5 Holiday Meal Hacks For Your Budget (And Your Health!)

Holiday Meal Budgeting

Photo by Miles Ghem / CC BY 2.0

There are as many holiday traditions as there are families. Some people will wander through the neighborhood singing songs of good cheer. Others will recline in sleepy warmth, watch TV and fall asleep in good company. No matter your traditions, there’s one thing most of them have in common: getting a large group together for a meal.

This major event is always a delight, but paying for it might be a challenge. If you’re used to cooking for 3 or 4, changing your plan to cook for 10 can cause some serious budget shock. Here are 5 budget-friendly ways to feed a crowd this holiday.

Leggo your legumes

At the intersection of versatility, price, and nutritional value, it’s hard to beat beans. Since you’re working in bigger numbers, it’s a big cost savings to buy dried and cook from scratch. A pound of navy or garbanzo beans can be soaked overnight and cooked on the stove for about an hour. Just follow the directions on the bag.

By themselves, they may not seem like much, but try mashing them up with your mashed potatoes. The beans will make the potatoes creamier and add some protein to make them more filling. Add a sprinkle of garlic and top with a handful of shredded cheddar cheese for a side dish that’s filling and delicious. Toss in some green onions for decoration, and your boring side dish just became a hot feature.

You can also try black beans and sweet potatoes. Make a pound of black beans following the package directions. Drain them and set aside. Chop up 5 or 6 sweet potatoes, put them and the black beans in an oven-safe roasting pan, and toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper – or add your favorite seasonings. Try cumin, chili powder, and garlic for a southwestern flair! Roast them between 350 and 400 for 30-45 minutes for a budget-friendly, healthy take on sweet potato casserole.

Use your oven wisely

In the summer, everyone loves to cook outside. You get to take advantage of the outdoors and keep the cooking energy outside the house. Delicious smoked and grilled meats are a wonderful warm-weather treat.

In the winter, however, your grill works much less effectively. Since it has to heat the air around it to reach its cooking temperature, there’s a much faster consumption rate of your cooking fuel. You’ll also run the furnace more from going in and out of the house. Shifting away from grilled foods can also help you focus more on healthy vegetable dishes.

Using your oven can help add heat to your home, meaning your furnace will have to do less work. Try to time dishes so no oven time is wasted. Use it on less sensitive items, like casseroles, vegetables, and cakes, while the oven is pre-heating. Use the residual heat after roasting is done to finish pies and keep leftovers warm.

Use efficient appliances

Your oven is really big, and heating it takes a lot of energy. Look to use smaller, more efficient appliances where you can. You can make most roast meats in a crock pot, which you can also use for casseroles. The much-maligned microwave is likely the most efficient appliance in your house and can be used to boil or bake many foods. A quick search for “microwave X recipes” will give you approximate cook times.

When you do use the oven, make sure you’re using it to the best effect. Avoid stacking pans on top of each other, as this will prevent proper air flow. Stagger pans as much as possible to ensure even heating.

Use seasonal foods for variety and savings

While winter doesn’t boast as many seasonal goods as summer or spring, you can still find incredible deals on versatile produce. Winter squash (butternut, acorn, and spaghetti) are hearty and delicious, and they can usually be found for less than a dollar a pound. They can be used in a variety of foods.

For starters, try butternut squash in a soup. Peel it, chop it up, boil it, and blend it, then add your favorite seasonings. It’ll be a warm, sweet sensation to greet your guests.

For an easy side dish, cut an acorn squash in half, then slice it into half-rings. Coat them with a blend of maple syrup, hot sauce, and olive oil, and roast them for 20-30 minutes at 350 to 400 degrees. Although the skin is inedible, keeping it on helps retain moisture.

The possibilities are endless and the price can’t be beat. Winter squashes are also an excellent source of vitamins that are difficult to come by in a season that’s lacking many fresh vegetables.

Turn the heat down

You’ve likely set your thermostat for ordinary oven usage and a small number of people in your house. Doubling or tripling the number of people and doing a ton of cooking can seriously alter those calculations. Add to that the inevitable holiday sweater display and your guests might even be a little toasty.

Turning the heater down a few degrees can save you oodles on your energy bill, and it might encourage your guests to slow down a bit on the beer and wine. Everyone will be more comfortable and you can rest easy knowing your holiday meal will go off without a hitch.

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