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The idea of frugal holiday meals may sound like an oxymoron, because we’re usually talking expensive turkeys and extravagant abundance, but it really isn’t so impossible.
No matter what holiday we’re talking about – from Thanksgiving to Christmas to Easter (or whatever other holidays your family celebrates) – an abundant celebration need not stretch your budget beyond its breaking point. Even when we stopped celebrating the commercial aspects of Christmas, I have always refused to let go of my big – okay, huge – Christmas dinner. I have always tried to follow my mother’s holiday tradition of having guests at our big meal because no matter how little I might have, there’s always enough to feed someone else at Christmas. And yet, we’ve never had a lot of money.
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Ok, so how can it be done?
There’s nothing stopping you from serving up delicious holiday meals without destroying your budget in the process. The key to saving money on holiday meals is planning and forethought. You will need to put time and effort into planning your holiday meals, but the results of doing that are nearly always positive.
Are you ready for some of the ways that I have always served great holiday meals without breaking the bank?
Pay attention to portions
Look carefully at your guest list to ensure that your portions match how many people will be eating.
Limit waste by only buying and cooking what your guests will actually eat. There is nothing worse, especially when funds are limited, than looking at a table full of food that you can’t store and won’t eat. It’s just a big waste of money.
But leftovers! Of course there are some dishes – perhaps you are planning to serve Cranberry and Fruit Sauce (because it’s so delicious) – that you will want to have on hand for leftovers. Hey, I’m not arguing – I make enough to put up in jars and use all year. And everyone knows that turkey and cold stuffing sandwiches on soft dinner rolls with “crayonnaisse” (just some leftover cranberry sauce mixed with mayo) can taste even better than the original meal.
Maybe that’s just me. But I do love turkey dinner leftovers.
Be sure and include these in your calculations so that you don’t run out of Cranberry and Fruit Sauce while having six cups of leftover Brussels sprouts. (If you love Brussels sprouts but hate cranberries, just reverse that!) What you don’t want to have is accidental – and unwanted – leftovers.
Package and use leftovers properly
Hopefully you agree that planning for delicious leftovers is a good idea, but just what do you do with them? Package your leftovers in portions sized for meals and store them based on when you plan to serve them. I admit to being partial to Pyrex glass containers since they’re durable, come in many sizes, can go in the fridge or freezer and can stack easily. Oh, and the containers aren’t plastic (although the lids are).
Meat and many side dishes can be frozen (and so can cranberry sauce!), but most salads including coleslaw won’t keep nearly so long. Leftover mashed potatoes can be handy, but not if you’re left with a bucket of them.
Have a plan to use up those leftover mashed potatoes and cooked vegetables so that they don’t go to waste.
Don’t forget that turkey if it’s on your holiday table. Take it apart. The slices are great for sandwiches. The little bits and pieces of meat can go in soup, turkey salad and casseroles. Toss the carcass into a pot and make broth. Slowly simmering broth on the stovetop, though, produces a lot of steam. Do like I do – invest in an electric pressure cooker and have rich broth in half an hour without the steam. It’s made a huge difference in how I cook.
Consider how you will use your leftovers to promote frugality and prevent waste.
If you have a copy of my massive cookbook A Cabin Full of Food, you will find many recipes that help use up leftovers. Why? Because thrifty homemakers have always known that planned leftovers, properly stored and used, save time and money.
The day after Thanksgiving is ideal for stocking up, especially if you plan a repeat performance for Christmas.
This is really important for Americans, who have only a month between the holidays. Turkeys, hams, and many of the fixings from Thanksgiving will be available at a steep discount the day after the holiday. Stock up on anything that you can freeze or store to cut down significantly on Christmas holiday meals.
But no matter where you live, taking advantage of post-holiday sales can really help you save money later.
Turkeys and hams often go on sale for as little as 25% of their original price. If you plan to cook something similar for Christmas, make some room in your freezer and take advantage of this sale to cut costs for your upcoming holiday meal. Since these meats freeze well long-term, consider if you have freezer space to buy some for future meals, too. If freezer space is at a premium, a turkey or two provides a great deal of meat for your pressure canner. This is not something you can boiling water bath – make sure to have a proper pressure canner to put up meat. Find out more about Pressure Canning Meat here. The pressure canner that I have been using regularly for the past seven years is a Presto, while many people use the All-American.
This is something that I have often done. In years where cold weather has come early and strong, I have even used the trunk of my car as excess turkey storage, bringing them in one at a time to cook, take apart and freeze or pressure can for future meals.
Not all the sales revolve around meat, though. Be sure to buy enough cranberries when they first appear so that you can have plenty for the entire season. If at all possible, get your root vegetables – potatoes, carrots, cabbage, etc – when they are harvested instead of waiting until December. Plan ahead so that you can buy the items you need at the best possible price and then store them until needed.
Convenience vs make ahead
Sometimes conveniences foods are worthwhile, especially if you are hosting a large crowd. Buying pre-baked rolls may save you a lot of money for a relatively minor cost. However, you will save even more money if you make the dough for your rolls, shape them and freeze. The shaped dough will store in your freezer for up to two months so make lots – you might find it convenient to grab and cook some long before the holidays! (They will take an extra two hours to thaw and rise before baking, so factor that into your planning)
Pies and cakes freeze well, too, but if you want to make the pies fresh, at least make the crust ahead. Although you can buy a bag of coleslaw mix rather inexpensively, coleslaw ingredients – grated cabbage and carrot – can be stored in the fridge and it’s even less expensive to buy the vegetables whole and grate them at home. Homemade cranberry sauce also keeps up to a week in the fridge. Cheesecake is another popular dessert that freezes, too.
One trick I learned years ago when I worked in large kitchens is that peeled potatoes keep very nicely for several days as long as they remain cold and covered with water. A very cool root cellar, sheltered porch or unheated garage will keep your bucket of potatoes ready to scoop out and cook.
Stuffing is another holiday staple that seems inexpensive at the store – I mean, how can you beat $0.99 boxes? Well, actually you can! Plan ahead and set aside the heels and forgotten slices of bread that are starting to go stale. Break them up into small chunks before they’re completely dry, add your own spices, and you have delicious stuffing that has been essentially made from leftovers.
Your guests will appreciate your from-scratch cooking.
Holiday meals are meant to be enjoyable. You and your guests will enjoy the meal all the more when you’re not stressed out over the cost. Plan ahead, cut costs where you can, and have a wonderful holiday meal that fits within your budget.