Holidays like Thanksgiving can be both a blessing and a burden. You get to spend time with family and friends you may only see once or twice a year, but you have to feed them all. Thanksgiving dinners can get very expensive, very quickly! Since moving 800 miles away from our families a few years ago, we’ve been mixing it up on Thanksgiving, often spending the holiday at a friend’s house for an orphan Thanksgiving celebration. Last year, however, my in-laws and brother-in-law came to visit and I got to cook Thanksgiving dinner!
I know that some people find hosting Thanksgiving to be super stressful, but I absolutely love it. It combines two of my favorite things: cooking and planning. I plan the menu a few weeks in advance, then make a master shopping list and mark off things as they go on sale. A couple days in advance, I make a schedule for the night before and the day of Thanksgiving. Not only does this help to keep everything organized, but I also save a lot of money compared to buying everything right before Thanksgiving, which is a huge deal for me. Follow my quick tips for getting organized and you’ll be less stressed and less strapped for cash when the big day rolls around!
1. Finalize Your Menu 3-4 Weeks in Advance!
The first step to a Thanksgiving dinner on the cheap is creating a menu a couple weeks in advance. These recipes may be family favorites or may be coming from Pinterest, your favorite bloggers, or cookbooks… it doesn’t matter. Just get organized! I made a master menu and linked to online recipes. Some recipes I have memorized or are in a special recipe binder my mom made me (like her Dutch apple pie) and if I had had one from a cookbook, I would have marked the page so I could find it quickly and easily (like Pumpkin Pie, Betty Crocker Desserts p. 35). Here’s an example of my menu from last year, with some updated links:
As you can see, if I wanted to change or add something to the recipe, I made a note next to it. Be sure to read the comments on online recipes, they can be very helpful! My menu includes everything I would need from the morning of Thanksgiving through dinner — mimosas for breakfast, snacks for lunch and during the football game, and of course the big event. When you’re creating a menu, be sure to consider how much oven and stove-top space you have, as well as what temperature everything cooks on. You can also utilize other kitchen appliances you have, like crock pots or a toaster oven. I made the cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes in my slow cookers, which freed up stove-top space and made my Thanksgiving prep way easier. Just set and forget, then come back in a few hours! You’ll also want to think about the cost of each recipe. Out of season produce or fancy meats/cheeses can really jack up the price of a dish — be sure it’s worth it!
You can use any word processing program or even paper and pencil, but I made my menu a Google Doc so I could make additions and changes on the go using my smart phone. If I was at a friend’s and they mentioned being excited about green bean casserole and I realized I had forgotten to add it to my menu, I could quickly add it using my phone.
2. Create a Master Shopping List!
After you have finalized your menu, open another Google Document (or a second page of the original document) and begin to put together your shopping list. Go through each recipe and figure out what you have already (generally pantry items and spices) and what you will need. Add everything you’ll need to a master shopping list. Since it will be super long, you may want to consider using category headers like “Produce,” “Meat,” and “Dairy.” This will also help you find items in the grocery store. If you use a Google Document, you’ll be able to quickly mark off items as you buy them, using either your phone or your computer. If you realize you forgot something you can quickly add it to the list. Here’s my master shopping list from last year, which matches up to the menu above.
3. Search the Ads and Buy What’s on Sale!
So it’s three weeks out and we have our menu and master shopping list. Let’s get shopping! Each week (generally on Sunday or Wednesday, depending on the grocery sales cycles in your area), check the sales fliers online or in the newspaper. Unfortunately not all items can be bought in advance (like milk or most fresh produce), but buy what you can! I check the fliers for every store in my area, and combined this with couponing, but that’s not necessary either. Just buy what’s on sale and mark it off your master list. You can make this step as extreme as you want to, depending on how much time you have to dedicate to reading sales fliers and clipping coupons. Don’t worry though! Even if you only shop at one store, you’ll still be able to save money by buying a little each week based on the sales. The week of Thanksgiving you can make a run to pick up the leftover items and any fresh produce you may need.
This step helps the Thanksgiving budget in two ways. First, by spreading out your shopping over a couple weeks, you’ll be able to get almost everything on sale. The sales fliers for the whole month of November will be Thanksgiving-themed, with different items going on sale each week. All you need to do is capitalize on those sales! Second, by spreading out your purchases over multiple weeks, you won’t have to worry about a huge grocery bill the week of Thanksgiving.
4. Create a cooking schedule!
Okay, so this won’t help you save money, but it will help save your sanity. Two or three days before Thanksgiving, create a schedule that shows you what you need to do and when. Try to do as much as possible in advance, so you can spend more time with your family on the day of. I used paper and pen so I could quickly cross out tasks I had completed.
I scheduled as much as I could for the night before Thanksgiving. I made two pies, peeled potatoes, and chopped all of the vegetables. For each recipe, I portioned out the veggies and stored them in labeled containers. I also sliced what we would need for snacking on during the day.
For the day of Thanksgiving, I decided on a time to eat dinner, and worked backwards from there. At 15 minute intervals, I wrote down everything I would need to do. Be sure that you also include time for prepping each meal. If you’re putting the turkey in at 3 PM, then at 2:40 you should be preheating the oven and dressing the turkey. It sounds tedious, but the schedule saved me so much time and stress, plus it’s very satisfying to cross out a completed item. Some of the time points will be super easy, like throw everything into a slow cooker and set to high, but it will get crazy about an hour before dinner is scheduled to start since so many things will be coming out of and going into the oven.
Getting organized is such an important part of hosting a big meal like Thanksgiving. Just a few quick organizational steps can help you save time, money, and stress as you prepare for the event!
What are your favorite tricks that help you save time or money during the holidays?