As someone who loves to cook, the fall and winter holidays are basically my Super Bowl. I relish the opportunity to plan a big, beautiful feast to share with my loved ones. That said, I can tell you from experience that it's quite easy to get in over your head. If you're new to the game, DON'T FRET! I'm here to share my top 12 tips for hosting Thanksgiving, Christmas or any other celebratory gathering on a budget - without feeling stressed (about the food, at least lol).
- 1.) Make a meal plan...
- 2.) ...and then a calendar.
- 3.) Don't sleep on frozen veggies.
- 4.) Give yourself the freedom to use store-bought shortcuts.
- 5.) Make it a potluck!!
- 6.) Plan ahead.
- 7.) Shop around (if you have the luxury of a car).
- 8.) Lean into vegetables.
- 9.) Consider going non-traditional
- 10.) Remember the drinks.
- 11.) If you usually do flowers, try one of these more economical options instead.
- 12.) Don't forget breakfast!
- So what should I actually serve??
- More Holiday Recipe Ideas:
1.) Make a meal plan...
You've all heard this before. I realize this is not news. However, meal planning isn't just about which recipes you want to make!
First, be sure to plot a reasonable amount of food for the size of your party. This is an excellent reference if you need help estimating how much food to offer. Now that you have an idea of quantity, now you can get down to the details.
Side note: make sure you share your plan if you are hosting a potluck. Set up a shared google sheets page with spaces for what you need; here's a template to get you started. More on potlucks under Tip #5!
If you're hosting a smaller gathering - resist the urge to make every single recipe you can think of. Lean back on that KISS acronym we learned way back when: keep it simple, sunshine!
Pare down your sides to no more than 4 if your party will be 6 or fewer guests. What are the ones you can't imagine celebrating without? For me, that's mashies & gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, and some kind of bread with lots and lots of butter.
If there are more than 4 primary ingredients you can't live without, consider cooking them together in a fun new combination! I find that sheet pans come in very useful for mixed veggie dishes.
If you're hosting a larger gathering - consider if you'd rather have larger portions of a smaller number of dishes or would prefer to have space for greater variety. Both are totally reasonable!
If variety wins out, consider extra courses (e.g. apps while you make finishing touches, or a soup or salad starter). This takes the pressure off of getting everything to the table, and, this is the hard part - hot and at the same time - for the main event.
One more note if you're going the variety route: calendars, potlucks and store bought shortcuts are your friends. More on those below.
Finally, if you're hosting a larger gathering, consider swapping larger ticket items for less expensive ones. For example, consider offering mixers and making it a BYO event. Or, instead of making a pecan pie (nuts are spendy!), opt for a holiday-themed chess pie instead.
2.) ...and then a calendar.
To give yourself the most breathing room possible, I also recommend breaking down the cooking chores into smaller shifts on the days leading up to the big day. Make sure each of these smaller tasks makes it onto your daily to do list. I don't know your system, but putting pencil to paper works best for me; get after your google calendar if that works better for you.
Up to 3 months in advance
- Make and freeze pie dough, cookie dough in balls, bread dough, soups, gravy, stock, etc.
- Check for sales on any shelf stable goods - read more about this under Tip #6.
The week of:
- 5-7 days in advance: shop, prep veggies, defrost the bird, make cranberry sauce & salad dressing. Also, don't forget to take some time to organize your fridge to make room for all of the goodness you're creating.
- 2-3 days in advance: assemble casseroles for baking, dry out bread for making stuffing.
The night before
- Make the table.
- Bake off the pies and cookies.
- Defrost the sides, soups and bread dough that you froze in advance.
- Assemble the stuffing.
- Dry brine meat.
- Chill drinks in the fridge. Short on refrigerator space? Wait until the day of your event, fill the washing machine with ice and use it as a cooler. When the party is over, run the spin cycle to drain the melted water.
- First thing in the morning: If you're making a turkey, it's going to take the longest to cook - sometimes upwards of 6 hours. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get it in the oven, leaving at least 20 minutes to allow it to rest before slicing.
- After you put the bird is in the oven: Give yourself time to drink some coffee or tea, take a shower, and get ready for the day! You deserve to feel your best when all your guests arrive.
- 1-2 hours before guests arrive: Start on your stovetop dishes like boiling potatoes for mashing or warming up the gravy. Bust out your slow cooker for keeping things warm. Take butter out of the fridge to soften.
- Once the bird is out of the oven: Now it's time to throw in all the casseroles/side dishes and get those baked off. Don't fret if the bird has to rest for awhile. Keep it covered with foil until you're ready to carve.
- Last minute: Toss salad, warm bread in the oven, slice the turkey, and pour yourself a celebratory beverage. Now enjoy!!
A few more notes to keep you organized: On the day of your event, it can also be useful to have an oven schedule handy. Mapping things out beforehand so you don't have to think when your guests arrive is a surefire way to have a less stressful time.
Sketch out the day by roughly hour-long increments, then plot when your dishes will cook based on temps and times. For example, the stuffing might take 45 minutes at 375, but the bread will only take 30 minutes at 375. So, make a note on your schedule to pop the bread in 15 minutes after the stuffing goes in.
I also find that a checklist is useful to check off the components of each dish as I go, and to make sure I don't accidentally forget to bring any of the dishes to the table!
Finally, grab a roll of masking tape and a sharpie - it'll help you label all of your prepped items, baking dishes, and even the leftovers. I literally use my masking tape and sharpie EVERY SINGLE TIME I cook.
3.) Don't sleep on frozen veggies.
They’re not only often cheaper than fresh, they’re also already prepped and ready to go. Perhaps my favorite is onions, which are already diced - hooray for no tears!!
If you’re wondering: frozen vegetables roast and sauté just as well as fresh. Start looking for them up to three months in advance, keeping your eye out for any killer sales.
4.) Give yourself the freedom to use store-bought shortcuts.
Repeat after me: there's no shame in shortcuts! This is a kitchen motto I live by on the daily, and hosting a big holiday event is already challenging enough without any added pressure.
Reaching for prepped items also keeps your shopping list shorter, improves your chances of sanity and can help prevent waste. Here are some of my favorites to keep on hand year round:
- Frozen puff pastry or pie dough,
- Frozen dinner rolls,
- Boxed or canned stock or broth,
- Stuffing mix,
- Salad or sauté kits,
- Remember tip #1? Frozen veggies are your friends.
Other super acceptable (and delicious) shortcuts are out there for you! Some of my favorites include:
- Costco rotisserie chicken (it's $5 and delicious),
- Brazi Bites from Costco are bombbbb (and an excellent gluten free bread substitute),
- Frozen cheesecakes from TJs (with frozen berries macerated in sugar if you're feeling fancy),
- Aldi's crumble topped apple pie,
- Trader Joe's frozen hors d'oeuvres.
Remember, the holidays are supposed to be about celebrating with your loved ones, so get literally ANYTHING that will help keep you sane and keep your stress levels to a minimum.
Did I miss any of YOUR favorite shortcuts? Let me know in the comments below!
5.) Make it a potluck!!
Let your guests feel good about contributing. Whether they introduce you to a new and delicious recipe or even just bring a roll of paper towels, making it a team effort makes everyone feel more included AND takes some of the time and financial burden off of you.
Make a spreadsheet with your needs. For example, you can offer to make the main course and then have everyone else claim a spot for whatever is needed. Be as vague or specific as you want - it's perfectly acceptable to put "green bean casserole" on the list, or leave it open ended like "side."
If you're being vague, make sure to leave a spot for your contributing guests to list what they're bringing so you don't end up with multiple iterations of the same dish.
You can also ask for help with everything from ice or drinks, apps, sides, desserts, or even sundries like toilet paper, dish soap or detergent, trash bags, plates, cutlery, napkins - literally anything that you can think of that'll make the party a seamless one.
6.) Plan ahead.
Turkeys are actually cheaper around the holidays because they’re a big ticket item that can lure customers into a store, but the other things on your list probably won’t also be on sale.
Start planning early and grab anything stable enough to last. This includes:
- Canned or frozen items,
- Fresh bread (if you freeze it),
- Olive oil,
- Cream and milk (these can also be frozen),
- Spices or herb plants (fresh herbs in the windowsill are pretty, plus they keep on producing if you take care of them!).
Here are even more ways to plan ahead:
- Coupons or store adverts are great ways to scout a steal.
- Cash back sites like Ibotta are also awesome - in fact, Ibotta is doing a FREE Thanksgiving offer with Walmart this year. WHAT?!?!?
7.) Shop around (if you have the luxury of a car).
I realize that having a car is a major privilege, and this isn't possible for everyone. If you don't have a car, enlist the help of one of your guests who does! It can be a fun outing with a friend. This year, I’ll likely hit Costco, Aldi AND Trader Joe’s because they each have the best deals on particular items on my list.
8.) Lean into vegetables.
Animal protein is almost always going to be pricier than vegetables, so fill your guests up on vegetarian apps and sides. Consider serving a soup as an appetizer - it’s filling, can be made ahead, served out of mugs, and is cheap and easy to make!
If you're not a pure vegetarian, you can also amp up your flavor with what I call flavor-makers. Bacon and sausage are not *terribly* expensive, and a little bit can go a long way.
9.) Consider going non-traditional
As the person who hosts the holidays each year, I personally get a little bored with the same ol' menu year after year. Remember that your feast isn't limited to the traditional stand-bys, so feel free to shake things up!
Try going multi-course: fill em up on soup, salad, and appetizers first before heading into the main event. This will allow you to choose a smaller main.
Instead of pecan pie, opt for non nut-based pies, or consider reaching for a less expensive nut. This peanut pie recipe is in my queue for this year.
You can also consider other budget friendly side options like rice, grains or beans depending on which direction you go.
You can also consider working off of a theme. For example, this year I think I'm going to do an Italian Christmas dinner (my sweet Mother-in-Law is Italian), so lasagna will likely end up being our main.
10.) Remember the drinks.
I don't know about your family, but the Schuering clan likes to get down - especially when we're all together for the holidays. Here are some of our favorite less-expensive ways to get a buzz on:
- Boxed wines are usually less expensive than bottles. I generally reach for Bota Box. Another budget friendly option that does come in a bottle is good ol' 2 buck Chuck (Charles Shaw wines, sold at Trader Joe's).
- Pitcher drinks like sangria or mulled wine are my go-tos. For more inspo, check out this article on big batch drinks that cost $30 or less for even more ideas.
Need some non-alcoholic options? No problem. Try iced tea, lemonade, or any of these big batch drinks.
Want something warm and cozy? Opt for drinks you can keep in your slow cooker or Instant Pot. I like:
- Homemade hot chocolate - swap cocoa and milk powder for an even more budget friendly drink.
- Warm apple cider - grab a bottle from the store and add your own mulling spices for a festive touch.
- Or, consider setting up a hot tea and coffee station - set out an assortment of tea bags for guests to choose from (try have one caffeinated and one decaf option), a hot water pitcher, a carafe of coffee, plus a few lemon slices, cream, honey or sugar for guests to help themselves.
To make hosting a little easier, make sure you set up a serve-yourself situation! Whether that's a cooler filled with drinks, or some kind of cocktail station, you already have enough on your plate. Let your guests help themselves!
11.) If you usually do flowers, try one of these more economical options instead.
I'm all for creating a beautiful tablescape for special occasions, but cut flowers are not your only option here! I love a bouquet as much as the next girl, but they often don't last very long and can be quite expensive. Here are a few ideas I like to turn to instead:
- Dried fall leaves. They're gorgeous, multicolored, and best of all FREE! You can even get the little ones to help you pick them out. Look for a wide color spectrum that hits yellows, oranges and reds. I particularly love oaks and maples, but find whatever suits your fancy! Pinecones and acorns can also be tossed in the mix.
- Branches from a backyard tree or bush. Here in Nashville, magnolia trees are abundant and they are my favorite go-to. Their leaves are drop dead gorgeous with a dark green shiny side and a felted golden underside. Other options include evergreens like pine or fir, or boxwood.
- Bouquets of herbs. Oftentimes, fresh herbs come in large bunches at the store. If you're not using all of them for this dinner, put them to use as a decoration! Like flowers, you should make a fresh cut to the stem and put them in cool, clean water in a vase. Once you're done for the evening, cover them with a plastic produce bag and pop them in the fridge in their vase. They'll last longer this way and will be ready for more yumminess in the future!
- Stalks of brussels sprouts. If you've never seen how brussels sprouts grow, check this out - they're amazing, right?? If you get lucky, you can buy them still on the stalk (Trader Joes and farmers markets are the best places to look). Use them as a centerpiece, then eat them afterwards!
- Candles. Tea candles are not super expensive, and they offer a beautiful ambiance. Taper candles or column candles are also gorgeous (and good to have for emergencies!), though they can get pricey depending on where you shop. Keep your eye out for them throughout the year - Trader Joe's often has great deals on them during cooler seasons, and discount stores like TJ Maxx or Ross are also great places to hunt. Make sure you opt for unscented, though - you don't want the smells from the candles competing with your delicious meal!
12.) Don't forget breakfast!
Do yourself a favor and plan a simple "serve yourself" breakfast for the morning of the big event - it'll ensure you get peace in the kitchen! Here are some ideas:
- A big container of yogurt, some granola (homemade or store bought), and some frozen berries.
- Muffins! They even come in their own container wrapper, which means less cleanup for you. Whole fruit like bananas and apples are also equally convenient for the same reason.
- A breakfast casserole style dish, like baked oatmeal with a side of milk or cream.
- A toaster set up outside the kitchen (trust me - you're gonna want the space) with a loaf of bread, some bagels or frozen waffles, plus butter and some PB&J.
- It can even be as easy as a box or two of cereal and a jug of milk (or instant oatmeal and hot water)! When I was little, my Mom didn't let us get our favorite sugary cereals (I'm a sucker for Frosted Flakes and Cap'n Crunch) except on special occasions. Even the novelty of having two cereals to mix and match was a thrill. Give yourself permission to take a well deserved break, k?
Don't forget to set out bowls/plates, napkins, and flatware if needed. The whole idea is to make sure people have agency to serve themselves, so you have all the time and space you need for the big event.
So what should I actually serve??
To keep costs down, I highly recommend offering a soup course. (Serve in mugs if you don't have the bowls!) They're filling, cheap, easy to make and can usually be frozen for a few months - all good things for a stress free holiday.
Appetizers will keep the guests at bay while you're finishing up in the kitchen. If you're doing drinks, consider anything that can be made in a pitcher or carafe so everyone can also grab drinks at will.
You'll also wanna have a main course - turkey is just one option. You can also consider other, less traditional options - revisit Tip #9 for more ideas.
Starches - potatoes and/or sweet potatoes, bread, stuffing or dressing, rice, mac & cheese, whatever your family likes best.
Veggie sides - brussels sprouts, salads, carrots, cranberry relish, anything to brighten up the plate.
Desserts - Pies are traditional, but consider other options like cookies and bars (brownies, blondies, lemon bars, etc), sundaes, bread pudding, chex mix, hot chocolate with marshmallows
DECORATING TIP FOR HOMEMADE PIES - use cookie cutters to make shapes instead of worrying about a perfect lattice or top crust. Cut out a bunch of leaves or turkeys, then layer them on top of the pie like shingles. Dust with some cinnamon sugar for an added festive touch.
If you're looking for a complete holiday menu that is already planned out, Knopf Doubleday Publishers created an awesome printable menu from amazing chefs and bloggers!
More Holiday Recipe Ideas:
If you found these Top 12 Tips For Hosting The Holidays On A Budget helpful, please be sure to comment below or share with your friends! Your comments and shares help support this blog. Until next time, I hope you have a happy, delicious and STRESS FREE holiday!!