Save or Splurge? 11 Questions to Help You Plan Thanksgiving Dinner
The holiday season is here — and with it comes the food. Lots and lots of food.
Turkey and cranberry sauce to baked ham and mashed potatoes to beef tenderloin and sweet potato casserole. So much food.
With all those dietary delights and nightmares, comes many a decision. While some people might think about calories — which is all well and good and sensible — others might approach this holiday dinner season from a budget viewpoint.
How are you going to pay for all this food? And, better yet, where can you pick your culinary battles, so to speak? Where does it make sense to be budget conscious? Where should you spend more and live a little?
Many home cooks could use some help this year looking for ways to save on time and money — and when it’s OK to spend extra — with inflation and turkey prices as high as ever.
That’s where we want to help.
Save vs. Splurge: 11 Questions to Help Plan Your Thanksgiving Dinner
1. Is Anyone Actually Going to Eat the Cranberry Sauce?
Is there a more polarizing Thanksgiving food than cranberry sauce? You hate it or you love it. Some prefer it homemade. Others just can’t get enough of the canned jiggly sauce.
In fact, Ocean Spray produces 70 million cans of cranberry sauce, using about 200 cranberries in each can, according to Food & Wine magazine. It’s their most popular product by far.
So, assuming you want it on your dinner table, what to do with this controversial food?
A 14-ounce can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce costs $1.76 at Walmart and contains six servings — or more. (Does anyone even eat a full serving?) Whether you’re feeding only six or you’re feeding a crowd of 18 — three cans for a total of $5.28 — that’s really cheap.
This Bon Appetit writer compared the cost of homemade cranberry sauce versus simply buying a can. Homemade costs more than twice as much. She said the canned version costs her $1.26 per cup, while buying fresh and making her own sauce costs $2.93 per cup.
If putting this classic on your Thanksgiving menu is worth the time, effort and costs for you and your guests, then by all means have at it.
2. How Many Casseroles Is Too Many Casseroles?
Some Thanksgiving dinners look like a turkey invaded a casserole party. There’s a bird, some mashed potatoes and gravy, and a long line of casserole dishes of every conceivable color and vegetable variety.
Maybe you love your green bean casserole, and that’s perfectly fine. Or maybe you just have always prepared casseroles or had guests bring them, and don’t want to change up tradition. You do you.
We’re certainly not hating on casseroles. We’re just saying maybe the turkey’s supporting cast could be a little more judicially chosen, or maybe trimmed down?
There’s nothing wrong with a traditional casserole, much like this cheesy corn casserole and this healthy green bean casserole. These are easy enough to make and will save you time and money with low cost ingredients.
If your Thanksgiving lineup is usually casserole heavy, maybe consider sticking to one or two and saving overall by making less food or put your extra casserole budget toward higher end ingredients.
If you just have to scratch that casserole itch, consider killing two birds with one stone with a dessert casserole — like this decadent apple french toast casserole. Or stay fancy but savory with this crab brunch casserole that uses a pound of crab meat or this gluttonous four cheese-truffled mac and cheese recipe. That’s basically a cheese casserole, right?
3. Is There a Faster, More Foolproof Way to Cook a Turkey?
There’s nothing wrong with a basic, baked turkey recipe. Some people have mastered the baked bird, and why change up what works?
But that typical baked and roasted turkey can easily go south in a hurry, leaving your main Thanksgiving centerpiece drier than Uncle Joe’s dad jokes.
What are some other options?
If you really want to save on time, let the experts cook a turkey for you. We’ve got plenty of ideas on where to go buy a whole, cooked turkey and the entire prepared dinner. You might even save money since you’re not flirting with ruining the most expensive dish.
But if you’re confident in your traditionally baked turkey cooking skills, expect to pay more for a whole bird this year. The average price per pound of a whole turkey sits at $1.99 compared to $1.21 in 2021, a 60% increase. You could score a free or cheap turkey from a grocery store though.
Get your fancy on with chef Tyler Florence’s bacon-wrapped turkey stuffed with sage and cornbread. If you’re willing to follow safety protocols (let your frozen turkey completely thaw!), and don’t mind splurging on calories, deep-frying your bird is fairly easy and an incredibly delicious way to prepare the Thanksgiving centerpiece.
4. Do You Want Leftovers? If You Do, What Are You Going to Do With Them?
Sometimes the leftovers are even better than the dinner. The question is — what to do with them? Answering the leftovers question before you even shop allows you to either trim your budget or spend more to make more.
If you’re just not a leftovers-type-of-person (and, yes there are many of you out there), skip them all together and be more intentional about how much food you make. That might look like cutting back on sides or making one less dessert.
Our friends at Bon Appetit say you should plan on serving 1 to 1.5 pounds of turkey per person. So for a party of eight, you’d probably want a 10- to 12-pound turkey just to make sure you have enough for that initial go round. That might seem excessive, but remember that turkey has a lot of bones and cartilage that won’t be eaten.
This is where it gets fun. Sure, you could go with the tried-and-true turkey sandwich, but what about a delicious gumbo that features a pound and a half of leftover turkey meat and smoked sausage? Or maybe a turkey chili?
And don’t forget about the mashed potatoes and stuffing! You could go big with these mashed potato pancakes on Friday morning. Or these fried stuffing bites that go with a cranberry sauce pesto?
Depending on how many people will be eating leftovers, remember to buy at least a few extra pounds of turkey.
5. Who’s Helping Me Cook — and Who’s on Cleanup Duty?
At some Thanksgiving dinners, everyone gets assigned a job. If you’re not cooking, you’re on cleanup duty or you’re setting the table and pouring water and wine.
At other dinners, a large migration happens the moment the last bite is taken. One group of people start cleanup, while another group gets lost on the way to the kitchen and ends up on the couch watching football.
How you save or splurge depends on which one of the above resembles your gathering.
This is an issue of time, more so than money. If it’s all up to you and a few others to get everything done, then outsource some or all of your meal. Ask your guests to bring parts of the meal. Use paper plates. Buy a pre-cooked turkey or dessert and focus on making a few of your favorite side dishes.
Or if you just can’t give up your deep-fried turkey, outsource your sides to a local restaurant or caterer. If you really don’t want to deal with clean up and all the other hassle, then order an entirely prepared dinner.
If everyone pitches in and you’re not left doing everything solo, then be thankful for the help and reward them with a fabulous holiday meal. Make dishes from scratch. Broaden your menu. Spring for a centerpiece or spread of appetizers.
Get decadent with these creamy mashed potatoes paired with homemade cheddar scallion biscuits. And step up your turkey game with this whole bird brined in apple cider and ginger.
6. Do We Actually Like a Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner or Should We Consider Something New?
Why turkey? Of course, it’s delicious but there’s no law saying you have to prepare turkey, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving day.
If you’re tired of the same old meal every year, what’s stopping you from totally changing it up this year? We’ve got ideas.
You can kick the turkey to the curb and still stay on budget. This family style frozen Stouffer’s lasagna from Walmart feeds five for less than $10. This slow cooker pot roast feeds eight and uses 3 pounds of inexpensive chuck roast. Pork tenderloin is also typically inexpensive, and this baked garlic pork tenderloin recipe looks quite tasty.
Want to really take your alternative Thanksgiving meal to the next level? This roasted rack of lamb with a brown sugar-rum glaze will do the job. If you’re a red meat lover, you might want to go with an espresso-crusted beef tenderloin with a truffle sage risotto. Now, that’s bougie. Or how about a warm and comforting homemade lasagna bolognese?
7. What Type of Drinks Do You Want to Serve?
Don’t let the drinks be an afterthought. Whether you want to save or splurge, you can offer some delicious beverage choices to your Thanksgiving guests.
To really save, skip the alcohol. You can keep it simple with a basic, inexpensive tea. (Don’t forget the sugar if you’re in the south). Or go fancy and still be inexpensive with this fall sangria that pairs sparkling apple cider with red wine, fruit and cinnamon.
To save but still serve alcohol, check out these red wines for under $12, and these white wines that sell for less than $10.
If you’re willing to spend a little extra money, you can really blow your guests away with some great beverages. Start off the dinner with a cocktail (half?) hour that features a cranberry margarita or a maple old fashioned.
Food & Wine recommends a Four Graces Pinot Noir, which sells for $26.99 per bottle at Total Wine, as an excellent pairing with Thanksgiving dinner. Finally, you could wrap up the meal with a sweeter cocktail, like a pumpkin spice White Russian or a caramel apple martini.
It is possible to stock a home bar on a budget. You just have to know what you’re doing. We asked the experts. Here’s what they said.
8. How Do You Plan on Spending Your Time?
In other words, are you spending your time the way you want to on Thanksgiving? Again, this may be a question of time and not just money. Both can be equal stressors when it comes to getting ready for the big meal. Here are some things to think about.
Not everything needs to be made the day of the meal. What can you make ahead of time? Fruit-filled pies can be made and frozen, then baked when ready. Dinner rolls and mashed potatoes can also be frozen and reheated.
If you’re comfortable making something ahead of time, do it. You’ll save some time and have more free time to relax and enjoy the wine and your company on Thanksgiving day.
If you really want to splurge on saving time, money and oven space, go the potluck dinner route. Assign every one something to bring, but keep track of it so you don’t have seven casseroles with your turkey. (See No. 2.)
As always, the Pioneer Woman has plenty of ideas on what potluck ideas work. If you’re the host, you’ll probably want to take on the turkey unless one of your guests is adequately prepared for the job.
9. Who Do You Really Want to Eat Dinner With?
It’s not a trick question. Similar to eating turkey every year — even if you don’t like it — many of us invite the same people every year too. That even includes your wackball Uncle Joe who is intent on dominating the conversation and talking politics every year.
Why do we force ourselves to be around people we don’t even like — and on what’s supposed to be a restful holiday no less?
Here’s an idea. Keep your gathering small, like really small. No extended family. Just you and your people. If your 14-year-old son is being a brat, you can send him to his room.
But where are you going to send Uncle Joe when he won’t stop talking politics and religion? A tent in the backyard? Save yourself the headache, cut down on costs and trim your gathering to the people you want to be there.
But your mom will be so upset if you don’t invite Uncle Joe. “He’s my baby brother, and we used to play lawn darts together in the front yard,” she says.
OK, so you can’t avoid mom’s guilt trip, then splurge and invite the whole crew. But go for a compromise. How about a Black Friday family game night? Or a light appetizer come-and-go party the Saturday after?
The key here is to make the environment light, fun and flexible, so the odds of Uncle Joe cornering your other guests are lower.
10. How Should You Manage Different Diets?
We’re not talking about your 21-year-old nephew who only eats chicken fingers and tater tots. But you might have a vegetarian or vegan in the family, or maybe someone who is allergic to gluten or dairy.
So how do you keep everyone happy and emergency-room free after the big dinner?
We like the way Ina Garten puts it in this Bon Appetit article: “What I never do is make something specific for one person, because then they feel like they’re not part of the party. This way, they’re just choosing some of the menu but not all of it.”
She suggests a cornbread stuffing for gluten-free guests or keeping the vegetables strictly vegetables. (No ham hock in the green beans, southern friends). You’ll save time by making one dish instead of two and money by omitting or changing ingredients, like swapping green bean casserole for roasted green beans.
Garten says not to do something specific for one person, and we generally agree. But what if you made something so over-the-top delicious — while also meeting different diets — that even the most die-hard meat lovers must try a bit?
Carla Hall’s buttermilk biscuits would fit that bill. This pecan pie uses coconut oil and tapioca flour and looks incredible — and perfect for our gluten-free friends and dairy-free vegans. For gluten-free guests, something like this paleo green bean casserole with crispy onions would definitely be a hit.
11. What About Desserts?
Of course, you’ve got to have a few dessert options. But that doesn’t mean you have to go overboard or completely stress out about tackling a homemade apple pie or pecan pie for the first time ever.
Keep it simple.
There’s no shame in buying pre-made dessert. Whether it’s a hearty 38-ounce frozen apple pie at Walmart for only $5.98 or a whole pumpkin pie from Cracker Barrel for only $12.49, you’ve got options.
And if dessert just isn’t your thing, surely there’s someone in your group that would be willing to take it on? Or if you want to bake without the floury mess, go the semi-homemade route and use a store bought pie crusts.
If you’re the Betty Crocker of your family and friends, you may not want to give up on making your own desserts. If that’s you, then have at it! Just remember, it’s OK to keep it simple here too. You don’t have to make your own pie crust, or maybe you want to.
If so, Ina Garten’s deep dish apple pie with store-bought vanilla ice cream will wow your guests. You can also keep the portion size small while splurging with these bite-size pumpkin cheesecakes from The Pioneer Woman.
So the truth is you can make sensible decisions — whether they be about saving money or time — that help you actually enjoy this holiday, instead of just anxiously waiting for the moment your last guest leaves.
Keep these questions in mind this year, and we think you’ll have a Thanksgiving to remember!
Robert Bruce is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.