Hosting a Thrifty Thanksgiving Dinner? Here’s What to Serve and What to Skip

Thanksgiving dinner
Brent Hofacker under Creative Commons

Are you hosting Thanksgiving this year? If so, it’s time to figure out seating arrangements and plan your menu.

Last year, the average Thanksgiving dinner for 10 cost $49.41, up 37 cents from 2013. A roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings for less than $5 is a pretty good deal, but if you’re providing the food, it can still put a dent in your grocery budget.

I’m a bit of a grocery shopping geek, so I went over the price tags for some Thanksgiving favorites. Making strategic menu choices will help you stick to a budget, while still serving up a classic meal your family will love.

Here’s what to serve, and what to skip, for a thrifty Thanksgiving dinner.

Sweet Potatoes

Serve with: Orange zest, marshmallow, maple syrup, cinnamon

Skip: Pecans

Yams have gone up a few cents, but this dish is one of the most economical favorites on the Thanksgiving table.

Toppings give you the option to save or splurge. Pecans are getting more expensive: 8 ounces of nuts generally cost $8 to $10. But a bag of mini marshmallows costs about $2 at most supermarkets.

A generous squeeze of fresh orange juice and sprinkle of zest is even cheaper (and healthier, if you’re into that). One navel orange will set you back a little more than a buck.

If you have them on hand, pantry staples like maple syrup or spices taste delicious on sweet potatoes and let you skip adding other toppings to your cart.

Savings: Up to $10


Serve: Carrots, broccoli florets

Skip: Spinach, asparagus

When it comes to veggies, two figures matter: retail price and price per edible cup. A “bargain” on artichokes is not appealing if you can’t eat most of the plant.

Plus, a bag of spinach wilts into a few bites once cooked. Instead, pick up hardy root vegetables or a veggie with minimal waste, like broccoli florets.

Savings: Up to $17 (assuming a gathering of 10 where everyone eats a cup of vegetables)

Comfort Starch

Serve: Mashed potatoes

Skip: Macaroni and cheese

The national average price for potatoes is 65 cents per pound, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as opposed to $1.28 for noodles.

To me, Thanksgiving comfort food needs to be homemade, no powdery mixes allowed. A block of cheddar costs $2.48 at Walmart. Compare that to a bulb of garlic (50 cents at my local Safeway) and a few tablespoons of butter. Mash ‘em up.

Savings: $0.75

Fruit Sauce

Serve: Cranberry sauce

Skip: Applesauce

Traditional cranberry sauce wins here, partly due to serving size. Ounce for ounce, cranberry has a slight lead at my local supermarket.

The difference between a hearty scoop of applesauce and a drizzle of cranberry over a turkey slice clinches the savings. Serve a 14-ounce can of cranberry instead of a 24-ounce jar of applesauce and pocket the difference.

Savings: $1.40

Main Dish

Serve: Turkey, unless you can’t store it

Pound for pound, the classic turkey is your best Thanksgiving buy. One blogger found turkeys in her area as low as 48 cents per pound last year! On average, 2014 shoppers bought their birds for about $1.18 per pound, or $17.70 for an average, 15-pounder.

Wondering why the main attraction is so cheap? Some stores sell turkeys at a loss just to get customers in the door.

To score the best deal, check the supermarkets in your area for special promotions. If you need to spend a certain amount to get the promotional price, don’t accidentally overspend on other items.

Tip: Shop for year-round essentials, like paper towels and cleaning supplies, rather than marked-up seasonal items.

If you’re hosting a small party, don’t have space to store leftovers — or (gasp!) don’t like turkey that much — consider a nontraditional main dish. A 3-pound turkey breast costs less than a whole bird — in my area, around $13 — even if the per-pound price is higher.

Pay attention to your supermarket’s butcher deals. A savory pork entree might fit your family and budget better than a huge turkey.

Savings: $5 if you choose a breast


Serve: Pumpkin

Skip: Pecan

As mentioned earlier, pecans are pricey. Safeway’s bakery lists pecan pie almost $10 higher than pumpkin. Buying a pie shell and pumpkin pie filling at Walmart will save you $3 over the cost of their ready-made pecan pie, a 37% savings.

Get to stores on time, though. A disappointing pumpkin harvest means markets expect to have enough for the Thanksgiving season, but may not get a backup shipment if they run out. (Of course, if you use your leftover Halloween pumpkin, you won’t have to worry about it!)

Savings: Up to $9.80

Use all of these tips and you can save up to $44 this year — almost the cost of the national average for the whole dinner!

Of course, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate. If the holiday wouldn’t be the same without your signature macaroni and cheese, dish up your family’s favorite. Choose money-saving swaps where you can, and you’ll be thankful for the abundance on the table and in your wallet.

Your Turn: How do you celebrate a thrifty Thanksgiving?

Jessica Sillers writes about taxes, small business and careers for various companies and websites. She’s bringing apple-cranberry pie this Thanksgiving.

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