Thanksgiving Budget Challenge: $20 for All the Trimmings

November 19, 2013

Thanksgiving, while probably not as financially taxing as other holidays, the cost for all the turkey and trimmings can still be hard to stomach (no pun intended). But is it possible to really stick to a strict budget without reenacting something akin to the dry turkey scene from Christmas Vacation?

Three of our contributors said a resounding “Yes!” to the challenge, so we set the constraints.

Each contestant would need to work with a budget of $20 to feed six people (or, in the case of one contestant, eight people with a slightly higher budget) a Thanksgiving-themed meal that included a meat, vegetable, starch, dessert, and (this is the kicker) an alcoholic beverage of some kind.

The result? Three vastly different meals with a few commonalities in execution: multiple trips to the grocery store, extremely careful planning, and a willingness to step out of their everyday culinary box (i.e. no dietary restrictions allowed).

Here is what each contestant served and their (quite impressive) results.


Linda's Menu:

  Pumpkin and cream cheese filled crescent rolls

 Meat: Turkey, cheddar, apple melts with cranberry mayo

Vegetable: Kale chips
Starch: Sweet potato fries
Dessert: Pumpkin and cream cheese filled crescent rolls
Beverage: Spiked apple cider

Shopping List: 

Turkey lunchmeat: 3 packages for $5. (A killer deal at Safeway that each package was only $1.99 when you bought three. I paired this with a $1 off coupon for extra savings. Purchased in advance and froze.)
Cranberry sauce: $.80
Mayo: $1
Rolls: $2  (Another super deal that I bought in advance and froze)
Cheese: $2.49
Apples (red delicious): 2 apples for $.81
Kale:  2 bunches for $2
Sweet Potatoes: 3 pounds for $3
Pumpkin puree:  $1
Cream cheese: $1.49
Crescents: 2 tubes for $3.70 (even with coupons, these were one of my most expensive ingredients)
Cider: $2.25
Brandy: 3 1-oz shooters, $3
Orange: $.79

Total Cost Per Person: $3.64 (over budget by $.31 per person)

Chef’s Strategy and Menu:

I knew from the start that I was making a sandwich. Short of shooting my own turkey, lunch meat was going to be the only way to provide a protein for 8 people. Additionally, I knew my side dishes had to be very simple and as close to one ingredient as possible. Once I had an idea of the menu, I started scoping out sales several weeks in advance and went to the store a few times just to compare prices and strategize. Items that could be purchased and froze were bought early, but vegetables had to wait till the day before. I was lucky that my produce was still on sale otherwise my budget would have been totally ruined.

I ended up going over my total budget of $26.67 (for 8 people) by $2.46. That just happened to be the cost of the cheese I purchased. However, when faced with either staying under budget or eating cheese, I will choose cheese every time.

Main Challenges:

Providing an alcoholic beverage for 8 people was a huge challenge. I went with three 1-oz. brandy shooters added to apple cider. The drink wasn’t potent at all, but the only requirement was that there was alcohol in it. Also, finding quality meat for that many people was hard. Luckily, my store had a great sale on lunchmeat that I paired with coupons.

If you could do it again, what would you change?

I would increase the budget of course! Or I would have my guests bring their own alcohol. The majority of my budget went towards the drink and dessert, when it should really go towards the main dish. It was fun, though, to think about Thanksgiving food in new and creative ways.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________Sam's Menu:


 Meat, Vegetable, Starch: Pumpkin-Pot-au-Gobblers

Dessert: Squash & Spice Babycakes
Beverage: Vendange Chardonnay or The Spirit of 1620 cocktail

Shopping List: 

Banana (1) - $.027
Jennie-O Turkey Franks (pkg of 8) - $.99
Knorr Rice Sides, Cheddar Broccoli (1 pkg) - $.89
Knorr Rice Sides, Chicken (1 pkg) - $.89
Betty Crocker Spice Cake Mix (1 pkg) - $1.13
Gerber 2nd Food Squash Baby Food (1 pkg of 2, 3.05 oz) - $1.09
Pumpkin (4lb) - $1.05
Lipton Black Leaf Sweet Tea - $1.10
Old Orchard Apple Juice (1 can) - $1.67
Vendange Chardonnay (1.5L) - $8.09
Apple (1 red delicious)- $.27
Jim Beam Bourbon (100ml) - $2.48

Total Cost Per Person: $3.13


 Squash & Spice Babycake


Chef’s Strategy and Menu:

My strategy was to put together a meal that was simple, healthy, satisfying, within budget, easy to duplicate at your local grocery store, and interesting. I also wanted to give my participants a good time, and therefore tried to maximize the budget for wine and cocktails. Note that if you mixed the simple with some sparkling water for a tasty soda, and dropped the wine and cocktail, you might be able to feed people 680 calories for $1.56. In terms of nutrition, I was pleasantly surprised by the ability to minimize fat and trans fat, although sodium was disappointing, likely hurt by the lower quality meat.

Main Challenges:

Quality meat isn’t cheap, and that makes this a little gross. I would have rather done a vegetarian version. Also, the number of trips to the store was challenging. This became a hobby for a week. Even though I tried price comparison online, it took walking the aisles to find the inspiration and optimize the budget.

If you could do it again, what would you change? 

My solution for the number of trips to the store --  everyone goes to the same store and has 20 minutes to put it together. You have to live with what you find in 20 minutes.


Amanda's Menu:

Meat: Turkey Shaped Sliders, Blackhawk Beer Brats

  Geronimo Green Beans

 Starch: Pilgrim Potatoes

Vegetable: Geronimo Green Beans and Bacon
Dessert: Settlers’ Salted Caramel Ice Cream & Bacon Garnish
Beverage: Squantos’ Side Pocket (aka Malt Liquor)

Shopping List: 

Kroger Bacon - $2.39
84% Chuck Burgers (Manager’s Special) - $3.99
Beer Brats (Manager’s Special) - $2.50
5lb Sack of Potatoes - $2.59
Kroger Salted Caramel Ice Cream - $2.25
Great Value Frozen Green Beans (2lbs) - $1.00
Cheese (16 slices) - $1.00
Mary’s 10-pack of Rolls - $1.00
Side Pocket Malt Liquor - $2.49

Total Cost Per Person: $3.22

Chef’s Strategy and Menu:

My initial strategy was to have a dinner as traditional as possible, but then I found burgers on sale and then we decided that butter/milk/spices had to included in the budget, so I thought I could flavor everything in bacon. So that became my theme. The menu shifted more than once as items came on/off sale. I also planned the event for a Sunday rather than a Saturday so football would be on like a real Thanksgiving.

Main Challenges: 

Finding food at good prices! It really is all about timing and flexibility. I made SIX trips to the store, sometimes leaving with nothing. Also, the day of the event, I went to get fresh green beans and they weren't on sale! When you have $2 in budget, you gotta go frozen. Also, I couldn't put pineapple in my potatoes (removing another $1 from the budget and allowing me to come in under budget).

If you could do it again, what would you change? 

I wanted to make sure that I fulfilled the alcohol requirement, so I got this awful stuff that was cheaper than a 40 of Mickey's. Most people couldn't smell it without gagging (let alone drink it)...except for one guest who opted for slamming it. (Gross.)


And the Winner Is....

Guests of each dinner were instructed to fill out a survey that assigned a number (1-7) to each of the following categories: presentation, taste, creativity, satisfaction, and use of budget. Out of 210 possible points, this is how they fared.

Linda: 199/210

Sam: 200/210

Amanda: 195/210

Given that Sam received the most points from his guests, and he came in UNDER budget, he's the winner!

Think you could do a Thanksgiving-themed dinner party for under $20? Share your ideas!