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Friday, 9 November 2007

Thanksgiving on a Budget

Hosting a Thanksgiving dinner can be a stressful and expensive activity, but with a little foresight and planning it can also be one of the most rewarding and budget-friendly holidays of the year. Yesterday, I wrote about the most efficient way to invite guests to your Thanksgiving dinner and how you can leverage their generosity by creating a Thanksgiving day wish-list of items you would like to borrow or foods they can bring. Today, I'm tackling the daunting tasks of grocery shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up after it all. Whew! I'm getting tired just thinking about it.


This is where you can really kill your budget. The trick is to buy the proper amount of food for the number of people coming. It's easy to go overboard for a holiday that's historically all about tables laden with food, but is it really necessary? Are you really feeding an army? Then why try to look like it? When buying a whole turkey calculate 1 pound of uncooked turkey for each person and you should have plenty. If you are a small group or if you and your guests only like particular parts of the turkey, the breast for example, then just buy that part instead of an entire turkey. If you only like breast meat, it's quite silly to buy the entire turkey and throw half of it away. But what about that picture of the beautiful turkey on the table? Forget about it. Actually, even if you do plan to buy a whole turkey you should still forget that image, but I'll get to that later. However, sometimes it's actually cheaper to buy an entire turkey because grocery stores run big discounts on turkeys this time of year and these discounts don't always carry over to turkey cuts.

Which brings me to my second point on grocery shopping: start looking for discounts in your local papers now, if you haven't already. Most grocery stores will take major losses on their turkey sales in order to get you into their stores. The idea is that once you are there you will do all your Thanksgiving Day shopping in their store. They make their money on the other items they expect you will buy. With a little planning and patience you can make the most of these sales by getting your turkey early and buying the remaining items you need wherever they are cheapest. If you wait until the last minute, you will probably end up buying all your Thanksgiving Day items in the same store and paying more than you would if you had been better prepared. Also, buying your turkey early means that you will have the pick of the litter; waiting until the last moment means you have to buy whatever size turkey is still available and usually these are the bigger, most expensive turkeys that take up more space in your refrigerator and freezer and take much longer to defrost and cook. That reminds me, before you go shopping for your turkey make sure that you've got room in your freezer or refrigerator for the bird. They take up a lot of space!

The other area where you can really trim back the costs is in cooking supplies. Like I said yesterday, ask around and see if you can borrow things before you go out and buy something you'll only use once a year. Some things you may need are: a large roasting pan for the turkey, a baster, a meat thermometer (though you really should get one of these for everyday use), a large serving platter for the turkey, and additional serving dishes, plates or silverware.


Once you've done all the shopping, what you want to save is time. If you spend the whole day in the kitchen, Thanksgiving won't be a lot of fun. It also won't be a lot of fun if you manage to burn or under cook the food, or make the turkey fly. The trick is to get as much done as you possible can before Thursday morning. This means less work for you while everyone else is enjoying their holiday, and fewer surprises regarding forgotten ingredients and supplies. Plus, if you make a mistake, you've got a little more time to fix it.

Perhaps your earliest task will be defrosting the turkey. Ideally, this should be done in the refrigerator and will require around 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of uncooked turkey meat. If you forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer you can speed up the defrosting process by placing the turkey in a bath of cold water, with the plastic wrap still on. Calculate 30 minutes in cold water for every 1 pound of turkey, so if you have a 12 pound turkey this will take approximately 6 hours. However, you will have to change the water every 30 minutes so that method requires your constant attention. Also, make sure that the turkey is completely covered in water. Do not thaw the turkey at room temperature on the counter. The outer parts of the turkey will be warm enough for bacteria to grow for hours before the center of the turkey has thawed, putting you at risk for food poisoning. No one wants to be sick on Thanksgiving.

On Wednesday, do as much chopping, peeling, slicing and dicing as you can. Put everything in the refrigerator and cook it up the next day. You can make the stuffing the night before to save time but do not stuff the turkey until you are ready to put the bird in the oven. You cannot leave stuffing in the turkey for any length of time at all without the risk of bacteria growth. You should cook the bird immediately after stuffing it. Also, a little tip my mother taught me was to use dental floss to tie up the bird. It's strong, clean and you probably already have it on hand. Certainly cheaper than buying special cooking twine! If you're making homemade cranberry sauce, it is often better on the second day so it makes sense to cook this on Wednesday as well. In addition, you may want to make your pumpkin and apple pies the night before so that the oven is free the next day. Plus, it's simply less stressful to do your baking the night before and you'll have more fun doing it.

When it's time to cook the turkey, the trick is to get it to just the right temperature and then stop cooking so that you don't dry it out. To do this, use a meat thermometer. You can buy thermometers that can be left in the turkey while it is cooking (a pager beeps you when the correct temperature is reached) or you can use a regular thermometer and start checking the turkey about half an hour before you expect it to be ready. Calculate around 15 minutes of cooking time for each pound of uncooked meat. The turkey is done when the thermometer reads 175 degrees Fahrenheit when inserted into the thickest part of the breast. Make sure that the thermometer isn't touching any bone to get an accurate reading. Stuffing should be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before it is eaten. If the turkey is finished before the stuffing, take the stuffing out of the bird and put the stuffing back in the oven in a separate dish until it is the correct temperature. Wait about 30 minutes for the turkey to cool before carving it.


To maximize the amount of meat you get off the turkey, carve it before you serve it. I know, I know, it goes against every image of Thanksgiving you've ever seen, but it's much easier and more economical this way. Think about it. How much meat is usually left on that carcass when you throw it in the bin? Probably a lot, but you're right in the middle of a tryptophan crash when you've finally decided you can't put off cleaning up any longer. If you carve the turkey when it's just cooked and still slightly warm, it's much easier to get the meat off the bone and you can really pull up your sleeves and get your hands dirty when you're carving in the privacy of your kitchen. This means that you can get more meat off the bone and cut more even and appealing slices because you don't have an audience so you don't need to worry about being graceful. And it's just as elegant to serve your turkey pre-sliced on a platter - even Martha Stewart says so. As you carve, put the nice big slices on the platter for the table and have a Tupperware container ready for the small pieces you'll use later in soups and casseroles.


The last thing you want to do when you've got a belly full of turkey is clean up. A painless way to deal with this is to prioritize what really needs to be done - you need to get all the leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer. Do this before you hit the couch, other wise you'll get up five hours later and wonder if you still can. The rule is 2 hours on the table and then you're pushing your luck, so just get it in the refrigerator the first time. Also, if you don't think you'll use something within 3 days then put it straight in the freezer. Besides, after 3 days of eating turkey will you even want to see it? It's better to put it in the freezer and forget about it for a couple of weeks. Turkey soup really does taste better when you haven't just eaten a roast from the oven.

That leaves the dishes. The easiest thing to do is to have a large bucket or sink basin ready for soaking them. Throw out any bones and scraps left on the plates and then just put them in the soapy water. If you wash by hand this will make it easier later. If you put them in the dishwater you will use less water this way than you would rinsing each dish. Just leave them in the suds and go relax with your guests. This is the best part of Thanksgiving; you don't want to miss it doing dishes! Plus, there's nothing more annoying than listening to your host clank dishes around the kitchen or the hum of their dishwasher running. If your guests let you borrow any dishes, wash these immediately so that they can take them home, but leave everything else.

Good luck with your Thanksgiving Day celebrations and remember it's always better to start early!

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Hattie said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Fanny said...

Thanks Hattie! It's always nice to hear an encouraging word!