Thanksgiving's more expensive than ever — now what?

Our thrifty tips will help you execute a budget-friendly feast

By Kelly Vaughan

Published November 10, 2021 3:41PM (EST)

 (Julia Gartland / Food52)
(Julia Gartland / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

These days, it's hard to go even an hour without hearing about supply chain issues, both in the United States and abroad. With shortages on everything from beauty products to toilet paper (again) to food, consumers are going to have to plan early and most likely spend more this holiday season. The Farm Bureau estimates that Thanksgiving 2021 will cost $46.90 for a group of 10, but to loosely quote our president, that's a load of malarkey.

A typical Thanksgiving feast will likely feature at least a 12 to 14 lb. turkey, mashed potatoes, an assortment of vegetable side dishes, dinner rolls, a few kinds of pie, and most likely some good wine. Even if you're not serving a heritage turkey, rolls with cultured butter, and mashed potatoes with truffles, Thanksgiving is pricy and this year, The New York Times says that it will be the most expensive feast ever. "There is no single culprit," writes Times reporter Kim Severson. "The nation's food supply has been battered by a knotted supply chain, high transportation expenses, labor shortages, trade policies, and bad weather."

So what's the best way to host Thanksgiving without breaking the bank? Before you start filling your cart with flour, cream of mushroom soup, pumpkin pie spice, and dinner rolls, "comb through your pantry and fridge for ingredients you already have on hand," says Allison Thomas, culinary standards manager at Whole Foods Market. "Keep an eye out for the staples you tend to stock year-round, like spices, vanilla extract, flours, and sugar. Not only will you save time at the store not having to hunt down items you don't actually need, but you'll also save money in the long run."

Oh, and there's no need to cut your guest list and opt for turkey burgers and fries instead of a glistening roast. There are a number of ways to host a budget-friendly Thanksgiving. Consider shopping local. "If you have the ability to source from local farms for your produce and meat, that will help curb costs," says Justin Freeman, executive chef at The Greenwich in Denver. Freeman also says to think about serving things that you can repurpose into leftovers so you can stretch your dollar farther for a couple of days post-Thanksgiving. While we're all for a Thanksgiving breakfast sandwich that makes use of a little bit of stuffing, a tablespoon or two of cranberry sauce, and a few slices of turkey, Freeman says that you can also freeze sides like cranberry sauce and gravy to save for a new meal altogether.

Alternatives to whole turkey

Although turkey is generally a lean meat, both in terms of price and fat, November is the one time of year when it is guaranteed to be more expensive due to demand. Instead of serving a whole turkey for roasting, consider turkey legs or turkey breast if you've having a smaller gathering, which are less expensive and easier to cook too.

Budget-friendly vegetarian alternatives to turkey include a whole roasted cauliflower or the classic tofurky (do people do that anymore? Please, let us know if you do!). "The turkey also doesn't need to be the focal point. You can focus on preparing some really great sides like butternut squash with roasted marshmallows, pumpkin caponata, or even roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, maple syrup, and fresh lemon juice," says Freeman.

When to shop

The best time to go grocery shopping for Thanksgiving doesn't just have to do with crowd-levels or availability, though both of those factors are important. In terms of price alone, the best time to pick up your meat, produce, and baking supplies is, well, now! "Do not shop the day before — it's always more expensive and you end up buying whatever is on the shelf," says Freeman. You can start buying canned goods, dry herbs, and non-perishable baking ingredients now. The weekend before Thanksgiving, stock up on hearty staple vegetables like sweet potatoes or squash, which tend to have a longer shelf life of at least four days.

You can also buy your turkey now and freeze it before prices and demand increase, says Freeman. Wondering how to defrost your turkey for Thanksgiving? We've got you covered.

Pick your produce carefully

This doesn't just mean looking out for what is fresh and ripe (though you should certainly do that, too). It's also strategically choosing inexpensive vegetables for side dishes. As a rule of thumb, out-of-season fruits and veggies will tend to cost more. Freeman says the most affordable vegetables include spinachred and white onionssweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and turnips. On the other hand, fresh herbs, escarole, cauliflower, green beans, and cucumbers are generally the most expensive per pound.

For low-cost side dishes for your Thanksgiving feast, try these Melted OnionsRoasted Baby Turnips with Dijon-Shallot Vinaigrette and Tarragon, a five-ingredient Sweet Potato Bake, or Sheet-Pan Mac and Cheese with Pumpkin and Brown Butter, because honestly, what's Thanksgiving without a side of macaroni and cheese?

And don't scoff at frozen veggies, either. "They're frozen just after being harvested so they're nutritionally comparable to fresh vegetables, and they're great for dishes where you don't have to worry about the texture difference (soups, stratas, stews, and frittatas, for example). Plus, they're already washed and prepped for you," says Thomas.

Skip organic

Even if you prefer buying all-organic produce and meat, doing so will cause your grocery bill to spike drastically. Instead, strategically add only certain organic items to your cart if it's important to you. The EWG's "Clean Fifteen" lists vegetables like sweet corn, onions, frozen peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and mushrooms as having some of the lowest levels of pesticide residue. This means that you can safely skip the organic label and save at least $1-$2 per pound on those veggies alone.

Buy whole vegetables

Although buying pre-cut produce will save you time in the kitchen, it won't save money. Pre-cut or prepared (i.e. pre-roasted carrots) vegetables are more expensive than whole produce. According to Freeman, a whole butternut squash can typically feed five to six people, whereas pre-cubed butternut squash would be closer to two to four people. Plus, pre-cut vegetables tend to spoil more quickly than whole, which means there's a chance you may have to discard the veggies — say halved Brussels sprouts or pre-chopped onions — before you actually get to cook with them for the feast.

If you end up with way more squash (or carrots or pumpkin or asparagus) than you expected, blanch or roast any extra. From here, freeze in a single layer on a rimmed sheet tray and then transfer to a freezer bag for a future soup or salad, says Thomas.

Make it a group effort

Even if you're the type of host who insists on cooking everything, buying three different flower arrangements, and curating the perfect playlist, allow your guests to lend a helping hand this year. "If someone offers to bring a dish, let them. If it's not a side dish, ask for a specific wine varietal that will go well with your meal (or the very versatile Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc). Part of Thanksgiving is sharing those traditions," says Thomas.


Kelly Vaughan

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