a Thanksgiving get together that wasn’t one of the best days of the year.

  5. Some grocery stores (Weis here in the mid-Atlantic, there are probably others) will GIVE you a turkey if you collect enough points on your store loyalty card. Check with the store’s customer service desk and be prepared for next year.

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