Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.
Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can feel like a thankless job if you’ve destroyed your budget to do so. But it doesn't have to be that way. By setting realistic expectations, shopping strategically and delegating tasks, this can be an affordable meal to prepare. Here’s how to pull off a cheap Thanksgiving dinner:
1. Stick to the basics
First, drop the “Pinterest fantasy,” says Hali Bey Ramdene, food editor for The Kitchn. Your sanity and wallet will take a hit if you attempt the pear sangria and the sweet potato and Brussels sprout okonomiyaki and the apple-pecan pumpkin Bundt cake. Oh, and the turkey.
Use Pinterest and other social media sites as inspiration, not as a barometer of success. If you want to attempt a challenging dish, go for it. Otherwise, take advantage of the affordability of the Thanksgiving basics: turkey, potatoes and other vegetables.
Ramdene also points out that you probably don’t need a dozen appetizers and side dishes. “Think of the plate,” she says. A dish with just the essentials is a feast, when you consider a couple of slices of turkey, along with stuffing, potatoes and cranberry sauce. Would your guests even have room for the fancy Bundt cake?
» SIGN UP: NerdWallet helps you stay on budget
2. Rethink the turkey
Look at your guest list and ask yourself if you really need to roast and serve a whole turkey. That’s a lot of food and a lot of work.
Instead, consider serving just a turkey breast. That’s what Katie Moseman, owner of the blog Recipe for Perfection, has done for the past three years. Moseman says a turkey breast is cheaper than a whole turkey and much easier to cook. Plus, it’s still tasty and attractive, with a “beautiful caramel brown exterior,” she says.
Worried about bucking tradition? “You’d have to have pretty fussy guests to complain,” Moseman says. “The carving the turkey on the table thing really only happens on TV.” As Ramdene puts it: “This is not a Norman Rockwell painting.”
If you’re feeding many guests and want to roast the whole bird, you’ll encounter a range of price tags and types. The Kitchn’s guide to buying a turkey may help you find one that fits your budget.
3. Shop wisely
That means starting now. Moseman scouts online and paper flyers of local stores and compares prices for the ingredients she’ll need. “A lot of times, the best deals won’t be found all at one store,” she says. So if you’re truly looking for the best bargain on each item, you’ll likely have to make a few stops.
As you create your “plan of attack,” as Moseman calls it, consider the value of your time, too. The grocery across town may sell pumpkin pies that are 80 cents cheaper than those at your neighborhood store, for example, but is that worth a 30-minute drive?
» MORE: How to save money on groceries
4. Enlist help
“Cooking Thanksgiving dinner by yourself is a falsehood,” Ramdene says. Save yourself stress and money by having guests bring dishes or beverages to share.
Ask guests with food intolerances or allergies to bring a side dish that’s safe for them to eat. That way, you’re not shelling out for specialized ingredients or sweating over a tailored dish, Moseman says.
Specify requests for other guests, too. “Don’t just tell guests to ‘bring whatever,’” Ramdene says. “If you decide to host, you’re like a taskmaster.” Ask for a dessert to share, for example, or a hot appetizer.
Chances are your guests will appreciate a chance to contribute during the giving season. “People like to show up and bring their best dish,” Moseman says. “It takes pressure off the host, it costs less, and they’re happy to say, ‘Here’s something amazing I cooked. Please compliment me.”
5. Downplay social media
Just as Pinterest can set unrealistic expectations while you're planning the meal, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat can up the ante come dinnertime. “Before, you just had dinner with your people. You fed them, and it was wonderful,” Ramdene says. “Now those people are taking photos of every single thing and narrating the dinner.”
Ramdene suggests gently asking guests to not use their phones at the dinner table. That way, they’re more present to exchange real-life experiences rather than Instagram stories. “The goal of Thanksgiving is to feed your family and be thankful together,” Ramdene says, “even if your potatoes don’t really look good with the Lark filter on them.”
NerdWallet breaks down your spending for you — Sign up for free to see where your money is going and find ways to save.