The Most Popular Thanksgiving Sides on a Budget

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Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and after more than a year in virtual lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic, Americans are ready to cozy up with family and cook all the classic holiday fixings. These include not just the centerpiece turkey (or tofurkey), but also the vast array of side dishes.

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Often the most memorable aspects of Thanksgiving dinner are the stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, gravy and any of the other mainstay side dishes.

So how can you save on making these must-have treats that are so essential to the overall meal? GOBankingRates talked to chefs and savings experts to learn their best hacks.

Plan Ahead and Make a List

“Plan out your Thanksgiving meal from start to finish — everything from appetizers to dessert,” said Casey Rooney, food blogger at Get On My Plate. “Then, list out all of the items you will need for those dishes. Then, revise! If a dish seems like it has too many ingredients, nix it or find an alternative.”

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From your final list, you can start to look for coupons and store promotions for just the items you need.

“The key is having a complete list/menu and sticking with it so you’re not distracted by the end caps and displays when you get to the store,” Rooney said.

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Aim For Enough, Not Excess

“Carefully plan the amount of food needed for your Thanksgiving meal, without overdoing it,” said Erin Hendrickson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and food waste expert at No Waste Nutrition. “According to the USDA, Americans throw away $293 million dollars worth of food around Thanksgiving due to over estimating portions. Don’t feel pressured to over cook, but instead prepare enough. Remember not everyone will eat every single dish offered.

Ask Guests To Bring a Side Dish

“The biggest financial hack for sides – if you’re hosting – is to ask that each of your guests bring a side,” said Katie Roberts, consumer analyst at DealNews. “This is fun, as it gets everyone involved, and it lessens the financial burden on the host.”

An easy way to do this?

“Assign each guest a category to help guide them: Vegetable, bread, potato, dessert, etc.,” Roberts said. “The truth is, people expect to be asked to pitch in, and it makes each guest feel like they’re part of the experience.”

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Buy in Bulk — Sometimes

“If you are feeding a crowd, shopping at a food club [like Costco] could save you some money on bulk items such as bread, canned goods, or meats,” said Gina Abernathy, founder of Home at Cedar Springs Farm blog.

But it’s not always best to buy in bulk.

For example, 5 to 10 lbs. of potatoes are more than enough for a large gathering versus buying 20 lbs at a big box store,” Rooney said. “The same goes for yams.”

Watch For Sales

“Many grocery stores around the holiday season will run sales every week on basic food items, produce, and meats,” Abernathy said. “Watch for turkey sales and promotions. I can sometimes get a 20 pound turkey for $10.00.”

Saving on a turkey may not seem like a direct way to save on a side dish, but if it lowers your overall grocery bill, it’s certainly worth it.

Search For Coupons in Store Ads

“Sundays are the best day to purchase the paper because all the weekly ads are there,” said chef Nik Fields. “If a store runs out of your item, most stores’ prices match as long as you have the ad.”

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Shop Early

“Shopping early will ensure you have all of the items you need for your dishes,” Abernathy said. “This will also keep you from over buying or paying too much for an item you need at the last minute.”

Buy Generic

“Store brand items are typically much cheaper than name-brand items, and they are often the same quality,” said Kysha Harris, chef and food editor at The Spruce Eats.

Purchase Discounted Produce When Available

“Many grocery stores have a discounted produce section full of bruised, blemished, or expiring items like potatoes, fruit and squash,” Hendrickson said. “Oftentimes these items are still perfectly usable. Bruised or expiring fruit can be used in pie or dessert, and blemished potatoes or squash still taste great mashed or baked in casseroles.”

Buy Day-Old Bread and Rolls

“Next time you’re at the supermarket, head to the back of the store where there’s the day-old bread or the clearance section,” said chef Marlene Moore, head chef of the Temptations Food Court at Pechanga Resort Casino. “Often times, there will be an assortment of breads, rolls, baguettes and more there.

“Find a few that will fit in your freezer until a day or two before Thanksgiving,” Moore continued. “Defrost them, warm the bread slices and rolls in the oven to serve and with the array you’ve chosen, guests will think you put a lot of thought into offering a nice assortment from which to choose, just like at a restaurant.”

Ditch the Sour Cream and Fancy Salad Ingredients

“When looking for recipes (or coming up with your own), minimize ingredients and keep things simple,” Rooney said. “Do you really need to buy a whole tub of sour cream for mashed potatoes and can you make do with regular milk and butter? Because chances are, half of the sour cream will be unused.”

Rooney argues the same “keep it simple” logic when it comes to salads.

“Mixed greens with olive oil and balsamic vinegar is just fine for a little green on your plate,” Rooney said. “No need to have a salad with four different bottled dressings — most of which will go to waste.”

Don’t Buy Premade Salads

Hot tip: Pretty much anything you buy ready-made will cost you more than if you DIY it. This doesn’t exclude salads.

“Buy unwashed salad and wash it yourself,” said chef Michael Johnson. “This will save on the cost of buying the premixed lettuce bags.”

Go the Boxed Route

“A great way to save on Thanksgiving sides when you’re on a tight budget is to buy boxed mashed potatoes and stuffing,” said Brian Malarkey, chef and founder of Chefs Life cooking oils. “I’ve used box mashed potatoes in cooking competitions and they are pretty amazing.”

Malarkey added that his favorite kind of boxed stuffing is the original Stove Top Turkey.

Serve Deviled Eggs

Instead of a complicated (and arguably expensive) appetizer, you might want to consider classic and simple deviled eggs.

“Eggs are inexpensive and they can be plated beautifully,” said Rebekah Zeismer, development chef for Conagra brands. “Adding mustard to the yolks is a great way to add flavor and bulk up the filling. Try budget-friendly Gulden’s for a spicy kick.”

Though deviled eggs are a relatively cheap dish, Moore points out that inflation has caused the price of eggs to go up, so you need to be in savings mode when you shop for them.

If you cook frequently, you’re going to always need eggs, and they keep for several weeks at the right temperature in your fridge,” Moore said. “When you can find them in bulk, it often lowers the price significantly per egg.

Swap Out Your Mac and Cheese Ingredients

“Save money (and calories!) on your homemade Macaroni and Cheese this Thanksgiving by ditching the copious amounts of milk, butter and cheese and replacing some of it with chicken/vegetable broth,” said Olena Osipov, founder and recipe developer at iFOODReal. “By using only one cup of freshly grated cheddar cheese (buy the store brand/off brand of block cheddar to save further money), you will be able to keep your mac and cheese decadent and holiday worthy.”

Make Your Own Cranberry Sauce

Always make your own cranberry sauce,” said Tom Borgia, executive chef at Grille 151 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. “It’s super easy and way better than anything you can find in the store.”

Here’s a DIY cranberry sauce recipe recommended by Borgia:

  • Equal parts cranberries to brown sugar (2 pounds each is usually good for most families)
  • Then use 2 tablespoons of apple pectin and 2 bunches of rosemary picked in cheesecloth.
  • Tie it into a ball.
  • Simmer over low heat until the sugar and pectin are dissolved.
  • Wait for it to cool down before serving.

Make Gravy With Cornflour

“Thicken the juices from the cooked turkey tray with cornflour and avoid the instant gravy granules that are full of spice and unnecessary added cost,” Johnson said.

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