How to feed your holiday guests on the cheap

Shopping for deals and sticking to a simple menu are two ways to cut costs on holiday meals.
Shopping for deals and sticking to a simple menu are two ways to cut costs on holiday meals. TNS

The holidays are about spending time with friends and family. But hosting a holiday dinner for your loved ones can be costly. Consumers are expected to spend more than $100 on food and candy for the holiday season this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

That’s just the average amount, though. If you’ve ever hosted a holiday gathering, you know it’s easy to blow hundreds of dollars on food and drinks for your guests.

You don’t have to resort to a sad, skimpy meal, though. Instead, use any or all of these tips to feed your guests a memorable holiday dinner on the cheap.

Make your meal a potluck

Many of us assume that we have to pay for and prepare the entire spread.

Grayson Bell, founder of Debt Roundup, said this was the tradition for his family’s Thanksgiving gathering. “For many years, we would just move from house to house, and whoever was hosting was responsible for the bulk of the food and beverages,” he said. “As the family grew, it was getting expensive. The average dinner and beverages would range between $300 and $500.”

However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Eventually, his 18-member family switched to a potluck-style meal. They create a menu in an online Google document, with each person picking the items he or she wants to bring.

“Instead of having one group pay for the bulk, we share the costs across the entire family,” he said. “This brings our costs down to about $50 per family. It’s an effective way to share the costs and not burden one family every year with picking up the tab.”

If you host a potluck, use websites such as or to create online sign-up sheets for meal items. With both of these free sites, you can specify what items you want people to bring and how much.

Spend no more than $5 per guest

If you plan to prepare all of the food for your holiday gathering, you can do it without spending hundreds of dollars.

“My hard and fast rule for holiday feasts is spend $5 per person,” said Erin Chase, creator of $5 Dinners. “For someone on a budget and counting pennies, $5 per person is within a range that they should be able to afford.”

So if you’re preparing a meal for 12 people, a simple menu will cost you $60. You can find a multitude of recipes for $5 dishes at

There are plenty of ways to stick to a $5-per-person budget. For example, if you’re making a Thanksgiving meal, take advantage of the slew of coupons for feast ingredients that manufacturers and stores release online and in newspapers in the weeks leading up to the holiday, said Chase. Then, do your grocery shopping the week of Thanksgiving to get the best, rock-bottom prices on ingredients you need for your meal.

“You might not want to brave the crowds, but if you do, you’ll spend the least possible on your feast,” he said.

Keeping your menu simple can keep costs under control, said Kristie Sawicki, creator of Saving Dollars & Sense. “Remember when planning this meal that you do not need to make every single dish,” she said. It can include a meat such as turkey for Thanksgiving, one potato dish, stuffing, one other vegetable, a salad and dessert.

Baking everything from scratch is another way to keep the cost of holiday meals below $5 per person. Liz of frugal-living site said she and her husband host a family Thanksgiving every year and buy everything in its rawest form. In the past, they spent $177.50 on food for meals for the entire week for themselves and three in-laws who were visiting. That breaks down to $3.22 per person per meal, including the Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, wine and other fixings.

Also, make sure you get an accurate head count of guests so that you don’t spend more than necessary on food. “Nothing wastes more food than when you cook for 20 and eight show up,” said Laura Oliver of “Track down your ‘maybes’ a few weeks out, and ask for a firm commitment.”

Use cost-saving shortcuts

Although making your holiday meal entirely from scratch can be one way to save money, you also can keep costs down by using canned or frozen items along with fresh ingredients. This strategy works particularly well for Thanksgiving dishes.

“Thanksgiving is one of the greatest meals that you can have in your year, and one of the beautiful things about Thanksgiving is it can be so cost-conscious,” said chef, author and TV host Sandra Lee.

For example, make an affordable side dish by starting with a box of cornbread stuffing, then adding a can of Campbell’s Chicken with Rice soup, a bunch of chopped celery and scallions along with poultry seasoning, she said.

Keep down the cost of desserts

Stock up on baking supplies starting the week before Thanksgiving.

“This is the cheapest time of year for all the basics in the baking aisle, and all have a long shelf life,” said Gault. “Not only can you stock up for months beyond the holidays, but you can save 60 to 70 percent on your holiday baking through New Year’s.”

The best deals will coincide with the release of manufacturer and store coupons that you can use to get an even deeper discount.

You don’t have to make an elaborate dessert to please your crowd. Gault said she keeps it simple and cheap by making six dozen sugar cookies for about $5.

“Throughout the holidays, and as guests are coming, pull out a box to decorate,” she said. “It’s even a very fun activity to sit around the table together and decorate, and everyone can take home their creations.”