Halloween may be over but some of the biggest holiday meals of the year are fast approaching – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
Is your wallet ready?
If you’re like me and the rest of the country then you’ve been feeling the effects of inflation at the grocery store for a while now. I mean just take a look at this graph I whipped up from the USDA’s Economic Research Service Food CPI data published on 10/25/2022. (For my fellow nerds you can find the source data here.)
Hot dang that’s a lot of double digit percent increases in food prices, especially on the poultry and eggs front. Beef or pork for Thanksgiving dinner anyone?
But seriously, with food prices skyrocketing the way they are it’s important for us to proactively plan for the upcoming holiday meals. Whether you’re hosting or have been invited to someone else’s home, here are some tips on how to spend a little less money on meals this holiday season.
Choose a More Modest Main Dish
The holidays are certainly a time to celebrate and while pork tenderloins may not scream Christmas dinner, they’re definitely easier on the wallet than a prime rib roast. Think long and hard about what you decide to serve as a main course this year because it’s likely to be your largest food expense. I’m not saying don’t splurge, I’m just saying do yourself a favor and splurge a little less.
For example, we used to buy the big box of Alaskan King crab legs from Costco for Christmas Eve dinner every year. That same box we bought for $200 in 2020 costs over $400 now! Good grief, I love me some crab legs but you can forget it at that price.
Don’t let “tradition” box in your holiday food choices. Times and budgets change. Take the opportunity this year to start a new tradition or emphasize other aspects of your holiday meal traditions aside from the food. Maybe your family goes around the table and everyone shares something they’re grateful for on Thanksgiving or maybe you all sing a Christmas Carol together before eating Christmas dinner.
Just as Charlie Brown learned there’s a lot more to Christmas than a plush tree, there’s a lot more to holiday meals than just the food.
Make Extra of the Filling (and Less Expensive) Sides
It’s a rare person who doesn’t enjoy mashed potatoes. Or bread stuffing. Or sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top.
Ok I’ve never understood the marshmallows on the sweet potatoes thing but lots of people love it, my husband included, so let’s just go with it.
Anyway, you know what’s extra fabulous about all of those sides? They’re inexpensive to make and very filling.
Cornbread casserole? Same thing.
Making extra of the less expensive sides ensures everyone will have enough to eat without burning a hole in your pocket.
An added bonus is that it’s often the side dishes people love most about holiday meals. If you’re self-conscious about serving a modest entree for Christmas Eve, make enough mashed potatoes and bread stuffing and I doubt anyone will even miss the prime rib. (And if anyone rudely does say anything, politely remind them they’re welcome to host next year.)
Use Frozen Vegetables
Fresh vegetables are lovely but frozen veggies have a time and a place too. Why not serve some frozen vegetables at Thanksgiving dinner? They’re less expensive than fresh, just as nutritious, come trimmed and ready to cook, and can be bought long before the holiday rush at the grocery store.
And in the event any of your guests cancel at the last minute (which NEVER happens…) you won’t be stuck with more vegetables than you can eat before they go bad.
Make the Food From Scratch
You saw that graph, processed fruits and vegetables are experiencing sky high inflation compared to regular old “au naturale” produce. It takes more time and effort but food from scratch is usually less expensive than its pre-made counterparts. Not to mention healthier without all those preservatives and unpronounceable ingredients.
Rolls, pie crusts, cranberry sauce, bread stuffing, cakes, cookies, you name it. Actually making the food is half the fun anyway. Skip the store bought stuff and whip out that apron.
Shop at Bulk Retailers
Costco, Sam’s Club, BJ’s – club grocery stores offer better prices on a vast array of products but the catch is they sell large quantities. If you’re hosting a large holiday meal or want there to be plenty of leftovers, large quantities are not a problem. I myself am a huge Costco lover and recommend a membership to anyone with a family who values organic produce and quality meats.
Make It a Potluck
Most people understand how much work goes into hosting an event and are more than happy to contribute. Rather than relying on your guests’ good manners to bring something, take it one step further and proactively ask them to. You can request people to make specific dishes to ensure there aren’t any duplicates but I recommend deferring to your guest’s choice on what to make instead. Sure you might end up with extra sides or desserts but is that ever really a problem?
And if each guest brings their “specialty” dish – you know, the one thing they make the BEST out of the whole family – then everybody wins.
Go Light on the Booze or BYOB
Unless your family members are professional sommeliers and avid wine enthusiasts, I guarantee they won’t know the difference between top shelf and two buck chuck after their second glass. Opt for less expensive alcohol options or even request people bring their own.
Mixed drinks are easy on the budget too and can be particularly festive depending on how you dress them up.
For my fellow red wine lovers out there – Costco makes a delicious 1.5 liter cabernet you can pick up for only $7.99 that I highly recommend.
Reuse Decor or Make Your Own
Food and alcohol aren’t the only thing we spend money on when hosting holiday meals. Festive napkins, placemats, table runners, centerpieces, etc. It’s amazing how fast decor costs add up – it’s just too fun to pick out cute things!
But you know what’s not fun?
Sky high credit card bills for chotskies. Sure they’re cute but they are by no means essential. Instead of buying new, reuse decor from years past or make your own with materials you already have.
A glass vase, some fresh cranberries, a few twigs and sprigs from a pine tree in your backyard and presto, you have a beautiful centerpiece for next to nothing.
Borrow Cooking Equipment and Extra Tables and Chairs
Unless this is the first family holiday party ever, someone has the extra equipment you need. So long as people are willing to share and someone has a vehicle big enough to transport stuff, there is no need for you to buy any new furniture or cooking tools.
Tables, chairs, extra large roasting pans, and pie plates are all items I often borrow from friends and family when hosting a large get together. If possible, borrow the items well in advance of the event so you have plenty of time to cook and set up before your guests arrive.
Serve Separate Courses Instead of Everything All at Once
Did you know it can take up to 20 minutes for your body to realize its full from the time you start eating? Eating fast causes people to consume more calories than their bodies need and is a major contributing factor to obesity. Encourage your guests to slow their roll by serving separate courses instead of everything at once – the slower your guests eat, the less they’re likely to eat overall and the less money you’ll have to spend on food.
Serving individual courses also lends itself to a luxurious dining experience which differentiates your holiday meal from other ordinary weeknight dinners.
Start with a cheese or charcuterie course everyone can enjoy at their leisure and then move on to soup, salad, and then finally the main entree with sides. Wrap up the evening with dessert and hot beverages. (This hot spiced milk recipe is an easy alternative to hot cocoa for kids, perfect for making them feel included when you’re serving all the adults coffee!)
An added bonus of serving individual courses is that it frees up precious counter and table space since everything doesn’t have to be out all at once. Unless you have a massive kitchen and dining room (I wish), this can be a huge plus.
Turn the Heat Down in the House
This might seem like an odd tip but there’s no sense paying for heat when all your meal prep and guests will warm up the house so much you want to crack a window. A few hours before your party turn the heat down a couple of clicks. If things are chilly after the party gets rolling you can always bump it back up but I’m willing to bet you’ll be just fine.
I Hate to Even Suggest It But… Consider Inviting Fewer People
I’m a big believer in the more the merrier but there comes a point when the more may just be too expensive. It’s ok to slim down your guest list – there aren’t any rules about who you have to invite. In fact, you don’t HAVE to invite anybody if you don’t want to.
Narrowing down attendees to just family or only people who are local is an easy way to trim down the guest list without offending anyone. If your friends are good friends then they’ll understand. They may even be relieved at not feeling obligated to reciprocate your invite for another holiday.
It’s wonderful when we can get together with everyone under the sun but there’s also something to be said for more intimate celebrations.
The Most Important Thing
Elaborate dinners and parties are fun but remember what the holidays are really about – spending time with the people we love, being thankful, and helping others. You don’t need to spend buckets of money to do any of those things. Simply being together is something we should all be grateful for, especially now after so many years of social distancing and cancelled gatherings.
I hope you and yours have a truly fantastic holiday season this year and have a chance to enjoy some wonderful holiday meals together.
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published on the 15th of every month.