"Frugal" holiday meals? Something of a conundrum, isn't it? The very nature of holiday meals is to express the value of abundance. Finances, on the other hand, have definite limits--and never so much as during the holiday season.
Take heart! It's possible to serve bountiful--yet frugal--holiday meals with a bit of care and forethought. Consider these tips to plan holiday menus without breaking the bank:
Know your portions
There's nothing like a giant, gleaming turkey at the head of that Thanksgiving table to warm holiday hearts. The economic downside to that big bird? Waste! Most of us know the shame of tossing several pounds of dried-out drumsticks and crumbled white meat a week after the feast is over.
This year, limit waste by buying only as much turkey as your family truly needs. Do you serve a whole turkey at just one meal? Think one pound per person. Want a few leftovers for sandwiches? Calculate your needs at one and one-half pounds per person. Generous leftovers (enough for another meal or two plus sandwiches) require a figure of two pounds per person. Pass up that 22 pound bird and save money and energy costs.
Plan your leftovers
If you're like me, the holiday cook-fest brings on a real distaste for cooking for the next several days. It's tempting to think, "Oh, we'll just eat out of the refrigerator!" until the next day, when the stuffing runs out and the gravy goes dry. Result: husband with hamburger sack in hand. There goes the budget!
As you clean up from the holiday meal, package leftovers in meal-sized portions. Decide when you'll serve them, and store accordingly. While you shouldn't re-freeze turkey that's already been frozen, a fresh bird's leftovers can safely be consigned to the freezer.
Ham, while not appropriate for long-term freezer storage, can be frozen for up to two weeks. The family will give you much less guff if holiday leftovers don't make a repeat appearance for a week or ten days.
Stock the pantry
During the next few days, grocery stores will be offering the year's lowest prices on holiday pantry staples--and those discounted cans of cranberry sauce, black olives and pureed pumpkin will be just as welcome at Christmas and New Year's.
To save this month--and next!--shop these sales for all holiday meals to be prepared in your home, right up to the New Year. Be on the lookout for low prices on pantry basics like canned broth, prepared gravy, and side dish ingredients like yams and green beans. In the freezer aisle, double up on frozen pie shells, pies and bread dough. Soda, mixers and sparkling juices at discounted prices make it easy to create festive holiday beverages ... and save!
Grocery shop the day after Thanksgiving
Frugal fanatic that I am, I didn't learn this tip until November, 1996. That year, we returned from a trip to Europe at 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. The cupboards were bare, bare, bare, so a grocery run was required the morning of Thanksgiving Friday.
Tired, jet-lagged and grumpy, my mood changed when I saw what was in store for the Thanksgiving Friday shopper.
What did I find? Bargains on top of bargains! Fresh turkeys that didn't sell before Thanksgiving? Marked down to an incredible 29 cents a pound. I bought three for the freezer: fresh, no added ingredients birds that usually retailed at around 99 cents a pound.
Other Thanksgiving Friday specials included pans of pre-baked rolls, fresh yams, and a variety of beef and chicken markdowns. Anything that has a sell-by date and hasn't sold by Thanksgiving may show up, discounted, the day after the big feast.
Smart shoppers take note! Shop for the Christmas holiday meal the day after Thanksgiving.
Know when to pay for convenience
Some components of a holiday meal are worth paying for in a convenience format. Some convenience foods are true money-savers, while others save sufficient time to justify the higher price.
Unless you live in sweet potato country, canned yams or sweet potatoes are a good buy compared to fresh yams at 69 cents a pound . Pre-baked brown and serve rolls are frequently offered as loss leaders for under $1 a package, so stock the freezer now.
Similarly, pumpkin pie filling mix, when offered on sale, is usually less expensive than buying canned pumpkin and adding evaporated milk and eggs.
In the middle ground, you'll find prepared pie crusts. Whether they're flat and pre-rolled in the deli section or pre-shaped and frozen, prepared pie crusts may be worth the extra money because of the time and effort they save.
Start your stuffing now
Frugal shoppers know that some convenience items never make the list, no matter how wowser the sale. Primary among these are canned gravy, dry gravy packets, and packaged stuffing mix.
Why not? Because these items can be assembled free from most family kitchens, not to mention that it's downright immoral to sell stale bread crumbs for four times the price of fresh bread!
Start on your stuffing mix now. It's so simple, it's criminal. Finished a loaf of bread? Toss the heels and/or the last few stale pieces on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven. Turn the oven on for five minutes. Turn it off. Leave the bread there to dry out.
Next day, have some bottom left from the loaf from the automatic bread maker Take out yesterday's bread, toss it in a zipper storage bag, and put today's bread onto the cookie sheet? Do the oven on/oven off routine one more time.
If you forget about it, don't worry--the dried-out bread won't grow stale or mold, and in the oven, it won't get dusty. (Automatic bread machine users should slice or cube leftovers; that way they'll dry easily and will be easy to crush when you're ready to make dressing.)
To make dressing, beat that bread-filled zipper bag with a rolling pin until it looks like the store-bought stuff. Dump it in a big bowl. Add sauteed onions and celery, and season with sage, parsley, salt, pepper--you know your family's preferences. Moisten with chicken broth, milk or water, and stuff that bird.
Simple. And it sure won't cost you any $3.59 per six ounces of bread crumbs, either. The variety of bread leads to an interesting, flavorful stuffing.
For those of the cornbread dressing persuasion, follow the same rules--if, and in my family, that's a big if, you've got any cornbread leftovers from Chili-and-Cornbread night!
Ready, frugal shoppers? Take control of holiday meals ... and save!