It’s a traditional Thanksgiving tableau: family members gathered around a glowing table, enjoying yummy food and cozy conversation as they all wear matching, autumnal-hued sweaters.
Or maybe that’s just the image in my head. In reality, it usually winds up being more like uncles in football jerseys sneaking peaks at the game in the living room and toddlers running around the table.
Either way, Thanksgiving is a time to gather and eat delicious food with loved ones. But there’s a nasty flip side to this pretty picture: if your family was selected to play host to this year’s big meal, you’ll likely be spending a pretty penny on the festivities.
To keep you from having a panic attack before the bird’s even in the oven, here are 10 ways to save money on your Thanksgiving dinner. (You’re on your own when it comes to handling the uncles and toddlers.)
1. Only Serve Food Your Family Likes
You absolutely do not have to have certain items on your table in order to make it a “proper” Thanksgiving meal. If no one ever eats the mashed parsnips, even though they’re “traditional,” why bother serving them? If the green bean casserole goes largely untouched year after year, maybe it’s time to retire it from the menu.
You also don’t need to go gourmet. Thanksgiving is all about good, simple down-home cooking. If everyone in your family secrets prefers the canned cranberry sauce that comes out can-shaped, why go all out making a fancy version that costs more and takes more time? Give the people what they like.
2. Serve Seasonal Food
Serving produce that’s in season is both fresher and cheaper — and there’s nothing better than a fresh sweet potato or butternut squash to go with your turkey. Double points if you grow these items in your own garden.
Looking for more vegetable-based recipes? Here are some fantastic vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes that will impress your guests.
3. Use Smaller Plates
The turkey isn’t the only thing that gets stuffed on Thanksgiving. Most people have a tendency to put more food on their plates than they need. This results in wasted food that could be put to better use.
4. Plan Ahead for Leftovers
It can be easy to get overwhelmed trying to come up with yet another creative use for turkey night after night.
Don’t let those leftovers go to waste; make it easy to repurpose them by creating a plan ahead of time so you know what to make for days two, three and four. Turkey soup and turkey enchiladas are both easy and delicious, as are pasta dishes and casseroles.
5. DIY to Save
If ever there was a time to go homemade, it’s Thanksgiving. Not only will your made-from-scratch recipes get your guests nostalgic, they could save you a pretty penny — though remember tip #1 and make sure you’re creating something your guests enjoy.
Make your own mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, bread crumbs, pie crust … you name it. Enlist the help of family to make the job easier; even if your kids or spouse are far from being top chefs, they can still help mix, mash and chop. If you baked and froze your Halloween pumpkins, you can even make your own pumpkin pie!
6. Make Dinner BYOD (Bring Your Own Dish)
Just because you’re hosting, that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help from your guests. Make it a potluck and ask everyone to bring a dish to contribute — a side, dessert, appetizer, etc. Coordinate to make sure all the menu bases are covered and no one’s making duplicates.
7. Turn Down the Thermostat
With the oven going and lots of people packed into your house, it will be toasty enough. Turn the thermostat down several notches to save on heating costs.
8. Stock Up on Great Deals
You’re a savvy shopper. You know all the grocery savings tricks, from shopping on a certain day of the week to making the most of warehouse memberships. The holidays are your time to put your smarts to the test. Grab your store circulars and your coupon wallet, and get ready to make the most of your grocery budget.
9. Keep the Decor Simple
Use natural elements to decorate your table. Gourds, acorns (plain or spray-painted a pretty metallic shade) and tree branches can become pretty centerpieces that make your home feel festive.
You can also ask your kids to put their arts and crafts skill to use making placemats, name cards and other custom decorations. A good, old-fashioned, hand-shaped turkey can be just as charming as anything Martha Stewart can whip up.
10. Stop Playing Bartender
You don’t need to open up your whole bar to your guests (or stock up a full bar if you don’t drink much yourself). All you need is some wine or one or two signature drinks for people to choose from.
Make signature drinks up in bulk beforehand so guests can serve themselves from a pitcher throughout the night. A fancy cocktail or other mixed drink can make your meal feel more special, and it saves you from having your father-in-law raid all your good Scotch again.
You can even (gasp!) consider serving boxed wine. Put it into a nice decanter and most people won’t notice the difference.
Your Turn: How do you save on Thanksgiving dinner? Share your tips and tricks in the comments!
Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.