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5 Cost Effective Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner Menu Ideas

As Turkey Day hosts, we often stress over how to save money on the Thanksgiving Day dinner menu and making sure all of our guests are happy and well fed. But the one aspect of the day that is often overlooked is the host!

I think it’s unfair how the host almost always misses out on all of the fun and socializing of Turkey Day because he or she is in the kitchen all day. Well, I’ve come up with 5 tips and strategies that should minimize your time in the kitchen this Thursday, keep your stress level in check, and allow you to do a little more enjoying and a little less working. If you’re not hosting a dinner this year, maybe you could pass on these ideas to the host of whichever dinner you’re attending!

1. Homemade or Store-Bought?
Thanksgiving is a day steeped in tradition, and these traditions probably tell you that you need to go homemade all the way. Well, that just doesn’t make sense to me, and it’s also not fair. I think that you, as the host, has the right to decide what needs to be homemade and what you can get away with being store-bought. Of course, a few of these dishes may be a little more expensive if purchased in the store rather than being made from scratch, but remember, I am talking about being “cost-effective” here. If I can spend a few more pennies at the supermarket to save me a significant amount of time in the kitchen, then I am all for it.

Although the individual choices are up to you, I am personally going with a combination of homemade and store-bought food for this year’s Turkey Day. Here is my breakdown:

Homemade – Mashed Potatoes, Sweet Potato Casserole, Gravy

Store Bought – Cranberry Sauce, Stuffing, Pies (Costco has an amazing Apple Pie), Green Bean Casserole (I’ll put this together myself, but the green beans, mushroom soup mix, and fried onions will all be store-bought).

This doesn’t cover the entire menu, but these are the highlights to give you an idea. If you decide to go homemade 100%, I have all the respect in the world for you. I just think it’s a little too much work for a meal that will probably be eaten in less than an hour.

2. Buffet Style
I am also trying something quite unique this year. Rather than piling up the dinner table with the entire menu, I bought a few buffet-style serving dishes this year. These dishes will assure that all the food will be served hot, and everyone’s “seconds” will be hot as well. This will take a lot of pressure off of me since I will not have to worry about timing the meals perfectly. It also fosters a neat atmosphere where everyone can grab their own food and socialize over the food, instead of constantly reaching across the table and shouting to have a dish passed to them.

3. Do It ALL the Day Before
I will actually be doing the majority of my work this Wednesday rather than Thursday. I plan on getting just about all of my dishes prepared and ready to cook the day before. About the only thing I’ll be doing on Thursday is actually stuffing the turkey (you should never do that early) and mashing my potatoes after they’re cooked. With every other dish, I’ll have the prepared on Wednesday and just throw them in the oven or heat them up on Thursday. Believe it or not, I’m even setting the table the night before too!

4. Asking For Help
I have asked for a limited number of “helpers” this year. It seems to me that “everyone” trying to help out leads to nothing more than a bunch of people bumping into one another and chaos, so I picked out only a few people to chip in. Limit your “help” to people you know can actually minimize your time in the kitchen. Let everyone else just enjoy the company and some fun Thanksgiving activities, games, and crafts that you’ve set up.

5. Start The Clean-Up Process Early
Some people regard Thanksgiving Dinner clean up as much a part of the day as anything else. I personally abhor it, and have come up with a strategy to simplify the process. As soon as any parts of the meal are cooked and ready to go, I put them into their respective serving dishes (this year it will be in the buffet style dishes), with any “extra” amounts going into leftover containers which are already out and ready to go. Then, I take the original cooking dish that is now empty, and either wash it right away or at least soak it in hot soapy water, making clean-up a breeze! You might think this would interfere with the cooking process, but there is actually enough “down time” while you’re waiting for other dishes to finish that you should be able to knock out a lot of this clean-up before you even sit down! Nothing is more satisfying than NOT having to clean up for hours after a great Turkey Dinner. We all know the feeling of just wanting to relax in front of the TV and doze off.

I hope you find these tips useful and relevant, and please feel free to add your own in the comments. I’d love to get some ideas to help make my Turkey Day experience that much better. And Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

David Bakke
David started his own personal finance blog, YourFinances101, in June of 2009 and published his first book on ways to save more and spend less called "Don't Be A Mule..." Since then he has been a regular contributor for Money Crashers. He lives just outside Atlanta, GA and most all of his free time is taken up by his amazing three year old son, Nicholas.

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