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Holiday food on a budget

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Take a moment to reflect on the meaning of the holiday. Chances are that spending time with family and friends is more important than how fancy or expensive a holiday meal is.

Cooking for family and friends during the holidays doesn't have to be stressful or expensive. Here are some suggestions to cook up your best holiday meals yet.

Plan your meals to minimize stress

Plan your meals with the time required to prep and cook in mind. If you hope to spend time with your loved ones on the day of the event, you won’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all day.

  • Plan for dishes that you can make ahead of time, and refrigerate or freeze for later use.
  • Prepare something in a crockpot, which will allow you to make it in the morning (or evening) and not require any additional prep until it is time to serve.
  • If you are making one time-consuming menu item, plan for other easy-to-prepare items to round out the meal.
  • Consider turning one or more of your meals into a potluck. Each person (or family) can bring a dish they enjoy, you save time (and money) in the kitchen and everyone is happy in the end.
  • If everyone you are spending time with lives relatively close to each other, consider a progressive meal. As a group, you can travel to each person or family’s home to share a dish, which saves on any one person needing to prepare and cook an entire meal. For example, you could have an appetizer at one family’s home, a casserole at the next family’s home and a dessert at the third family’s home. This can also add variety and a sense of fun to a meal!
  • Consider turning some traditions upside down, and host a gathering for family and friends that isn’t focused around you preparing a full meal. For example, host a card writing, cookie making, present wrapping, or sledding party and provide cookies and hot chocolate. You’ll still get to enjoy time with loved ones while saving the stress (and dollars) it takes to prepare a full meal.

For more tips on minimizing stress during the holiday season, see Reducing stress during holidays for kids and divorce.

Plan your meals to stay within your budget

Follow these tips to help keep any meals or dishes you prepare within your budget.

  1. Look in your cupboards, pantry, refrigerator and freezer for food that you already have. A holiday meal might be a nice opportunity to use up that frozen appetizer you’ve been saving for “a special occasion” or the bag of dried cranberries you haven’t known what to do with. Still have a surplus of apples or squash from the farmers market? Your holiday meal can feature these items.
  2. Take a look at the advertised sales at your grocery store. If you discover there’s a good deal on a particular product that week, you might want to incorporate it into one of your meals.
  3. Write down your proposed menu for the holiday meals, keeping in mind what you already have on hand and what is on sale. If you’re planning to prepare one more costly dish, round out the meal with less costly dishes.
  4. Write down a list of everything else you need to purchase for the meal.
  5. Search the internet for coupons or clip coupons for items on your list.
  6. Go to the grocery store when you are not hungry to keep your spontaneous purchase to a minimum. Stay away from pre-made and pre-processed foods as they are typically much more expensive.

Stay mindful of food-related illnesses

Nothing can put a damper on your holiday like a bout of food poisoning or a food-related allergic reaction. Keep your family safe and healthy during the holiday season by following these food safety tips.

  • Wash your hands often, and make sure your children do the same! For handwashing tips, see the Food Safety team’s Washing your hands and personal cleanliness.
  • Always prepare food in a clean, and sanitized kitchen. For more information, see the Food Safety team’s A clean kitchen required for food safety.
  • Ask your guests about their food allergies before you plan your meal, and stay mindful at the store and in the kitchen about these allergies. For more information, see the Food Safety team’s Food allergies.
  • Always thaw frozen food in refrigerator, never at room temperature. Place raw meat, poultry, and fish below ready-to-eat foods, and in a container to catch drippings. For other safe thawing methods, see the United States Department of Agriculture's The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods.
  • Separate raw meat from ready-to-eat foods during storage and preparation. Do not use the same cutting boards or knives unless they have been washed and sanitized.
  • Heat foods to proper temperature when cooking. For a summary on safe cooking temperatures, see the Food Safety team’s Safe meat handling and cooking temperatures.
  • Cool leftovers within 2 hours, see the Food Safety team's What is the risk? Cooling hot food.

Use low-cost, easy-to-prepare recipes

Tasty dishes don’t need to cost a fortune to make! Look for quick, simple recipes using easy-to-find ingredients that work in even the tightest budgets on The recipe box.

Maximize those leftovers!

If you end up preparing a big meal for your loved ones, chances are that you’ll have leftover food. Don’t underestimate the power of leftovers to help save you stress and money this holiday season! Most people agree that turkey dinner leftovers is just as good the second or third day. Most guests will be appreciative that you are feeding them, and will not criticize you for serving them leftovers — especially if they were present for the original meal.

To use your leftovers “as is,” follow these tips.

  • Remove any meat from the carcass or bone, cutting it into small pieces and storing it in shallow containers in the refrigerator or freezer.
  • Use all leftovers within 4 days or freeze for later use.
  • Reheat leftovers to 165° F, or until hot and steaming.

Do you have a lot of extra leftovers? Get creative and turn them into a new low-cost meal!

Soup: Add 2 cups of chopped meat, 4 cups of chopped vegetables and 2 cups cooked rice or wild rice to 3 cans low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth. Simmer until veggies are done to your liking and flavors have blended. Add parsley, bay leaves or garlic for extra flavor.

Salads: Add leftover meat or roasted vegetables to any green salad. Try almonds and dried cranberries for a great taste. Add cooked meat to a pasta or wild rice salad with chopped broccoli, peppers, onions, carrots and celery.

Sandwiches: Allow guests to create their own sandwich creations, layering leftover meat and veggies in a sandwich, with additional sandwich toppings like lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, shredded carrots, cranberry sauce, and/or apple slices. Instead of bread, try a whole wheat pita or tortilla.

Casseroles: Layer leftovers (for example, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy) in a casserole dish. Do you just have leftover meat and vegetables? Combine 2 cups chopped leftover meat with 2 cups cooked rice, 1 can low-sodium broth or chopped tomatoes, and a selection of chopped vegetables in a 2-quart casserole. Cover and bake the casseroles at 325 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.

Skillet meals: Add 1 or 2 cups of chopped leftover meat to sautéed onion, mushrooms and broccoli. Add cooked rice or pasta. Sprinkle with shredded parmesan cheese before serving.

Breakfast dishes: Add leftover meat and/or vegetables to scrambled eggs, quiche, or omelets. For a fun twist on a classic, serve this for dinner and ask guests to come in their pajamas for “breakfast for dinner”!

Tex-Mex dishes: Add shredded or chopped leftover meat to burritos, enchiladas and tacos.

Jodi Nordlund, SNAP-Ed Educator

2016; reviewed by Mary Caskey, Associate program director in SNAP-Ed; Margaret Haggenmiller, Associate program director in SNAP-Ed; Teri Burgess-Champoux, Director in health and nutrition special projects; and Mary Schroeder, Extension educator in health and nutrition

Reviewed in 2018

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