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12 Tips to Save Money on Thanksgiving Day Dinner

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If you’ve ever hosted Thanksgiving for friends and family, you know how easy it is for costs to spiral out of control. Turkey, sides, casseroles, pies, and cakes all add up to an enormous grocery bill.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 34th annual survey of Thanksgiving dinner costs, in 2019, the average family spent $48.91 on  Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people. However, you’ve probably spent far more than that on food, extra dishes, decorations, and other “necessities” for the big day. For many families, this one meal makes a big dent in their monthly budget — and that dent is hard to recover from with the gift-giving holiday season just weeks away.

The Thanksgiving holiday will also look different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends families have small dinners with those only in their immediate household. If you want to see other family and friends, it’s safer to have a virtual Thanksgiving this year. Or if you live near family and friends you still can’t see because of the pandemic, you can cook Thanksgiving dinner anyway and deliver meals to their front porches in to-go containers.

Either way, simple changes in your shopping habits and menu can provide significant savings if you plan ahead and do it right.

Ways to Save Money on Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is about gathering with family and friends and feeling grateful for the blessings in your life. Don’t feel pressured to impress or feel you have to go overboard financially to create “the perfect dinner.”

There are plenty of money-saving tips you can use to balance your budget for this holiday season, and you can still serve a wonderful meal to the people you love.

1. Start Planning Early

Start planning several weeks before the big day. Proper planning is especially crucial if this is your first time hosting Thanksgiving dinner.

You also need an accurate count of who’s coming. You want to provide enough food, but you don’t want to be saddled with too many Thanksgiving leftovers.

Also, think about the rhythm of the meal itself and the tools you’ll need. Do you have enough seating for everyone? Where will you put all the food? Do you have enough serving dishes? A meat thermometer? Thinking about these details in advance can help you determine whether you need something like extra plates or chairs.

If you need anything, borrow from family, friends, and neighbors instead of buying. Or check thrift stores like Goodwill. They usually have plates, wine glasses, and serving dishes for a pittance compared to buying them new.

If you have to buy, your local dollar store is a practical place to shop for dinnerware, napkins, foil cooking pans, or holiday decorations. You can also find great deals on snacks and other pantry staples. While there are some things you should always buy at the dollar store, on other things, you can get a better deal elsewhere. If you need new towels for guests or some new cooking utensils, try Amazon or a big-box store like Walmart.

2. Create a Menu

A menu helps organize your thoughts and lets you create an accurate grocery list. Nobody wants to make a last-minute trip to the store on Thanksgiving morning in a panic because they forgot heavy cream or watercress.

Stick to the basics. Sure, it’s tempting to cook some unusual dishes to impress your guests. But that often means buying ingredients that aren’t on sale. You can cut costs by making only the dishes that are the most popular with your guests. Less variety means fewer ingredients to buy and less time in the kitchen.

So don’t try to cater to everyone. If your Aunt Carla loves pecan pie and your Uncle Joe only eats pumpkin pie, don’t make or buy two pies. Ask one or both of them to bring what they like to share with others. Trying to please everyone means you’ll spend a lot of money and have way too much food.

Go over your menu and shopping list carefully. Are there any ingredients you’re just using once? If so, could you substitute it for something you already have or something you already have to buy for another dish?

Or can you combine some dishes to save money while still hitting everyone’s favorites? For example, instead of making both a sweet potato pie and pecan pie, make a single sweet potato-pecan pie.

Pro tip: To make things even easier, order a HelloFresh Thanksgiving Box. It saves you from shopping — all you need to do is cook the ingredients you receive. The box includes a turkey, four sides, and dessert. You don’t need to be a HelloFresh subscriber to order the Thanksgiving Box. It’s a one-off specialty box anyone can order.

3. Shop Early

Shopping early is one of the best ways to save money on Thanksgiving ingredients. Retailers typically put things you need to cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner on sale two weeks — and sometimes three weeks — before Thanksgiving. Scooping up deals in advance ensures your grocery bill won’t be astronomical. And pre-Thanksgiving sales are some of the best prices you’ll see all year.

Knowing this, make sure you create your menu by the first week of November so you can begin shopping as soon as food and supplies start going on sale. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people might buy extra food this year to keep their pantries stocked. You might not be able to find what you need if you wait until the last minute to buy ingredients.

You’ll also save your sanity by getting all your shopping done the weekend before Thanksgiving. According to Reader’s Digest, the very worst day to shop for groceries is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. That’s when everyone shops, and everything from produce to canned goods gets picked over fast.

4. Compare Prices

Check store circulars to see who has the best prices. While most stores put the same things on sale, different stores’ prices sometimes differ dramatically. Check SundaySaver for chain supermarkets’ circulars, and know which stores will match prices. If a particular store matches prices, you only need to shop at one store, which saves a lot of time and gas money.

You can also download the Flipp app (for iOS and Android) to compare prices at over 2,000 stores. Flipp allows you to choose which store’s circulars and coupons you want sent to your phone so you can easily compare prices.

According to Reader’s Digest, the kind of food you usually find on sale in the weeks before and after Thanksgiving include:

  • Spices
  • Frozen turkey
  • Stuffing
  • Canned food (like chicken broth, sweet potatoes, green beans, and cranberry sauce)
  • Butter
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Bacon
  • Butter
  • Crackers
  • Baking items (like sugar, flour, oil, and cake mixes)

If it’s within your budget, stock up on extra items while they’re on sale. This is the perfect time to stock up your long-term emergency food pantry or get ingredients on sale for Christmas dinner. Before Thanksgiving, prices are often better than before the Christmas holidays, so it pays to buy extra for later.

But only stock up on products that are on sale and a good deal. Shopping expert Steve Economides explained to Consumer Reports that retailers often raise prices on foods that aren’t on sale during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Some ingredients, like butter, bacon, and frozen bread or rolls, are easy to store long-term in the freezer, so stocking up while they’re on sale saves you money far into the spring. And sale prices can be truly astonishing before Thanksgiving. Think 1 pound of butter or 5 pounds of flour for $0.99. When costs are this low, it definitely pays to stock up.

Pro tip: Make sure you download the Ibotta app. It can help you save money on your grocery shopping. Plus, right now, you’ll receive a $20 bonus just for signing up.

5. Store Fresh Herbs Properly

If you want to shop early but you’re worried about fresh herbs going bad before it’s time to cook them on Thursday, follow this advice from Kitchn.

Treat soft herbs — such as parsley, tarragon, cilantro, dill, basil, and mint — like a bouquet. Trim the ends, stick them in a vase with water, and keep them on the countertop in bright light but out of direct sunlight.

Wrap hard herbs — such as rosemary, chives, oregano, sage, and thyme — in a damp paper towel and put them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The paper towel will provide enough moisture to keep them fresh, while the container will seal out damaging oxygen.

Your herbs will also stay fresher longer if you put them in an herb keeper. Herb keepers keep herbs fresher up to 10 days longer than traditional storage methods because you can refrigerate your herbs in a controlled environment with fresh water.

6. Shop Smart for Your Turkey

During the Thanksgiving season, many supermarkets offer free turkeys to customers who spend a certain amount. Others put turkeys on deep discount if you have a certain number of store loyalty points.

That can save you plenty of money during Thanksgiving. However, if you have some room in your budget and a big freezer, pick up a few extra turkeys at a discount — no one ever said turkey is only for Thanksgiving dinner. Many stores limit one turkey per family, and it’s hard for smaller families to spend enough to get multiple discounted turkeys. So call in reinforcements here. If you have family members who won’t need a turkey this year, ask them to take advantage of the offer for you.

Frozen turkeys are also less expensive than fresh ones. Just give yourself plenty of time to thaw them before cooking. Frozen turkeys need 24 hours in the refrigerator for every 4 to 5 pounds of meat.

Budget for 1.5 pounds per guest if you want lots of leftovers and 1 pound per guest if you don’t. So if you’re serving 10 people, you’ll need 10 to 15 pounds of bird. If you need a bit more turkey than a single bird provides, buy a turkey breast or turkey legs instead of another bird. Only buying what you need saves money and helps you avoid mountains of leftover turkey.

Another option is not buying a turkey at all, which can save you money if you’re having a small dinner with just a few guests. Cooking Cornish hens or roasting a chicken is often less expensive than a turkey but just as delicious.

7. Buy Generic

Buying generic versus name-brand food saves a lot of money at the grocery store. According to Consumer Reports, generic products are typically 25% less expensive than name brands.

Generic brands of foods like frozen vegetables, canned beans and vegetables, and baking supplies are often just as good as other brands, and your guests will never know the difference anyway.

However, there are some things you shouldn’t buy generic, often because the flavor is well below what you’d get in a name-brand product. Some of these foods include:

  • Olive oil
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Ice cream
  • Spaghetti sauce

To see just how much you can save, compare the prices of name-brand products versus Walmart’s Great Value brand (prices may change over time).

Name Brand

Total Cost: $14.70

Great Value Brand

Total Cost: $9.70

Purchasing the generic brand of just seven products saves you $5. Imagine how much you could save if you bought the generic brand for your entire Thanksgiving menu.

8. Serve Seasonal Produce

If you’re making side dishes or desserts with fresh vegetables and fruits, choose produce that’s in season over greenhouse-grown options shipped in from thousands of miles away. Seasonal produce is less expensive and tastes better than its out-of-season counterparts.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables for November include:

  • Apples
  • Chard
  • Artichokes
  • Winter squash, such as acorn and butternut squash
  • Cranberries
  • Kiwi
  • Beets
  • Oranges
  • Pears
  • Daikon radish
  • Pomegranates
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Fennel
  • Rutabagas
  • Turnips

If you live in an area still hosting a farmers market, go there to pick up some locally grown produce for Thanksgiving dinner. Not only do your purchases help support local farmers, but you might also find a beautiful bouquet or fall decorations for your centerpiece.

9. Ask Guests to Pitch In

Asking each of your guests to bring a dish to share spreads the cost among everyone. It also means less work for you and allows people to share a recipe they love with others.

Come up with some potluck dinner ideas or appetizer recipes that work well with the menu you’re planning. Having some recipes planned can help friends or family members who aren’t sure what to bring.

A week before Thanksgiving, find out what everyone’s bringing so you know if there are any gaps in your menu. Use a potluck sign-up sheet to avoid duplicate dishes.

10. Mix Things Up

Year after year of making the traditional turkey, stuffing, and casseroles gets old for some people.

Consider making less traditional foods for Thanksgiving. Mexican, Indian, Asian, Italian, or West African dishes can all have a place at your table. And if you’re open to a vegetarian menu, rice, bean, and vegetable recipes are often much cheaper and healthier than meat. Even Tofurkey, or “tofu turkey,” is less expensive than buying a bird.

Also, think about what people actually ate at previous Thanksgiving meals. A lot of people make dishes like sweet potato casserole every year because they believe they should. But if there’s something you always end up throwing it out, don’t make it this year.

11. Volunteer

If you want to really mix things up, why not volunteer for Thanksgiving this year? Soup kitchens and Meals on Wheels desperately need volunteers to help out on this important day.

Volunteering not only lets you skip all the buying, cooking, and cleaning, it allows you to help others and reminds you how truly blessed your life is. You can find volunteer opportunities in your area through VolunteerMatch.

12. Consider an Early Black Friday

Many stores now open their doors Thursday evening to give shoppers an early start to Black Friday.

If you’re a die-hard Black Friday shopper and you’re ready to try something new for Thanksgiving, try camping out at your favorite store instead of heading out after cooking and eating a big meal?

Camping out for Thanksgiving sounds extreme to some people. But for many, it’s a fun family experience that gives them the chance to get to know fellow saving enthusiasts. Just make sure you bring some essential Black Friday camping gear so the experience is warm, fun, and memorable.

If you decide to head out camping or shopping for Black Friday instead of cooking, take proper safety precautions for the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, bring one mask plus one spare for each person in your family. Each person should also carry their own bottle of hand sanitizer.


Final Word

Thanksgiving is all about celebrating with friends and family, being part of Thanksgiving Day traditions, and being grateful for all the blessings in your life. It shouldn’t be about cooking the perfect meal or having a perfectly decorated house when everyone comes over. That just creates extra stress and work for you, and it adds significantly to your costs.

The more you plan, the more you save. So relax and have fun this year.

Do you have any tips or tricks for saving money on your Thanksgiving Day dinner?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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