Every family has its own holiday traditions, but Christmas dinner menus tend to be more flexible than their Thanksgiving counterparts. You might opt to do another turkey or change things up with a spiral ham or nice roast: It’s up to you — and the friends and family who will gather around your table.
The flexibility surrounding Christmas dining options can make it harder to compile a grocery shopping list for the big day. However, this quick holiday guide should cover most of the basics, no matter which dishes you choose.
1. Baking Powder or Soda
Some of the baked goods on your table will rely on yeast for leavening, but most Christmas treats — including cookies, cakes and fresh biscuits — use baking powder or soda instead. Pro tip: The effectiveness of these items can fade over time, so buy fresh versions for your holiday recipes.
Cost: $2.09 (powder); $2.00 (soda)
2. Brandy, Rum or Bourbon
Spirits aren’t just for cocktails, though you might want one by the time you’re finished cooking. On the contrary, these alcohol varieties can be important ingredients in desserts — or especially flavorful sauces for your entree or side dishes. If alcohol is an issue for members of your guest list, you can usually get by with a brandy, rum or bourbon flavoring extract instead.
Cost: $20.89 per bottle
A crucial ingredient in most baked goods, butter adds richness and flavor to sauces and side dishes. If you’re trying to limit calories and saturated fats in your Christmas dinner menu, reserve butter for uses in which its flavor will be front and center, but your portions will be small, such as shortbread cookies or mashed potatoes.
Cost: $3.58 per pound
Celery isn’t usually the star of a dish, but it plays an important supporting role. This veggie has the ability to make things around it taste better, which is why it should be in your stuffing and many of your appetizers.
Pro tip: Put chopped celery and carrots in your roasting pan along with the onion. The mixture (called “mirepoix”) will add depth of flavor when you turn those drippings into gravy.
Cost: $2.23 per heart
It’s no secret that chocolate is a crucial component of many beloved holiday treats, such as cookies and brownies. For best results, hoard a bit of the good stuff to help you de-stress after your guests have gone home.
If there’s a single aroma that says “Christmas,” it’s probably cinnamon wafting through the house. You’ll need this spice in ground form for pies and holiday cookies, but be sure to pick up some cinnamon sticks, as well. They’re an essential garnish for your mulled wine or cider.
Cost: $2.68 (2.37 ounces, ground); $7.98 (9 ounces, sticks)
Chocolate desserts aren’t always made with actual chocolate. Instead, these treats often contain cocoa powder, which is basically just chocolate with most of its fat removed. Plus, a cup of hot cocoa is a pleasant — and non-alcoholic — way to unwind after Christmas dinner.
Cost: $2.77 (8 ounces)
Whether stirred into soup, beaten into potatoes or whipped and spooned on desserts, cream adds richness to a wide array of dishes. Count on using it in at least a few appetizers or dessert items this year — and probably a couple of savory side dishes, as well.
Cost: $5.58 per quart
9. Cream Cheese
Cream cheese brings a rich and tangy flavor to any number of appetizer and canape recipes, and it’s been known to show up in desserts from time to time, too. If you want to raise your mashed-potato game, soften some cream cheese and stir it in rather than using cream or butter.
Cost: $2.48 (8 ounces)
You need eggs to make those colorful cookies, as well as the filling for your pecan or pumpkin pie. However, you can also use this essential Christmas ingredient to make your own eggnog from scratch.
Cost: $1.40 per dozen
Even if you don’t use much flour the rest of the year, you’ll likely go through a lot as you prepare your Christmas dinner. This recipe ingredient goes into the dinner rolls, the desserts and even your gravy.
Pro tip: If you struggle with chewy biscuits, cakes or pie crusts, splurge on some low-gluten cake or pastry flour that’s milled specifically for these recipes.
Garlic isn’t as crucial to your meal as onion, but it’s still found its way into many Christmas dinner recipes. Rub it on a roast or put some in the cavity of your bird, and by all means use a hint of it in your gravy. Some of your appetizer recipes will probably call for garlic, as well.
Cost: $1.48 (3 bulbs)
13. Glace Fruit
Fruitcake isn’t a must-have Christmas treat in many households these days, but you probably still want to buy some glace fruit for the holidays. For all their artificiality, those gaudy cherries still look pretty on your glazed ham, and higher-quality glazed fruit lends a superior flavor to Christmas cookies, cakes and pastries.
Cost: $5.95 (16 ounces of lemon peel)
14. Green Beans
Carrots, squash and other cold-weather vegetables are tasty and nutritious, but your plates just won’t look right without a green vegetable to complement all that yellow and orange. Green beans are an ideal choice, as they go well with a bird, roast or ham. And, of course, they’re a key ingredient in a certain classic casserole.
Cost: $2.98 (12-ounce bag)
15. Leafy Greens
Holiday meals are rich and lavish by nature, so it’s important to balance things out with a couple dishes that are light and healthy. Crisp, leafy greens — whether served in bite-sized appetizer portions or as a salad course during the main meal — are just the thing.
Cost: $3.83 per pound (spinach)
Along with being a key beverage at the table — especially the kids’ table — milk is a fundamental ingredient in holiday baking. You’ll probably add some to side dishes, such as mashed potatoes or casseroles, as well.
Cost: $3.29 per gallon
Onions provide the flavorful foundation of almost every savory dish on your Christmas dinner menu, from the first appetizer to the last drop of gravy. They’re inexpensive and have a big impact, so use them freely.
Cost: $3.10 (3-pound bag)
Yes, pecan pie is one of the season’s most iconic desserts. However, even if you don’t plan on baking one this year, it’s worth having pecans on hand. Their rich, buttery flavor will enhance your favorite squash or sweet potato dish, and they make a fine garnish for salads.
Whether you opt to build your Christmas dinner around a ham, turkey or roast, potatoes are likely to be a main side dish on your table. Roasted, boiled, mashed or baked into a casserole, they’re the best friend your entree will have.
Cost: 70 cents per pound
21. Prepared Broth
Whichever entree you’ve chosen for the main meal, you’ll probably need some prepared beef, chicken or vegetable broth. Use broth as a base for a soup or sauce or add it to the drippings, so you’ll have enough gravy to go around.
Cost: $2.09 (32 ounces)
22. Puff Pastry
Keeping puff pastry in your freezer means you can turn out elegant appetizers and dessert pastries at the drop of a hat. Even if you have the skills to make your own, buying this item makes sense because you’re liable to be stressed for time in December. Choose a good-quality brand — one containing butter rather than shortening — and use it to expand your Christmas dinner menu at will.
Cost: $4.88 (17.3 ounces)
23. Pumpkin Pie Spice
If you’re not a year-round baker, there’s little point in filling your cupboard with an array of spices that will be stale before next December. Instead, pick up a container of pumpkin pie spice and use it in cookies and pumpkin beverages.
Cost: $3.36 (1.12 ounces)
24. Pumpkin Puree
Even if you don’t plan on baking this ingredient into a pie, pumpkin is still a tasty, seasonal component of many cookie and cake recipes. You can also use it in homemade spiced lattes or seasonal smoothies, if you want to work these popular favorites into your Christmas dinner menu.
Cost: $2.99 (29 ounces)
A Christmas get-together isn’t the same without plenty of sweet treats. However, sugar isn’t just for desserts; it’s a common ham glaze ingredient, and you’ll probably use some in your squash or sweet potatoes, as well.
26. Sweet Potatoes
Not only are sweet potatoes tasty and nutritious, but they’re also versatile enough to go with just about any entree — or combination of entrees — you choose for your Christmas dinner. Plus, they’re equally good when prepared simply or baked into an elaborate casserole (or a pie, for that matter).
Cost: 99 cents per pound
Thyme probably isn’t the first herb you think of when you’re getting dinner ready. It’s not synonymous with poultry the way sage is, and it lacks rosemary’s in-your-face partnership with garlic or onion. Instead, it adds subtle depth to the flavor of your bird or roast, or even the vinaigrette on your salad.
Cost: $1.78 (.75 ounces)
28. Vegetable Oil
An indispensable but largely invisible ingredient, vegetable oil is something you don’t want to run out of during the holidays. You’ll use it to dress salads and saute ingredients for stuffing or appetizers. Plus, any vegetables you roast should be tossed in oil first.
Pro tip: Use good-quality olive oil or — better yet — a delicate walnut or hazelnut oil to elevate your salads to a new level.
Cost: $2.50 (48 ounces)
29. Winter Squash
Whether you favor meaty Butternut, tiny Sweet Dumpling or dry, fluffy Buttercup — with its signature baked-potato texture — winter squash is an iconic cold-weather ingredient. Roast your squash in slices, stuff a whole one or bake and puree it; you can’t go wrong. Plus, squash is an easy option for a scratch-made pie.
Cost: $2.48 (12-ounce bag)
If your Christmas dinner menu involves dinner rolls or fresh-baked bread, then you’ll need yeast. It’s also a crucial ingredient in some old-world Christmas recipes, such as stollen, which might be a part of your own family’s tradition.
Cost: $2 (.25 ounces)
About the Author
Fred Decker is a writer based in Atlantic Canada, specializing in food and nutrition, personal finance, technology and general business topics. He is a trained chef and former restaurateur, and in earlier careers sold mutual funds and insurance, and was a retail store manager. His work has appeared on the websites of the Arizona Republic, Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; as well as TheNest.com, Livestrong.com, Zack’s, Samsung.com, Vitamix.com and other leading sites.