Tips to trim Thanksgiving dinner costs

A trip to the grocery store could blow your budget. Home cooks are feeling the pinch for keeping costs under control for this year’s Thanksgiving meal.

Just look at these forecasts from the United States Department of Agriculture: From September 2010 to September 2011, egg prices increased 11 percent. Bread prices increased 7 percent. Poultry costs 3 percent more than last September.

While some home cooks consider Thanksgiving an appropriate time to splurge and spend the extra cash for a special meal, some shoppers simply can’t afford an extravagant feast. With that in mind, we turned to home cooks, professional coupon clippers, chefs and catering experts to find budget-cutting ideas for anyone looking to trim a little cash from a big Thanksgiving dinner. Read on.

1. Outsource. Dear Aunt Marge, can you please bring your famous yam casserole?

Kristi Dohring, owner of Paprika Catering in Olympia, has three words of advice: assign side dishes. “Don’t be afraid to ask people in your family to bring items for the menu, this will help lower cost and stress,” she said.

2. Put your meal on a diet. Do you really need 11 courses?

“Don’t go crazy with a big menu, keep it simple. If your family always does a traditional menu and you notice that there are certain menu items that are not a favorite, leave it off the menu,” said Dohring. “Be flexible on your menu,” said Heather Clarke, who runs the coupon-clipping website Queen Bee Coupons (and who also teachers a coupon class for this newspaper). “What’s traditional might not always be what’s best for the pocket book. Think outside the box and try to make a deal into a meal. “

Consider buying a much smaller bird and serve smaller portions. “Thanksgiving leftovers are part of the tradition, but really how many leftovers do you need? By carefully planning and portioning your meal items you won’t be overdoing it and overspending,” said Clarke.

3. Be creative. Find substitutions that cost less.

Chef Diana Prine, of Fife City Bar and Grill, urges shoppers to consider cheaper alternatives. “A New York strip is less expensive this time of year than a prime rib and it can be prepared in the same way. I prefer it because it is more lean,” said Prine.

For reader Julie Butler of Puyallup saving money means buying her turkey in parts, which means more meat and less waste. “I buy a fresh whole turkey breast. (You can order these through your grocer’s meat department), then four thighs. I assemble the same veggies and wine, stock and seasonings in my roaster. ... You can get the breast for about the same as a frozen one, but it is much bigger and fresh speaks volumes over frozen. The thighs, just like drumsticks, are very inexpensive bought alone. Doing it this way I spend around $18-$20 for the equivalent of a 25-pound turkey at around $27-$30.”

4. Make more of what costs less.

“Something like mashed potatoes is a lot less per serving than, say, ham or turkey. Think of inexpensive ways to fancy up those less expensive dishes – such as adding a little garlic and Parmesan cheese to the potatoes,” said Clarke.

5. Start cooking now: Making your meal from scratch will save more.

“I find that cooking from scratch is almost always more affordable than prepared foods. My mom used to save the ends of bread loaves for weeks ahead for the stuffing. The ends tend to be drier anyway, and you can easily dry them the rest of the way by leaving them in your (turned off) oven racks overnight. Then she would boil the giblets from the bird, chop them fine and use them and the broth to moisten the bread, along with onions and celery, sauteed in butter. Just add some salt, pepper and sage and heat it all in a casserole dish. Costs almost nothing extra, just an onion and a couple stalks of celery. We also always make the gravy from the meat drippings. It’s not as hard as people think,” said reader LuAnn Lukens of Tacoma.

Soup is a way to add an inexpensive course to the meal, and can be prepared ahead from scratch. “If you don’t normally have soup as a part of your meal, try it. Serve soup first as a first course, soup is less expensive to make than other dishes and it will guarantee leftovers (plan ahead and have use for the leftovers so they don’t go to waste),” said Dohring.

She added, ”If you plan ahead and use bones from a chicken or items from a previous meal you can save on broth, too, by making your own. You can use a slow cooker for this too, so you don’t have to worry too much about another item. Put all items in the cooker and leave it alone.”

“Using one’s leftover pumpkin to make pies is good,” said reader Laura Nicholson, of Parkland. “Without having to peal the pumpkin, just scrape the seeds ... and cook in microwave 20-25 minutes depending on size of pieces. When cool enough to touch, put in the blender or food processor. If the pulp is soupier than canned pumpkin, add extra egg and lessen the evaporated milk by 1/3 cup. This makes a slightly creamy, more custardy-like but still firm pie.”

6. Free is good: Save up your shopping to get the free bird, but only if it really is free.

“We always do our regular shopping at Fred Meyer, which has done a free or reduced turkey price for spending a certain dollar amount in groceries. I get a 20-pound bird as soon as they advertise the special, planning my major monthly purchases for things I would normally buy anyway. Usually, I’m able to get a second frozen bird for Christmas in that last week before Thanksgiving too since they typically run the special right up to the day before Thanksgiving,” said reader Angela McKee of University Place.

Clarke advised to be careful about the promotion and don’t get sucked into buying more than you need just to meet a minimum price threshold. “So you fill your cart with items you may (or may not) need to get your free turkey. Carefully consider whether it would just be cheaper to buy the turkey without the other items.”

7. Get your scissors ready: Clip coupons for savings, and shop the sales.

“Buy early,” said Clarke. “The more time you give yourself to find items on sale, the more you’ll save. If you wait until the week of Thanksgiving you’re forced to pay the premium prices in the store.”

Is it worth it to shop a few stores to check prices? You bet, said Clarke. “Especially on the most expensive items, you want to compare store ads and pick them up at the best price. Remember stores like Target and Walmart will price match competitor’s ads.”

And don’t forget to check your Sunday paper. “Use coupons from the ads, from the newspaper and even load electronic coupons onto your shoppers card so you can save just a little extra on the items you’re buying,” said Clarke.

8. Buy big, and go off the beaten path to get good deals.

“If you have a bulk section at your grocery store, buy your spices from there versus the jars. You can buy what you need at a lower cost and won’t end up with unused spices sitting your cupboard,” said Dohring. She added that sometimes it’s worth stopping at produce stands or farms. “Many times your local farmer will have produce that’s not quite nice enough to sell at the market but is still really good. You can get deals sometimes by asking them and they will many times sell it at a lower cost to move the product. You have to do this ahead of time; farmers don’t bring produce like this to the market. If fresh vegetables are out of your price range you can get some vegetables that are flash frozen that are less expensive than fresh,” said Dohring.

Louise Anderson, who works at the Proctor Farmers Market, said the farmers market can provide great deals. “Our prices are competitive for the quality of product we provide and there is a range of pricing available, varying by vendor.” The Proctor Farmers Market is open from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 17 at North 27th and Proctor. This Saturday, the market will sample soups and have recipe ideas for Thanksgiving meals.

Lyn Lowe, who owns the Sixth Avenue Grocery Outlet in North Tacoma with husband Ken, advised bargain shoppers to look at discount markets like hers as a way to really trim costs. Buying off-brands or highly discounted staples adds up. She also distributes meal-saving tips to her shoppers, including a recipe pamphlet that explains how to make a Thanksgiving meal for $3 per person.

Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270