Thanksgiving dinner is inching closer to 50 bucks every year.
That would be the average price of a traditional meal for 10 16-pound turkey, green peas, sweet potatoes, dressing, rolls, cranberries, a gallon of milk, pumpkin pie filling, pie shells and whipped cream.
When the American Farm Bureau Federation started tracking the price in 1986, the average cost was $28.74. This year, it hit $49.48, up 28 cents from last years $49.20.
Of course, thats a pretty basic meal. Add in the appetizers, maybe a few bottles of wine and a couple of desserts and the real cost climbs a lot higher. Thats especially true this year. Between the cost of living and a Midwest drought, the price of food has either crept up or leapt up, depending on where you look on your food bill.
This year, weve tried to help a little with our series on frugal cooking. Weve talked to home economics teachers, food writers, restaurant owners and economic advisers on how to save a little here and there.
To wrap it up, we decided to see how bargain-minded we could get about the biggest meal of all. At about $50 for eight servings, not including a turkey, it is higher than that national average. But it has more to offer. It is a time of celebration, and we all want the meal to be special. There are ways, though, that we can keep costs in line.
Planning ahead is the best tool, said Erin Huffstetler. A mother of two in east Tennessee, Huffstetler runs the Frugal Living section of the website about.com. Shes also a champion corner-cutter who writes for several bargain-focused websites and magazines.
Im always mindful of the cost of things, she says. For Thanksgiving, I do a lot of the cooking from scratch. We think its a hard thing to do. But the thing is, it doesnt have to be.
If you plan ahead, she says, its easier to find time to do things like make the dough for pie crust and sock it away in the freezer.
Her favorite pick for the most affordable thing on the Thanksgiving menu? Cranberry sauce, since bags of fresh cranberries are often selling at deep discounts.
I would totally recommend everybody give homemade cranberry sauce a shot. Its the simplest thing cranberries, sugar and water or orange juice. It takes 3 minutes and its so much better than the canned stuff.
Of course, not everything from scratch is the best deal at Thanksgiving. Stores run so many specials, its worth weighing your time and your expectation against the sale prices. While fresh, farm-raised or all-natural turkeys usually sell for higher prices, many stores offer deep discounts on frozen turkeys. The national average, according to the American Farm Bureau, is $1.39 a pound this year. Its up to you to decide which is worth it for you.
Even if you choose a higher-priced turkey, though, you can bring down the cost by making sure you use every bit of it. Remove the meat right after the Thanksgiving meal and split it into packages for sandwiches, casseroles or salads. Within a day, send the picked-over bones, skin and trimmings to the stockpot, to yield enough broth for several meals.
For Huffstetler, the real trick to keeping down the cost of Thanksgiving is making things yourself. We asked her to finish the sentence Dont bother to buy ...
Pie crust, she said, firmly. People think thats a hard thing to make. Its not, and you can make it now and put the dough in the freezer.
Dont bother to buy boxed stuffing mix. Its very, very basic ingredients. Dont bother to buy the seasonal spices apple pie spice, pumpkin pie spice, poultry seasoning. We assume those are special things, but theyre all just a mix of things you probably already have in your spice rack.
Even though it appears the economy is improving a little, Huffstetler thinks the bargain-living habits many people have developed lately arent just a passing fad.
When I go to the store, I see shelves being clear of whatever the deal was that week (on couponing websites). It will be interesting to see if this is now more of a habit for people.
Editors note: For the estimated price-per-serving on our dishes, we used prices from a local Harris Teeter with no sales or coupons. We omitted salt and pepper and some herbs that were too small to estimate accurately. We did not estimate the price per serving for turkey because prices and number of servings, including stock, vary widely.
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