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Can you do Thanksgiving dinner for less than $20?

It’s now a week until Thanksgiving, and since thawing a turkey takes a few hours shy of forever, you’d better start your meal planning now. That is, if you don’t want to end up doing the walk of shame to whatever sad buffet restaurant your ill planning consigns you to. (Full disclosure: I’ve eaten out for Thanksgiving exactly once and I am still kind of traumatized, but maybe it’s actually great and I just don’t know.)

My wife and I like to cook, and we usually do it up for Thanksgiving. But I’m still amazed at the lengths people go to, and what they’re willing to spend, to put an impressive Thanksgiving dinner together. For all the Martha Stewart or Alton Brown wannabees out there, that free-range “heritage” bird can cost you more than a $100, not to mention all the black truffle mashed potatoes, organic kale and all the other delicious stuff you can make to go along with it if you feel like spending the money.

But what if instead of having a foodie Thanksgiving, you had a frugal one? Instead of spending the maximum amount you can on Thanksgiving to impress your friends and family, what if you tried to cut costs as much as possible? How low could you go?

After all, frozen turkey isn’t all that expensive as long as you’re not buying a massive bird or one of the fancy heritage varieties, fresh produce can be replaced with frozen to get to a lower cost, and so on. Using grocery prices on the grocery delivery service Peapod.com, I decided to find out the lowest price target I could hit for Thanksgiving dinner ¬†for a family of five. Here’s what I came up with:


Thanksgiving for $20

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I started with the bird, which, although it’s pretty cheap at $1.29 a pound, they’re really big. The smallest they sell on Peapod is 10 pounds, so at $12.90 apiece, that was biggest part of each of my menus and left me only $7.10 to come up with two sides for five people.

From there I looked at potential sides — I wanted a carb or starch and a vegetable for each. I settled on stuffing and mashed potatoes as my two carb/starch items. Surprisingly, the stuffing was much cheaper than the potatoes, which I often think of as being good food for living like it’s the Great Depression. I also added margarine to go with the mashed potatoes because it’s cheaper than butter (hopefully you have a cup of milk on hand to add to make them edible).

For the vegetables, I went with frozen green beans on the first meal, because they are also cheap as hell, and frozen corn. And yes, I’m aware that corn isn’t really a vegetable, it’s a grain, but this is America and we have a proud tradition of pretending things are vegetables [4] to make ourselves feel better, so get over it. Plus I felt like I couldn’t really plan two Thanksgiving meals and not include corn, which was a staple of the Native American diets we’re supposed to be emulating on Thanksgiving anyway.

For the desserts, I went with stuff that was pretty cheap and easy to prepare. Option 1 got a pretty sweet-looking pumpkin pie, and option 2 got a brownie mix, but I didn’t include the price of the oil or eggs that you’ll need to make it, thinking that most people have at least a couple eggs sitting around in their fridge. I also didn’t include the price of spices at all, so your $20 Thanksgiving is going to be pretty bland if you don’t have some basics like salt and pepper lying around. As for booze, $20 isn’t going to get you that AND dinner for five, although not having any would be a major disservice to the memory of the Pilgrims considering one of the reasons they landed at Plymouth Rock in the first place was they were running out of beer [5].

But all-in-all, I think these are very serviceable Thanksgiving dinners, and I think this exercise was a good one in that it shows that you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to observe the holiday and have a nice dinner with loved ones.

What do you think? Does anyone have any tricks to share to push the cost down further? Am I missing something here?

(Photo: Bruce Fingerhood)