Financial Poise
Thanksgiving buffets taste better with budget-friendly meals

Budget-Friendly Meals for the Holidays: Take the $100 Challenge

Your Holiday Meal is Costing Too Much

When I think about making food for the holidays, I plan my menu based on tradition and, of course, the family favorites…but inevitably the results are not budget-friendly meals. I slave over my food, cooking for days, and spend way too much money. All for a meal that could be gone in less than 20 minutes after it’s served.

If you’re spending $200 or even more to host Thanksgiving or Christmas, that’s nearly as much as it takes to feed a family of four for one week. With a bit more meal planning and research into budget-friendly meals, you can do better. I challenge you to a $100 budget.

I Challenged Myself to Do Better

This year, I decided to play a game. I wanted to see if I could keep my family meal for eight people to a limited budget of $100.

For the record, I am not a coupon clipper, but I do appreciate the weekly circular. Cooking family favorites from scratch can save a significant amount of money and also provide some good family interaction time (if I can get my family into the kitchen for prep, that is).

Building Your Own Budget-Friendly Meals

For starters, I learned to make my own chicken soup. This soup is always a huge hit, as it is delicious, healthy and provides leftovers for future recipes that call for chicken stock.

Instead of purchasing new stock each time (stock can range from $1 to $3 for a small can), my smart recipe leaves plenty to freeze and save for future soups. This soup provides a great, filling starter for less than $13 (with a lot of leftovers and extra veggies for a crudités platter). A small dressing can be purchased for dipping (~$3).

To purchase the same soup for eight guests could run $40.

Next, I consider the main course. Before I was conscientious about money, I would go to the local grocer with just my list of favorites and no plan. Now, I look at the prices in the circulars and at the Club stores.

The difference between shooting from the hip vs. having a smart, budget-friendly meal plan can be huge.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say my family requests one of their favorites: lamb chops. Years ago, I would buy the chops from the butcher—32 chops, assuming four per person and eight chops in a pound—at the cost of $24/pound.

The lamb alone cost approximately $100. Even cheaper chops from a supermarket could run as much as $14/pound and cost about $60. Let’s just say budget-friendly meals tend not to be made from lamb!

At Sam’s Club, however, I discovered that you can buy two full racks (in one package) for $25-$30! That’s a huge savings for the “inconvenience” of simply separating each chop from the rack.

(Important point: Even considering that my time is valuable, of course, splitting the chops “cost” me 25 minutes. For less than half an hour, I saved $70-75. Worth it every time!)

To build your own smart holiday plan, begin by investigating prices for your side dishes (as well as healthy options for more health-conscious guests). This week, I discovered that I could buy and prepare asparagus for just $1.89/pound. A five-pound bag of sweet potatoes was $2.49 at one store. At another store, I found five cans of vegetables for $3 or broccoli for $1.69 per pound.

Once you have a good sense for the small-ticket items, compare prices for your main courses.

A Smart Dessert

Dessert is always my favorite part of the meal!

The old Michelle often went to the bakery and randomly purchased cookies, cakes and pies based on what looked good right in front of her.

Here, again, taking the time to bake my own treats saves a significant amount of money—and the taste is actually so much better!

Not everyone is a chef, but you can buy a cake mix or pudding mix and get excellent desserts at low, low prices. Even break and bake cookies, with that fresh-out-of-the-oven smell and taste, will win if you invite your family to engage in a blind “taste test.”

What About Those Extras?

And then there are the other extras. Do you feel compelled to serve cheese and crackers before the meal? A bowl of fancy nuts or M&Ms? Are you going to provide any other traditional foods or treats?

These are great ideas, but realize that coffee table appetizers add up (money-wise and calorically). Take 5 minutes out of your day to plan and prepare accordingly.

As for liquid beverages, I personally am a big fan of water, and always set out a pitcher full (free). I take five tea bags and make another pitcher full of sweet iced tea, or might make a gallon of lemonade from a frozen concentrate. I make a pot of coffee and provide milk with dessert.

That’s plenty of extra options for my family and guests. Total cost? $12

A Smart Alcohol Plan

As host, is it your responsibility to feed your guests and liquor them up too?

I used to think the answer is always yes. The old Michelle set out a bottle of vodka (~$30), a bottle of wine (~$20) and plenty of beer (~$20).

Years later, as I see it (ain’t hindsight great?), the money that fed and inebriated my guests—including many who did not reciprocate or those with whom I do not even speak with anymore—I must admit I was mistaken.

The money spent on alcohol for these occasions was often more than all of the groceries.

If you provide alcohol to your guests, you must assume the risk of someone driving away legally drunk. As host, you may even face liability if your drunken guest gets in a car accident and damages property (or far worse).

You are inviting these people into your home. Shopping, cleaning, preparing, cooking, feeding and more cleaning after the last guest departs should be enough. Especially if you are providing this gourmet meal on a smart budget.

Challenge Yourself to Do Better

We are talking about real money. Once you spend it, it’s gone. Taking these steps to create budget-friendly meals could literally result in savings of $5-50 per person. Not insignificant.

Challenge yourself and set a budget before you go holiday dinner shopping. Be creative and make it fun. Think through some of your options.

  • Might you be comfortable asking your guests to bring a dish, a dessert?
  • Can guests bring some liquid beverages?
  • Do you know anyone (mom or grandma, perhaps?) with memorable, cheap recipes?

If you provide homemade soup, a well-thought out entree, vegetables and homemade dessert and coffee/tea, your entire exquisite family meal could cost as little as $75. It’s a nutritious and inexpensive alternative that can still provide ample leftovers (and less guilt).

If you go “all out,” that same holiday dinner could easily cost $200-$400. A meal that could be eaten and done within 20 minutes either way. Is it really worth the extra money you work so hard to earn?

There is nothing wrong, per se, with shrimp cocktail, butcher cuts, lobster tails, name-brand ice creams and expensive pastries. But when you invite people into your home for a dinner party, they will be (or should be!) happy to be in each other’s company. Trust in that.

The holidays should be about relationships and love. Food is just icing on that cake.

[Editor’s Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following webinars: Basic Investment Principles 101 – From Asset Allocations to Zero Coupon Bonds and Goal Based Investing- Planning for Key Life Events. This is an updated version of an article originally published on December 6, 2016.]

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About Michelle Gershfeld

I’m a debt settlement and bankruptcy attorney who negotiates resolutions between clients and their creditors. I am also a real estate attorney involved in both sides of purchasing and selling distressed real property. I am passionate about teaching people about money and helping individuals of all ages achieve financial independence and success in a "no…

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