Traditionally, holiday dinners are lavish spreads with dish after scrumptious dish available for family and friends. And just as much a part of that tradition is the cliché about having to loosen the belt a notch when we're finished.
But these days many of us are tightening our belts a little instead. Economic uncertainties mean we are looking for places to trim our finances and make smarter choices. And with the holidays ahead, that can seem to be a daunting task. But the good news is we can still serve a memorable holiday dinner that cuts cost but not quality.
If you are looking to save time as well as watch your budget, there are steps that can be done ahead, says Robbie Ross of Dinners Done Right. "Pies can be baked ahead of time Vegetable dishes can be prepared ahead of time and warmed up. Cookies and cakes can be cooked ahead of time as well as mashed potatoes and dressing." Smoked turkeys, ham or salmon only need heating to be ready. "Leaving everything for the day of the holiday is a deal breaker," says Ross.
And when you just don't have time, several area businesses and grocery stores offer prepared meal options so your holiday isn't spent in the kitchen.
Check out local dinners-on-the-go places as well as supermarkets and caterers. All usually sell some version of a full Thanksgiving dinner with a variation of prices. Maybe this year the real thanks you'll be giving is that you didn't have to cook anything!
Plan the menu.
"Thanksgiving, for most people, is a day of good food, fun and family and also one of great tradition," says Robbie Ross of Dinners Done Right in Medford. "Many families eat the same thing every year and it is passed down through generations." Planning the meal makes sure you can include those favorite dishes but still not overspend on impulse purchases at the store. It also means you can watch portion sizes and try to avoid overeating. "Most [correct] portions are smaller than people realize," says Ross. "The size of a deck of cards is a good marker to use for most things."
"The first thing you do is watch your ad prices or store prices," says Terry Allphin, store director of Food For Less in Medford. And be aware how they really compare. Often stores will offer inexpensive or free items with a minimum purchase but the amount you spend to get the offer may not save you any money in the long run.
"A grocery list of all the items that are being served is very important and it needs to be followed to the T without adding additional items," says Ross. "And one should never go to the grocery store hungry." Usually, the inner aisles of a grocery store contain the highly processed foods while the fresher and healthier choices are along outside aisles. "So stay out of the inside aisle of the store to help avoid pitfalls," says Ross.
Other budget-minded tips Allphin offers include:
•Shop store brands or private labels instead of brand names.
•Buy frozen over fresh. With items like cranberries or green peas, the quality remains the same or even better than fresh at a fraction of the cost.
•Look for coupons. "Usually those will break the Sunday before," says Allphin and can be found in flyers, newspapers or on some product sites.
•Eliminate or reduce the alcohol. Many people don't consider the cost of the beverages when planning their meal. But the sparkling ciders, wines and other liquors can quickly add up. "If you didn't serve wine with dinner that would save a ton," says Allphin. A festive fruit punch or even ice water in decorative glasses still adds to the table without adding to the bill. Or ask someone else to bring the wine this year!
Along with menu planning, it helps to think about the leftovers. "If you can use the extra meat, you'll probably save buying a whole bird," says Allphin. But if you're not the type to make soup stock or casseroles, or you're only cooking for a few people, it might help to scale down a bit. "If turkey is the meat of choice, I recommend that a whole turkey is not purchased but just a turkey breast. If dark meat is wanted, legs can be purchased separately," says Ross. "There is less waste and less mess and the cooking of the breast still fills the kitchen with the aroma so loved by many."
Share the season.
Another way to cut costs and enjoy new dishes is to ask the people coming for dinner to bring a favorite dish. "People generally love to help in some way," reminds Ross. It takes the pressure off any one person and may just start some exciting new traditions.