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You’re on a tight budget. You don’t have to be a Scrooge about it and forgo a nice meal for your close family and maybe a friend or two. Cooking a special holiday dinner for six people for less than $75 can be a reality. No kidding. You gotta be smart about it, however.*
Trouble spots: Wine, cocktails, cheese, ready-made canapés, and the main animal protein are often where people falter. No, that’s not the whole meal. First off, if you’re having a couple guests, ask them each to bring a bottle of wine. You could even ask them to bring cheese, but that depends how punctual they are if you want it as part of your hors d’ oeuvres.
Before planning your menu and definitely before shopping, go through your cupboards and refrigerator, including the door where you keep the condiments. You can then pick and create dishes based on what you already have. Plus, then you won’t commit the cardinal sin of buying an ingredient twice.
Let’s break down Christmas dinner into its essential components and give you a budget, tips, and recipe ideas for each.
Appetizer Budget: $15
Keeping this category under $15 can be hard, but stick to your menu plan, and it can be done. Make one kind of hors d’oeuvres, and then include random extra nibbles. If no one else is supplying the cheese and it’s important to you (as it should be, unless you are lactose-sensitive or intolerant) then spend no more than $10 on one nice cheese only. Get less if you don’t want to sacrifice quality. If your chosen cheese is hard or semi-hard, serve it on a plate sliced into small pieces, which will spread the wealth better among more people. Include a little bowl of honey or jam you already have, as well as any dried fruit, pickles, olives, or pickled anything you find in the fridge. The same goes with nuts. If you’re serving soft cheese, don’t put it on the cheese board or platter whole. Spread that goat cheese or ricotta on toasted slices of French bread ($2). Top it with whatever fresh herb you bought for another dish, and fry it in oil so it’s shiny and crunchy. Use fig jam, if you have it. Or dried fig slices. Or roast a red pepper and place slices on top. Then it’s a crostini. Even better, consider whipped feta as a crostini topper.
Try this: Fig Jam and Goat Cheese Crostini
This could cost you the entire appetizer budget if you’re not careful, so if you don’t already have the jam or can’t find it for less than $6 a jar, use dried figs or dates. And use whatever fresh herb you have, especially if it’s mint. Get our Fig Jam and Goat Cheese Crostini recipe.
Try this: Duxelles (Mushroom Paste)
Use sweet yellow onion or whatever onion you have if shallots are too expensive. This is a good way to stretch that hard cheese. Get our Duxelles recipe.
Main Protein Budget: $25
You already did turkey for Thanksgiving, so try another meaty main. Ham is less expensive than beef, so go ahead and glaze one. At Albertson’s, the largest grocery chain in the U.S., one weekly ad shows a cured spiralized ham at $1.49 a pound for savings club members, compared to rib roast at $6.99 a pound and beef tenderloin at $10.99 a pound. So you could try for a 10-pound maximum ham and spend $15 or less. Spend the savings on your apps, sides, or desserts. If you do go for beef, pick one of the cheaper, tougher cuts and roast that hunk low and slow (like more than 5 hours) for some no-knife-needed tenderness. Don’t buy gravy. Make it from the meat’s fat and drippings, plus flour or cornstarch and some stock if you have it.
Try this: Honey Mustard-Glazed Ham
You see, if you buy a ham like this one at 10 pounds, you could have two to four servings leftover for day-after sandwiches. Yasss. If you only have 3/4 cup of honey, do it anyway, without buying more honey. No biggie. Get our Honey Mustard-Glazed Ham recipe.
Sides Budget: $20
Root vegetables are in season, and they’re cheap. That goes for carrots, parsnips, onions, and potatoes. The simpler you keep it, the less you’ll spend. Let the natural flavors of the vegetables assert themselves. Mash your potatoes with butter and salt or roast them in wedges with some oil and herbs. Carrots, no problem. Now you need at least one green. Buy whatever green is the least expensive and most in season, and saute it with garlic, pepper, or maybe even nutmeg. Roasted broccoli or cauliflower are great. A seasonal squash can be wonderful too. It’s so sweet already. If you require stuffing, keep that simple too. Make a ($1) box of Jiffy cornbread for your stuffing, and use celery, onions, and broth. If you have any dried fruits or nuts in the kitchen, toss those in as well. About three side dishes should be enough. To be safe, you could make some dinner rolls or biscuits.
Tip: Make your bread even more special with composed butter. Soften the butter and add herbs, honey, or spices and then harden the butter again in the fridge. It will seem fancy and will cost you nothing extra.
Try this: Sweet Potato Biscuits
Consider this recipe, especially if you already have a bunch of flour and whole milk. You’ll only need to buy one sweet potato. Cut the biscuits smaller for more than eight biscuits. Get our Sweet Potato Biscuits recipe.
Try this: Citrus Collards with Raisins
You could use any bitter greens for this dish, which pairs well with savory mains. It’s especially good if you have raisins on hand. Get our Citrus Collards with Raisins recipe.
Try this: Roasted Butternut Squash with Pears
One large butternut squash, or two medium-sized ones if your guests have heartier appetites, a few pears, and onions and you’re ready. Save money by using dried rosemary. Get our Roasted Butternut Squash with Pears recipe.
Dessert Budget: $10
Make no more than two desserts. One big dessert could even be enough. The trick here is to pick an in-season fruit and play off that. Apples, pears, or cranberries are go-to ideas. Make a pie with from-scratch crust. Pumpkin or sweet potato pie doesn’t have to be pricy either. If you don’t want to even attempt a crust, make an apple-cranberry crumble. Serve it with freshly whipped cream, which requires only a small carton of cream. Add brown sugar or maple syrup to it if you wish and have it. Then, make cookies or bars, something that doesn’t require anything expensive. Nothing more is needed. If you do it right, most people will be so full anyway, they’ll just want a taste.
Try it: Easy Apple Crisp
No crust necessary, just the oats and brown sugar you possibly have in the cupboard. Make it with whipped cream on the side or dolloped on top. Get our Easy Apple Crisp recipe.
Try it: Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
You might get away with making these wonderful and seasonally festive cookies by buying only a bar of chocolate and powdered sugar, if you don’t already have it, and if you have four eggs lying around. Get our Chocolate Crinkle Cookies recipe.
Drinks Budget: $5
Buy a big jug of apple or cranberry juice and make a mulled beverage. Or just save your five bucks and drink the wine that your guests supplied and give the kids and nondrinkers water. It’s all good.
Try this: Mulled Apple Cider
Don’t have those whole spices this recipe requires? Use the powdered versions you have. Be flexible. This is really an extra anyway. Get our Mulled Apple Cider recipe.
All of it = $75! (… if you’re disciplined.)
Stay strong. Stick to the plan. Don’t go credit-crazy.
*For the cheapest option, you can always have a potluck. Then just make two dishes, like the main meat and a side, plus a cider or punch.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She’s trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.