Save on Thanksgiving Dinner: Beat The Holiday Grocery Game

grocery shopping tips

During the holiday season, department stores, catalog retailers and online sellers aren't the only businesses anxiously queuing up for a slice of the fourth-quarter pie, i.e. your holiday wallet. Been grocery shopping lately?

What a difference a few days makes! By November, Halloween's candy displays have given way to a maze of buy-me buy-me holiday foodstuffs.

No more straight shots down the aisle. Even in the dog food section, shoppers must dodge flimsy cardboard displays of holiday this-n-that. Formerly well-mannered spices abandon their tidy shelves and tower in unsteady stacks at odd corners. Holiday paper goods, holiday turkey pans, holiday stuffing mix, even holiday toilet tissue force shopping carts into desperate evasive maneuvers.

It's those grocery guys. They want your money. If you shop wisely, you can fund your family's holiday meals for less than you think--and for lots less than the grocery guys want you to spend!

How? By understanding how to play the Grocery Game. You must get inside the heads of those very same grocery guys to save money during the holiday season.

The grocery guys know that you and just about everyone else in our culture are poised to drop a bundle on holiday foods, holiday entertaining, holiday decorating--even color-coordinated holiday garbage can liners--over the next six or seven weeks.

What they really, really want is for you to do all your bundle-dropping in their very own store. The way to get you to do this, they believe, is to give you super bargains, called loss-leaders in the trade, right here, right now, this week.

These specials get you in the door. Once you're there, the savvy grocery guys are going to raise prices from now until December 26th, hoping that you're in the habit of shopping their store.

This is just a generalization. It doesn't account for the Great Turkey War which will break out, according to my calculations, on November 17th at precisely 6:37 a.m., Eastern time.

The Great Turkey War is a little stare-down game played by competing grocery chains. Each will advertise that they'll "meet or beat!" everybody else's price on basic frozen turkey--but nobody commits to amount.

Finally, somebody blinks, and advertises a 59-cents-a-pound bird. Food ads fly fast and furious Thursday through Sunday, and by Monday morning every single supermarket will advertise 59-cents-a-pound frozen turkey. You have to wonder if all the turkeys are confined to the frozen meat bin.

Beat the grocery guys at their own game! Take these steps for maximum savings on holiday foodstuffs:

Hold a Freezer Clean-Out

For the next week or so, eat from your freezer and pantry. Pretend you're snowed in and can't make it out for more supplies.

For most of us, this'll mean lots of Last Chance Lasagna. Take whatever frozen hunks of meat you've got, thaw, cut in chunks and toss into the whirling blades of a food processor. Brown what emerges in a bit of oil, add canned spaghetti sauce if you've nothing better, then build the lasagna with noodles and grated cheese. Last Chance Lasagna hides anything!

Another option: Desperation Stir-Fry (same principle, only you cut the frozen whatever into strips and soak in soy sauce, dash of sherry and some sesame oil; stir fry with some minced garlic, and add bags of mystery frozen veggies).

This tactic serves a three-fold purpose. First, it cleans out freezer and pantry so you'll have room to stockpile holiday goodies in the coming weeks.

Second, it creates a genuine sense of gratitude when you serve a real, fresh-cooked meal on Thanksgiving Day. Families primed with a Freezer Clean-Out are much more grateful for that gleaming Thanksgiving turkey!

Third, and most important, food-budget savings leave you open to buy, at just the right time: when holiday fixings are at the lowest price of the year.

Track Turkey Prices ... and Timing

A perennial November loss leader? The Thanksgiving turkey! Whether they offer rock-bottom prices on frozen birds, or discount them according to your purchase amount, it's easy to score a deal on the centerpiece for the Thanksgiving feast ... if you're careful.

First, check turkey discounts carefully against the bottom line. If you're required to spend $150 in-store to score a "free" bird, it's not much of a bargain compared to a no-spend offer of 29 cents a pound at the store down the street.

Second, time your purchase carefully. Don't jump at the first offer, but keep a watchful eye out on supermarket advertising in the coming days. The Great Turkey War is a very real phenomenon; grocery chains will gauge competitors' offers carefully, often meeting or beating them by the weekend before Thanksgiving. Stay informed ... to be open to buy when the time is right.

Finally, shop once, buy two or three times. Turkey prices will rise after Thanksgiving, so if a bird will grace your table later in the season, pick up a second or third gobbler now. Tuck the extras into the freezer for remaining holiday meals at the season's lowest prices.

Stock Up on Holiday Staples

Tactic Two: buy your holiday goodies now--for Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years' and any parties you may be giving.

I've lived in four different communities, large and small, in three different areas of the country over the past 20 years, and I have never seen it fail: Thanksgiving's always cheaper than Christmas.

It's those grocery guys, again. They want you in their store. This week, next week, and right up to Thanksgiving, you'll see specials like you won't see again until next November.

While there will still be advertised specials from now through December 25th, there won't be the shock-your-socks-off prices you'll find prior to Thanksgiving.

Even if you never scout ads and wouldn't consider being a "cherry-picker" (industry term for people who come into the store and purchase only advertised specials) on a regular basis, do it anyway, if only for the next two weeks.

The potential savings are so substantial that any worries about what-will-that-nice-meat-man-think? should evaporate right out of your head.

Here are some items to consider buying now, in quantities sufficient for every holiday meal from now to season's end:

  • Butter (freeze extra cubes in a freezer bag)
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Brown and/or powdered sugar
  • Baking basics: flour, sugar, baking soda, Chocolate chips
  • Pans of pre-baked rolls (the disposable pan can be washed and reused?an extra bonus)
  • Corn syrup
  • Evaporated milk
  • Sweetened condensed milk
  • Marshmallows and marshmallow creme
  • Dates and/or raisins
  • Canned yams
  • Canned pumpkin
  • Tiny canned peas
  • Canned onions
  • Olives and tiny pickles
  • Whipped cream
  • Refrigerated crescent rolls
  • Refrigerated cookie dough
  • Eggs
  • Sour cream
  • Poultry seasoning
  • Baking spices
  • Frozen pie shells/frozen pies
  • Sodas (if your household entertaining includes adult beverages, hide several bottles/six-packs of common "mixers" and you'll lower sticker shock at the liquor store, later in the month)

These are holiday staples for my household--your needs may be different, depending on diet preferences, entertaining and family tradition.