How to Host a Budget-Friendly Thanksgiving
Smart tips and 20 festive, budget-friendly Thanksgiving recipes for a memorable meal
Above: Apple-Pecan Tart, Braised Turkey Legs With Roasted Garlic Gravy, and Greens and Beans Casserole. Recipes by Rebecca Firkser. Photo by Olga Ivanova.
(Want more Thanksgiving recipes and tips? Check out our big Yummly Thanksgiving page!)
Given inflation, labor shortages, and climate change, among other reasons, this year’s Thanksgiving is going to be pricier than last year’s. Walk through the grocery store and you’ll notice meat, eggs, milk, butter, and produce prices are sky-high. While the latest Consumer Price Index numbers show consumer prices rising slower than expected last month, common ingredients used in the holiday menu remain much more expensive today than they were last year. Still, that doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to spending several paychecks on one feast. It's not only possible to make a Thanksgiving meal on a tight budget, it can be a creative challenge that you and yours will remember — and even rave about — for years to come.
Personally, if I’ve committed to hosting Thanksgiving, I’m not going to nickel and dime my way to ensure the meal is as cheap as possible. I find that usually means I’m wasting time that I could spend cooking manically running to multiple grocery stores looking for the most inexpensive butternut squash or green beans or canned pumpkin.
Instead, I plan a menu based around a handful of budget-friendly tips — see more on that below. I shop at one or two grocery stores I know are affordable for me, but I still pay attention to responsibly-sourced meat and produce wherever possible (something that’s important to me, though this can sometimes mean spending more).
That said, I’m never going to plan to make recipes that call for the priciest cuts of meat or vegetables. Instead, I lean into Thanksgiving side dishes (they’re the favorites, anyway!) that prioritize cheaper ingredients. I go minimal on the decor, and always leave a handful of extras (appetizers, rolls, multiple drinks or desserts) up to my guests to bring. Let’s get into this budget-friendly Thanksgiving meal.
Jump ahead to:
How much should I budget for Thanksgiving?
While there’s no way to know exactly how much money American families spend on Thanksgiving dinner, a few outlets do publish reports. In 2021, for a 10-person gathering, Lending Tree found consumers expected to spend an average of $392 to host Thanksgiving (including food, drink, and home decor — 18 percent less than 2020 projections). On the other hand, the American Farm Bureau’s annual Thanksgiving survey from 2022 reported an average of only $64 (a 20 percent increase from the previous year) — that’s just over $6 a person. The dramatic difference in these numbers shakes out to myriad factors, from location to specific supermarkets to product quality, and more. It ultimately points to the fact that the amount one should spend on Thanksgiving dinner is personal: Some families would rather go all out for the holiday with the best of the best, while others prefer to keep it as cheap as possible, even if that means sacrificing quality.
If you’re on a tight budget, I recommend scoping out local stores a week or so in advance for an idea of current prices and picking a total dollar amount you want to stick to — be that $50, $400, or anything in between — and work backwards from there when deciding on recipes for the meal. For an 8-person meal, I try to keep my spending under $150.
Tips to save money on Thanksgiving
There’s no way around it: The big Thanksgiving stars (whole turkey, Brussels sprouts, fresh green beans, fresh cranberries) are pricier when compared to other proteins and fall produce. You don’t have to nix them all from your budget-friendly Thanksgiving menu, but if you’re hoping to save money, be prepared to change things up. If the food is prepared with intention and you’ve picked good recipes, no one will notice — or care about — your money-saving adjustments.
1. Skip the big bird
Whole turkey, the centerpiece of many a Thanksgiving menu, is expensive. The USDA recently reported that fresh turkeys are running $1.27-$1.74 per pound, which is actually far cheaper than in my markets in New York, where most birds are nearly double that. (Boneless turkey breast costs lots more in my area, at $6.70 per pound.) The more responsibly sourced the turkey is, as well as additional factors like organic or heritage breeds, and fresh versus frozen, will also affect the price.
A huge way to cut costs from Thanksgiving is simple: nix the turkey. Swapping in a cheaper cut of poultry, like chicken leg quarters (chicken tends to be cheaper than turkey, and legs have more edible meat per pound than whole birds), or focusing on side dishes, will easily shave at least $20, if not more, from your meal’s price tag.
Less drastic: consider swapping the whole turkey for parts. Factoring about 1/2 pound of boneless meat per person, you can roast a pan of tender turkey legs (or all drumsticks, at $0.61 per pound), like I’ve done in my Braised Turkey Legs With Roasted Garlic Gravy.
2. Focus on cheaper fruits and vegetables
Seeking out cheaper fruits and vegetables like apples, pears, and frozen cranberries (over berries and stone fruit, say), and white and sweet potatoes, carrots, green cabbage, broccoli, and kale (over fresh corn, Brussels sprouts, and fresh green beans) will save you money.
While canned produce is nearly always cheaper than fresh, it’s often lacking in flavor. If you want to swap out fresh products, try frozen instead of canned. Or switch things up. In my Greens and Beans Casserole, I skip the usual canned green beans and mushroom soup (or pricey fresh green beans). Instead I opt for a bounty of inexpensive fresh leafy greens plus canned white beans and coconut milk. Bonus: The casserole is totally vegan and gluten-free, and hefty enough to satisfy folks at the table who don’t eat turkey or stuffing.
3. Streamline the appetizers
I’ve often found that guests tend to fill up on appetizers before even getting to the Thanksgiving meal. Consider skipping formal appetizers, and instead putting out a smaller spread. See if there’s a deal to score at the grocery store on multiple packages of crackers, chips, or pretzels, and check out cheeses that are on sale (there are always a few!). You truly don’t need much more when there’s a big meal on deck.
More ideas: Look for party-size packages of frozen appetizers and snacks like pizza bites, pigs in a blanket, and Tater Tots. And opt for hummus or bean dip over cream-cheesy spinach-artichoke dip (dairy is almost always more pricey than pulses).
4. Ask guests to contribute
My favorite way to save money on Thanksgiving: have your guests contribute. Even if you’re tackling the bulk of the meal, you can ask a few people to bring something to drink — be that a bottle of wine, six-pack of beer, or non-alcoholic aperitifs, seltzer, or soda — and have others contribute dessert. If you’d feel more comfortable, pad out the table by buying just a few bottles and making one pie — perhaps my eye-catching and budget-friendly Apple-Pecan Tart — but leave the rest to your friends and family.
5. Consider a Thanksgiving potluck
If paying for the whole meal yourself is not in the budget but you’re itching to host Thanksgiving dinner, suggest a Thanksgiving potluck, where each guest arrives with a fully-prepared dish for the meal. The best way to plan is to make a spreadsheet with suggestions like turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, side dishes, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, pies (and so on), claiming a dish or two for yourself and letting guests claim all the others. You’ll save money and probably have way more fun, getting to spend less time in the kitchen and more time at the table.
Budget Thanksgiving feast comparison chart
Here’s how some costs shake out for traditional versus budget Thanksgiving ingredients. Note that prices are based on averages from the USDA and national supermarkets, and likely will not be exactly the same at your local supermarket.
Yummly’s budget-friendly Thanksgiving dinner for 8
Below you’ll find three recipes to star in your budget-friendly Thanksgiving that cut corners on cost but not flavor (or beauty, for that matter!). You can serve this simple spread as is, or have guests contribute a few other Thanksgiving classics.
For many, it’s simply not Thanksgiving without turkey. But let’s face it: Whole turkeys are expensive. Those looking for a cheaper version of the classic should consider roasting whole turkey legs. Since they’re nice and meaty, you’ll need a smaller total amount. About 7 pounds whole legs, or a mix of drumsticks and thighs, will easily serve 8 people.
And if you think you don’t like dark meat, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried my recipe. While whole-roasted turkeys often leave the darker meat of the drumsticks and thighs a bit tough, this low-and-slow braise yields meat so tender it basically falls off the bone.
You’ll dry-brine the legs overnight, which is just rubbing them in a simple mixture of salt, pepper, and brown sugar. Then sear on the stove to nail that delightful golden brown color. Deglaze the pan with a bit of water and vinegar for a super-flavorful braising liquid, and transfer to a roasting pan in the oven with garlic and onions to slowly braise. When the turkey’s done, turn the garlic and pan drippings into a delicious, mellow turkey gravy. After a bite, you may never want to roast a whole turkey again.
Green bean casserole is a Thanksgiving classic. But unless you’re using canned green beans (and let’s be honest, they leave something to be desired when it comes to flavor and texture) you’ll spend quite a lot of cash on a dish that isn’t especially filling. I propose a makeover that will also please any vegan or gluten-free folks at your Thanksgiving table.
Leafy, soft-textured greens like Lacinato kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens are plentiful in the fall, and you can find huge bunches (I’m talking 1 pound or more) for less than $3. Give those greens a chop, then wilt them down a bit in a skillet — and don’t forget the stems, they’re totally edible, and should never wind up in the trash.
Skip the canned cream of mushroom soup for a creamy, filling casserole base of coconut milk infused with garlic and thyme and thickened with white beans. Finally, though you can buy french-fried onions, it’s easy (and cheap) to make your own. Save the oil for salad dressings, pasta sauces…or maybe to make more onions, after accidentally eating them all before topping this casserole!
Pecan pie is a Thanksgiving classic, but there’s no way around it: Pecans are expensive. Even if you’re shopping at a cheaper store, a pound of pecans can run upwards of $15 — and most pecan pies call for at least 2 cups of nuts. To channel the traditional pie’s toasty-sweet vibes without costing an arm and a leg, try my apple-pecan tart. Not only is it elegant and budget-friendly, it’s also fairly simple to put together.
The press-in crust is crumbly and rich like shortbread, and it’s so much less fussy than pie dough. Top that with a toasted nut filling that’s reminiscent of frangipane but uses just 3/4 cup pecans — and, when blended with brown sugar and a few other ingredients, tastes surprisingly like pecan pie filling. Before baking the tart, arrange thinly sliced apples over the nut paste. For a bit of shimmer, add a final apple jelly glaze.
17 more budget-friendly Thanksgiving recipes
Need more recipe inspiration for a budget-minded feast? From the usual suspects (stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce) to other flavorful-yet-affordable vegetable sides and desserts, we’ve got you covered.
This sheet pan feast of squash, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts (and more!) tastes just like a classic Thanksgiving menu, but swaps the meat for canned beans. The plant-based alternative makes the recipe a dream for both vegans and those of us on a budget.
Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (or a mix of thighs and drumsticks) boast the most edible meat per pound of poultry. This recipe is so simple you probably have nearly everything else you need to make it in the kitchen. Extra budget tip: use halved small red onions instead of shallots — they taste the same but are way cheaper.
One of the best ways to save money on Thanksgiving is to make fewer dishes. This stuffing is just one recipe, but you also get roasted butternut squash and Brussels sprouts in the mix.
Corn casserole is easy on the wallet and the cook — it’s as simple as opening a few cans and a box of cornbread mix.
Canned cranberry sauce and this recipe will cost about the same, but if you’re a homemade stan, look no further than this simple one.
Russets are the cheapest potatoes out there (at about 99 cents per pound), but they can get gluey in mashed potatoes if overworked, so blend them on medium-low speed with a mixer and treat them simply with just butter and milk, as in this recipe.
Common additions to mashed potatoes like sour cream and milk can get pricey, so consider this vegan recipe: between creamy russet potatoes and rich vegan butter (with the starchy cooking water for moisture) you won’t miss the dairy.
Sure, you could just plunk sweet potatoes in the oven with butter and salt, and call it a day, but this recipe, which calls for thinly-sliced sweet potatoes, transforms the same affordable ingredients into a centerpiece dish.
Instead of going over the top with dozens of components in one dish, try focusing on one exciting ingredient and keeping everything else simple and budget-friendly. In this recipe, Angostura bitters elevate a simple mix of sweet potatoes, orange juice, and herbs.
One of the most affordable vegetables, carrots need little more than olive oil, salt, and pantry-staple spices to sing. This version dresses them in honey, which brings out carrots' natural sweetness.
Can’t have Thanksgiving without Brussels sprouts? Check out this recipe — or rather, recipes — which offer multiple variations on seasonings for the vegetable. I bet you already have ingredients for at least a few on hand.
Budget-friendly tip: Skip the green salad on Thanksgiving. Tender lettuce can get expensive (and if it’s dressed too early it’ll get soggy), whereas raw carrots are far more affordable. The spicy harissa and creamy feta make this a hearty side that can sit for hours.
If you’re splurging on fresh green beans, skip the casserole and keep the dish simple to let the vegetable shine (and save money on other ingredients). This recipe calls for just lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
It’s always cheaper to DIY dessert. If you anticipate being short on time on Thanksgiving day, plan on making apple pie, which actually tastes (and slices) better if left to cool overnight.
Save a bit of cash by combining a couple Thanksgiving classics in one dessert, like in this apple-pumpkin galette. (It’s also so much less fussy than pie, which is always a win.)
Pecans are expensive, but if you can’t skip the classic pie, try this pumpkin-pecan hybrid, which brings all the sticky-sweet delight of pecan pie for just 1/2 cup nuts.
So many recipes call for just egg yolks, leaving you with a mess of unused egg whites. Don’t toss them! Make a dessert with meringue (pillowy whipped egg whites and sugar), like these silky pumpkin pie bars.
More inspiration for your feast
Get lots more Thanksgiving tips and recipes in these next articles.