While preparing for Thanksgiving, I had an idea: What if I could prepare a Turkey Day meal for $10? So I set out to see.
It can be done: a relatively complete Thanksgiving dinner that costs less than a 4-piece nugget, fries and small coke. Considering that with a little elbow grease you can also call it homemade for only slightly more per serving more than the microwavable dinner variety, that's pretty good.
But while playing frugal gourmet with a mock Thanksgiving before the big day, I learned a few things along the way that I thought I'd share with those who think a turkey dinner might be beyond their reach.
First things first.
When I first embarked on this endeavor, it started off as me trying to make a traditional, yet simple Thanksgiving meal with some of the fixings for $10 or less. Including store sales and a couple of coupons, I checked out at $10.65. That was close enough for me.
I should note that ingredients that played supporting roles and that I assumed most people would already have on hand (such as butter, salt, pepper, some dried herbs, flour) did not factor into this cost.
Here's what did:
- Turkey: three drumsticks for $5.08 (I did see a full turkey that was $19 off, on sale for $7, that could have fed so many more people, but I opted for the drummies to stay closer to my budget).
- Stovetop Stuffing: $1.67
- Cranberry sauce: $1.25
- Green beans, fresh: $0.84
- Sweet potatoes: $1.17
- Cheesecake instant Jello pudding (surprisingly, they didn't have pumpkin flavored): $0.64
Considering there were technically three full servings, because my package of turkey only came with three drumsticks, that's only $3.55 a serving. If I had splurged for the full $7 turkey, I could have stretched the fixings to reach up to five servings, which would put my per serving cost at $2.53.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the average cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people this year is $49.41, which comes out to about $4.94 per serving.
As I started my brine (always brine turkey for several hours or overnight, in my case it was only four hours), it actually sounded like Thanksgiving. Football was on in the background and the sound of the Redskins losing was a preview for the shouting around the TV that many families experience on Thanksgiving Day itself.
Why brine? Brining helps the bird retain moisture through roasting.
The mixture is pretty simple, it's a salt and water solution, which in this case also includes brown sugar and a bay leaf that you boil together until the granules dissolve. After that, you chill the liquid.
Once cooled, submerge the turkey and put it to soak in the fridge. If you're working with a larger turkey, you'll need a bucket.
Fast forward to four hours later. The house is mourning another Redskins loss with threats to disown them, but it's time to get this turkey going.
A little bit of softened butter and herbs makes for a flavorful rub.
Rub the mixture all over the turkey and under the skin where it's possible. This process is not for the texture squeamish.
Put these suckers into the oven and move on — lots of other fixins to get to.
Something I'll note about sweet potatoes that I didn't really think of before: Go for the smoothest, rounded potatoes you can find. The more nooks and crannies there are, the more time you'll spend peeling them around those sharper edges.
People can get very finicky about their stuffing. I am not one of those people. While I can appreciate a good, homemade stuffing, a box of Stove Top is also good enough for me. Instructions: boil water with some butter, put in stuffing mix, turn off heat, cover, fluff, eat.
Cranberry sauce also brings up its own debate. Some people seriously love the canned stuff (my grandfather actually ate it at every meal year round) while others swear by homemade. For cost purposes, this gal went with the can.
Yes, a piece of thanksgiving dinner really can be this easy.
Plop. It actually takes some finesse to squeeze out the jelly in perfect can shape instead of resorting to impatient scooping. Some will put it on the table this way in slices.
But I find it more attractive and passable for homemade (at least by its looks) when you mash it up a bit. And look, instant serving spoon in there now.
Oh, let's not forget to check on the turkey, which when you don't have one of those handy dandy popper-outer timers is a battle between you and trusting your cooking thermometer.
As things finished up on the stovetop, it was time to fix dessert. No pumpkin, pecan or apple pie here — please people, those things cost some serious dollars. Plus, who can beat a box of cheesecake-flavored Jello pudding that cost less than $1 and comes in sugar-free? Someone had to have chocolate chips cookies as consolation after the Redskins game, so a little sugar-free dessert was most definitely in order.
I brought out the candlesticks and everything for this. Oh you noticed — what happened to the third turkey leg, you ask? I had to a sacrifice that one to being cut up because I didn't trust my cooking thermometer and didn't want to risk overcooking the bird legs.
Here's a slightly more artistic side angle, if you can call taking pictures with your iPhone artistic.
Like many a Thanksgiving dinner, including those that take hours longer to make than mine and can cost several times more, this meal was over within about 20 minutes.
After the dishes were put away and leftovers, yes, leftovers packaged for me to ponder how I was going to repurpose a mass of boxed stuffing and sweet potatoes, this cook settled in with her oh-so-fancy instant pudding.
See, it's in a martini glass.
Things I learned through this process:
- There's a reason why people around the table rarely want the drumstick if they're over the age of 6 years old. Drumsticks are full of tendons and there are much easier ways to get your dark meat on.
- A little honey and cinnamon goes a long way to dress up sweet potatoes when you didn't want to spend the extra money on mini-marshmallows.
- Shout out to food bloggers: Food bloggers have to wash their hands A LOT more because they're touching their cameras so often to take so many step-by-step photos (hence why you might notice some step lapses in my case). And they have to keep their work space very clean in if they don't want their photos to look like a disaster kitchen exposé. Fancy food bloggers, you have newfound respect in my eyes.
T-minus less than a week until the big day — happy cooking to all.