Food and Drink / Holidays

15 Ideas to Have a More Enjoyable and Cheaper Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can be a very expensive and stressful time – but with a few tips and ideas, you can make the Thanksgiving time a blessing for you and your family. Thanksgiving can be a lot of fun and not cost a small fortune!

Quite often, I’ll see people spend exorbitant amounts of money on lavish Thanksgiving spreads. While I completely understand the reason for doing this – often, it’s the one time in the year that we can gather around one table with a lot of people we love – there’s still a lot of simple things we can do to reduce the financial outlay and the stress of the meal without reducing the quality of the day in any way (and often improving it). Here are fifteen ways to do just that.

Cook and slice the turkey on Tuesday. What? No beautiful turkey on the table? Whatever will we do? In truth, though, the turkey on the table during Thanksgiving dinner often results in lots of problems: it keeps someone away from the meal because they’re carving the bird, the bird is often dry because it hasn’t had a lot of time to rest, and the finished bird often arrives later than expected, delaying the whole meal and often reducing the quality of the other food. Solve all of these problems by cooking the bird on Tuesday or Wednesday, slicing it at your own pace, then putting all of the meat on a platter along with all of the juice and a few pats of butter. Cover the serving platter and put it in the fridge, then just turn on the oven (or the electric roaster) on Thanksgiving to thoroughly warm the meat.

Use nature for your decorations. During the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, there are thousands of colorful leaves all over the place, free for the taking. Be picky – go outside and look for some nice, clean, colorful leaves. All you need is a plain tablecloth and a row of colorful leaves sprinkled down the middle to create a very festive setting.

Get the slow cooker into the act. Many Thanksgiving side dishes can easily be prepared in a slow cooker. Slow cookers consume less energy and quite often can be used in a “fix-it-and-forget-it” mindset. It’s the perfect tool to make cranberry sauce, for example.

Be creative with your Thanksgiving dinner leftovers. We always keep a big jar of mayonnaise ready for the post Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches. By the third day, turkey sandwiches start to get tired. Instead of allowing that to happen, share some of your extra food with people in need (for example, make a couple plates of food for shut-ins you know and deliver the plates) or make something interesting, like kugel or tetrazzini, out of the leftovers.

Round up when you estimate. I’ve been to two different Thanksgiving dinners in the past three years where there was just barely enough food to make ends meet for the number of guests (to put it politely). People showed up bringing unexpected dining companions and estimates for how much each person would eat were strangely low. Don’t fall into that trap. Estimate high, but estimate realistic. After all, you can always eat leftovers, but you can’t undo unhappy guests.

Have appetizers. Inexpensive appetizers – like a selection of vegetables – helps people keep the edge off of their appetites and keeps them from over-eating during the main meal. Not only does this make the overall meal more healthy, it often makes it cheaper, since a vegetable tray can be really inexpensive. Much like the turkey, this can also be assembled the day before.

Don’t try to “impress” with your wine. There are countless great wines under $10. Don’t feel the need to buy an expensive bottle of wine to impress anyone. Just stop by your local wine and liquor store and ask for a low-cost full bodied wine for the Thanksgiving table. They’ll be happy to point out something great for you. We find Trader Joes and Costco have the best, inexpensive selections available – and in most states, you don’t need a Costco membership to purchase alcohol.

Save your recyclable containers for leftovers. Instead of just tossing large containers of items like margarine or whipped topping, save the containers. Then, on Thanksgiving, fill the containers with leftovers and give them to your guests. There’s no responsibility at all for them to return the container and it gets an extra use out of the items that would normally be tossed.

Freeze leftovers in manageable containers. Sure, freezing leftover turkey is a common tactic, but many people make one big mistake when doing it: they jam multiple pounds of turkey into individual bags, then when they go to thaw some out for later use, they either talk themselves out of it (thinking that they don’t need so much food) or they unthaw a multi-pound bag and let much of it go to waste.

Instead of freezing such a tremendous amount of food in a few big containers, pare it down into a lot of smaller containers (Ziploc freezer bags work well). This way, when you do choose to unthaw some over the next several months (frozen turkey is good for six months or so), you can easily unthaw just the amount you need – and no food goes to waste.

Don’t waste the carcass. Many people are happy to toss the leftover bones and small amount of meat left over after carving up the turkey. Don’t. That carcass can be used to create a lot of tremendous broth that can also be frozen and used to make simple, flavorful dishes.

Just take the entire carcass and toss it into the biggest pan you have. You can also toss in the neck of the turkey and the giblets (but not the liver). Add a chopped yellow onion, a cup of dry white wine, a bit of pepper, and a chopped stalk of celery, and let the whole thing simmer for three or four hours until the broth tastes tremendous.

When it’s done, remove all of the large solid pieces (bone, etc.), leaving nothing but broth, and store that broth in Ziploc bags in the freezer, two cups or so to a bag. This stuff is tremendous for any homemade soup or anything you wish to make – just add egg noodles to it for an amazing homemade soup. You can also use it in casseroles to great effect.

Go potluck If you’re hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, go potluck with it. Encourage all guests to bring a side dish, then just focus your efforts (and expenses) on the turkey and other staples. This not only saves money, but greatly reduces stress as well, as you have far fewer dishes to prepare.

For some, this may seem too forward, but remember that quite often people volunteer to bring a side dish – and when they volunteer, you should always accept that dish. It makes the person volunteering happy and takes stress off of your shoulders as well.

Use the environment for decorations. Instead of using tired, store-purchased decorations to make your setting look festive, take a walk outdoors the day before Thanksgiving and look for appropriate natural decorations. Pine cones, acorns, bright red maple leaves, cuttings from a pine tree, and other such decorations, laid carefully at the center of the table, are not only free, but they also look gorgeous and can smell quite nice, too.

Parks and wooded areas are great places to gather this material. Take along a small bag and pick up anything that appears to have potential – you don’t have to use everything that you pick up. Plus, a walk in nature the day before the big meal can help you de-stress if the holiday season is dragging you down.

Encourage guests to bring their own leftover container. This does several things at once. First, it encourages people to take leftover food with them, giving you less to deal with in the cleanup process.

More importantly, it eliminates the risk of (accidentally) losing a leftover container if someone forgets to return it – and it also saves the guests the effort of having to remember to return the container. My parents have lost many nice food storage containers over the years when packing them full of leftovers and sending them with guests. The guests often simply forget to return the containers.

Don’t overspend on the “extra” items – like wine. At many holiday meals, hosts often sweat and worry about making sure that all of the minor details are perfect – and often overspend on those details. One of my relatives, for example, obsesses over wine – often winding up buying several bottles, most of which go untasted or only partially drunk.

Instead of getting caught up in the details, take it easy. The joy of the holiday comes not from the “perfect” bottle of wine, but from enjoying time with family. For the details, just pick something simple and inexpensive – stop by your local wine shop and just get a bottle or two of a very low cost but solid table wine. Virtually everyone at your table will be thrilled with it, it will all get enjoyed, and you won’t have several expensive and only partially empty bottles left at the end of the meal. Best of all, you will have saved yourself quite a bit of money.

Similar logic applies to almost every side dish you can prepare: go simple and don’t prepare tons of options. This reduces your cost greatly without reducing the quality of the meal at all.

Use the opportunity when family is gathered to discuss important matters. For many families, Thanksgiving is the only time when everyone is gathered together in one place. That also means it can be the perfect time to discuss family matters – how to help your parents in their golden years, for example, or other such issues.

Many people opt not to talk about such things at Thanksgiving, not wanting to “ruin” a family moment, but often the reverse is true: if such things are not talked about, they end up painting the holiday with a sense of regret, of an opportunity missed. Take advantage of the holiday – or the day after – to handle such important discussions while everyone is gathered, reasonably rested, and relaxed. Doing so can save you a great deal of peace of mind – and also likely save you all some money as well.

Thanksgiving can be a very enjoyable holiday and a time that you can enjoy with family and friends. Don’t stress too much about the perfect meal or the perfect get together, instead, just enjoy your time together and go with the flow this holiday!