How to create a frugal holiday dinner for four or more

From late November until early January, we fill our stomachs and empty our wallets.

As I sat down to plan my own little family's Christmas dinner, I didn't mind the stomach-filling so much, but I would like to keep our wallets as full as possible too … without the necessity of tapping into our online savings account.

So, I decided to calculate some holiday feasts … on a budget – all kinds of budgets. You know, full of flavor and festivity, but light on cramping your budget style.

Five tips to keep your holiday food budget fat and sassy

My food prices will vary from yours depending on where you live, your food preferences, and where you shop, but keep your budget in check with these five tips:

  1. Have a potluck-style meal to help spread the cost around. If your guests are able, ask them to bring a dish or two. Unfortunately, my three kids won't be contributing to the cost of our meal, but the two older kids will help prepare the food.
  2. Ask your guests to help out in the kitchen. Using tip #1, even if your guests can't buy food, employing them as temporary sous chefs can help you to cut down on convenience food. So for example, you can buy a Sara Lee pumpkin pie for $3.99 or you can make your own for about half that.
  3. Create your meal based on what's on sale. Unless Christmas just won't be the same without Grandma's pineapple-glazed ham, check out other food choices.
  4. Shop ahead. If you know your food prices, watch for sales on the food items you need. My main grocery store runs a huge meat sale every year in October. Since we have adequate freezer space, I have room to store an amazing buy if I find one.
  5. Feast thoughtfully. While I admit turkey and gravy, and mashed potatoes and gravy, and stuffing and gravy, and cranberry sauce and, well, never mind, sound good — and ARE good — after awhile, it's just food. And frankly, it all starts to taste like gravy after your tastebuds have been working overtime for 30 minutes. Instead, consider simplifying the number of dishes, so that your last bite is just as satisfying as the first.

Don't cut costs at the expense of your guests

While I believe these tips will save you money, having a holiday meal together is so much more than feeding your guests as cheaply as possible. Instead of focusing solely on the expense, think about the event and how you can best translate your love of your friends and family.

  • Is it by serving special food?
  • Using your china?
  • Providing conversation starters?
  • Elevating your normal dining experience by lighting some candles?

On the other hand, if your budget dictates that you can have some of what you want but not everything you want, prioritize and spend accordingly.

Now, how many are in your party? Step right this way…

A feast fit for four

I'm interested in how much feeding four people will cost. That's how many regular eaters we have in our family (although our 17-month-old's appetite can sometimes be big enough to count too).

The first challenge with feeding a small group of people? How much the meat weighs.

In the table below, I include average meat weights, price per pound, number of servings, and cost per serving. I added the turducken just for fun.

Note: I calculated that a serving size of meat is 4.5 ounces, the usual 3 ounces plus an additional holiday increase.

  • When the average weights or prices included a range, I used the middle in my calculations.
  • And to further complicate matters, if the type of meat included waste (bones), then I only counted about two thirds of the total weight in my calculations.

Average meat weights and prices

Meat Pounds Cost/Pound # of Servings Cost/Serving
Whole turkeys 18-20 $.99 41 $.46
Turkey breast 6-8 $2.50 25 $.70
Whole hams 10-15 $2.25 44 $.64
Ham shanks 6-8 $1.50 25 $.42
Pork loin roasts 6 $1.99 21 $.57
Eye of round boneless beef roasts 4-8 $2.99 21 $.85
Standing rib roasts 14-20 $9.99 59 $2.80
Salmon filets 1 $4.99 4 $1.25
Turducken 15 $4.67 53 $1.32

And the leftovers

As you can see, most of these meats mean our family of five will have leftovers … lots of leftovers. Not always a bad thing, but definitely something to consider. How many ways can you eat leftover turkey?

If you are concerned about food waste or you don't have adequate freezer space, ask your butcher or grocery meat department to cut your beef roasts in half. Maybe you could split your meat with another holiday celebration, or you could select the turkey breast instead of the whole turkey.

With the exception of the ham shanks, I argue that any of these main courses can be elevated to holiday fare — easily — with the right recipe. So, if your budget isn't as large as you'd like, choose a meat with lower per serving costs and vary the amount to eliminate the possibility of leftovers.

Save on side dishes

Let's move around our plate now that we have discussed the most expensive dish of your holiday meal.

The humble potato has a humble price too. A five-pound bag of potatoes is on sale for $0.99 at my grocery store this week — 5 pounds / $0.20 per pound / 16 5-ounce servings / $0.06 per serving (not including butter).

Sweet potatoes were on sale for a similar price. My sweet potato casserole recipe is eaten by (most) family members who don't like sweet potatoes, but it also includes butter, pecans, eggs, and other ingredients. You may opt for baked sweet potatoes.

This week, my store has baby spinach on sale for $2 per 5-ounce bag. If using baby spinach for a salad, think warm bacon dressing, homemade croutons, and a sliced hard-boiled egg or two.

Root vegetables that may not get a lot of play — such as, parsnips, carrots, turnips, and onions — are generally inexpensive to buy. But when they're roasted with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, they become food fit for a king. An extra holiday bonus? Drizzle them with a little maple syrup.

Finish off your meal…

We'll complete our meal with a small dessert. Pumpkin pie, creme brulee, or maybe some poached pears? With pears on sale for $0.99 per pound and their elegant presentation, it'd be a feast for our eyes as well.

To figure out how much your frugal feast will cost, use my numbers as an estimate. As the number of people increases around your table, most of your costs will increase too.

Savor the memories

But no matter what you decide to serve your guests, may the kinship be as warm as the coffee and the memories created. If you ask me, that is the best kind of gift.

Are you planning a holiday meal? What do you do to manage the cost and maintain a festive feeling?

More about...Food, Frugality

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

home made foods certainly cost less, you can try out Indian bazars in the bay areas for good deals and for a change you can even host an Indian dinner.

5 years ago
Reply to  Raj

I really disagree. Maybe it varies by region – where I live, homemade food is much more expensive than ready-made equivalents. I think it’s worth the extra cost as the quality is better and you can tailor it to your own tastes, but it’s not really a budget option.

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

Thanksgiving featured a free turkey (grocery store promotion) and guests brought sides. I made the pies. Christmas at my brother’s house is mainly appetizers, since that’s what we fill up on anyway. I used to make lots of cookies, but have been getting away from that lately, mostly because of my weight.

My Factoring Network
My Factoring Network
5 years ago

Wow it’s the Christmas time coming. I am waiting for the Christmas night to have a party and good food. I believe in home cooked food with fresh ingredients. How can a meal be completed without a desert? The home cooked food is much better than expenses we occur outside for food.

Kalie @ Pretend to Be Poor
Kalie @ Pretend to Be Poor
5 years ago

I’ll be hosting a holiday party where I’ll provide some homemade treats centering on a cost-effective, delicious bread dough (think pepperoni roll or homemade garden pesto crostini) and healthier appetizers like homemade hummus and veggies. And of course Christmas cookies. While we’ll provide wine, guests are invited to byob. Our “entertainment” usually consists of a roaring fire & roasting chestnuts.

5 years ago

I buy a fresh chicken from the market as my kids don’t like turkey. We serve it with the usual British xmas side dishes such as pigs in blankets, parsnips, brussel sprouts,roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings.

The kids enjoy it and chicken is a lot cheaper than turkey over here.

On xmas eve I make a homemade soup (chestnut and chorizo) served with crusty bread.

5 years ago

We will be making a slow-braised pork shoulder for Christmas, bought for 99c per pound (so $8 for the main attraction!) – leftovers will be made into soup and the bones will be saved for broth (the start of a different soup, I’m sure!)

Tristan @ Dividendsdownunder
Tristan @ Dividendsdownunder
5 years ago

Great ideas.

Shop at a discount shop, eg Aldi. That will save you heaps.

5 years ago

Good tips. I’ve found over the years I spend way to much time worrying about the meal for guests. Mostly we’re so busy talking that anyone hardly tastes the food. Simple is always better at holiday time.

Msary kim
Msary kim
4 years ago

Good tips. I’ve found over the years I spend way to much time worrying about the meal for guests. Here to find more click here