Thanksgiving Dinner: What to Make Homemade and What to Buy

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Save On Your Thanksgiving MealWhat’s better than a warm Thanksgiving meal with homemade everything, from the stuffing to the cranberry sauce?

Prepackaged food.

No, seriously. The Thanksgiving season is upon us, and families everywhere are gearing up to cook amazing feasts … but not every part of the meal deserves equal attention.

Think of this as the high-low approach to a Thanksgiving feast.

Instead of hand-making and splurging on every single item, we’ll help you spend time and money where it really matters (when taste buds will notice)–and our recommendations even take into account things you’ll have to prepare after your guests arrive, to help you maximize family time and minimize needless work.

Below, you’ll find when going all-out is better, and when buying prepackaged is okay. Trust us … no one will know the difference.

Turkey

Go all-out

Sure, you can “win” a turkey at your grocery store, but free turkeys given out by supermarkets tend to be lower quality. Turkey will be the centerpiece of your meal, so splurge on a bird with better taste and texture. Commercially-raised turkeys are fed antibiotics and animal byproducts, so consider a “certified humane” bird. Contrary to belief, these deluxe turkeys aren’t ridiculously expensive, either. You’ll generally pay about $2.99 per pound.

Stuffing

Skimp

Making stuffing from scratch is relatively inexpensive, but it is time-intensive because of all the chopping and cubing. Quick-prep alternatives can save time and cash without sacrificing flavor. (Premade stuffing from Pepperidge Farm is about $4, serves nine people … and your guests will be just as happy as if you’d slaved.) If you feel like something’s missing from boxed stuffing, throw in some extra “custom” ingredients like onions and celery. But one note: If you go for instant stuffing, inspect the box carefully to make sure it doesn’t have insanely high sodium levels.

Gravy

Skimp

Most homemade gravy is made using turkey drippings that are only available after the turkey has finished cooking, so going premade means you’ll spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your guests. We think that family time is worth more than the dollar or so you’ll spend on a jar of gravy, and unless people have come to expect your fabulous homemade recipe every year, going premade won’t hurt the overall taste. If you can, opt for the jar variety, not packaged dry gravy mix, because the latter still requires you to pay attention to consistency. When choosing a jar, scrutinize the ingredients to look for real turkey stock instead of bouillon, which is basically flavored salt.

Mashed Potatoes

Go all-out

Hands down, homemade spuds triumph in the taste department, and they aren’t hard to make. It’ll take just 45 minutes and about $5.50 to go homemade on this holiday fave. Meanwhile, boxed potato “flakes” are quicker to make … but they taste, well, like the box.

Cranberry Sauce

Skimp

It’s a snap to make cranberry sauce from scratch, but unless you’re feeding foodies, most people actually enjoy the taste of the canned product better—and the price of packaged and homemade is the same (roughly $2 for six servings).

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Vegetables

Go all-out

Fresh vegetables always taste better than frozen or canned ones, and late November still boasts a plethora of options that are quick and easy to prepare. Simple, speedy dishes like roasted cauliflower or carrots and parsnips take minutes. Similarly, brussels sprouts and squash don’t require much experience to produce memorable results. Plus, fresh tends to be significantly cheaper: A pound of fresh green beans will run you about $1.50, whereas the frozen “steam-fresh” variety is about $4 for the same amount. The only perk of frozen vegetables is that, if you want to plan early, you can buy in advance and save for later.

Salad Greens

Go all-out

While bagged greens look quick and easy, you should still rinse them before use to make sure they’re clean (even if the package says “triple washed”). And, prepackaged lettuce can easily be more than double the cost of a regular head of romaine. Given that, you might as well save some “green” by getting loose heads of lettuce and chopping them yourself.

Pie

Compromise

There are some tasty frozen pies on the market, but they can be costly. A great compromise, if time allows, would be to buy a frozen piecrust and fill it with canned pumpkin or fresh apples to make your “own” pie. Bonus: you’ll probably even find a good pie recipe right on the can.


Baked Goods

Compromise

Making cakes and cookies from scratch is a serious undertaking. Plus, they only cost a bit less than boxed or pre-made doughs, which most people love. While fully premade baked goods (like stuff made at the grocery store, or, say, a premade Entenmann’s cake) tend to taste artificial, a boxed brownie or cake mix is a guaranteed hit. And compare the cost: Betty Crocker cake mix is only $3.25, whereas a premade Entenmann’s crumb cake can cost almost triple that amount. Besides, you can make these ahead of time and freeze. Then on Thanksgiving morning, defrost and ice them with frosting—and enjoy the time you just saved.

More on Thanksgiving

The average Thanksgiving dinner is going to cost about 13% more this year than last. Find out why.
Black Friday could affect your Turkey Day this year. Here’s how.
Learn a few more ways to save on your Thanksgiving meal.

  • NYC guy

    Save time with jarred gravy (which is significantly more expensive than fresh and tastes completely artificial) so I can spend more time chopping lettuce (with no taste benefit)? And where are you getting the data that “most people prefer the taste of the canned [cranberry sauce] better”? I Make fresh cranberry sauce every year – it is super easy to do and tastes far better than the can.

    • Molly

      Couldn’t agree more! I guess I’m spoiled or a foodie, but I don’t often waste the calories on things like jarred gravy or even cookies made from that Pillsbury refrigerated dough. It’s so quick and easy to make these from scratch. And homemade cranberry sauce is one of life’s simple pleasures…you don’t even have to cook it, you can make a relish in the food processor with sugar and an orange (totally divine on leftover turkey sandwiches!).

    • Molly

      Couldn’t agree more! I guess I’m spoiled or a foodie, but I don’t often waste the calories on things like jarred gravy or even cookies made from that Pillsbury refrigerated dough. It’s so quick and easy to make these from scratch. And homemade cranberry sauce is one of life’s simple pleasures…you don’t even have to cook it, you can make a relish in the food processor with sugar and an orange (totally divine on leftover turkey sandwiches!).

  • Emsmom

    Jar gravy?. No way jar gravy can compete with the real thing! Especially my mom’s! And making cranberry sauce of some sort is really low labor intensive and tastes infinitely better.

    • Jen

      I was just about to say the same thing! Making gravy from scratch takes about 10 mins or less, and tastes infinitely better than pre-packaged. I do, personally, prefer canned cranberry sauce to made from scratch though. 

  • Martha

    Gravy and my mom’s cornbread stuffing are two of the best things about Thanksgiving dinner. There’s no way the pre-made stuff would past the test! As for the time spent with family, everyone ends up hanging out in the kitchen anyway, so you don’t have to compromise quality time either.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_L7OZCRB6CXELOSX7KWMDQABZWE Yalach

    I just go out to a nice buffet dinner.  I don’t have to cook, I don’t have to clean before or after, I still get to eat great, mostly fresh food, and spend time with my family.  We also do this because we live 14 hours away from each other, and we meet in the middle to save cash and time.  It’s a win-win-win.

  • http://smartasset.com/ SmartAssetTeam

    I have to agree with Martha.  While I like the suggestion to skimp on a few things, this could be really helpful to some families, it’s just not how we do it at my home for Thanksgiving.  Each person has a task, we are all like bees in the kitchen up until the meal happens, everything is homemade from scratch, and we can all taste the difference and appreciate the meal that much more when we sit down and enjoy it slowly, one bite at a time. I know, this makes me sound like quite the idealist, but when else can you afford to take things to this level if not on the holidays? 

  • http://www.bmwysp.deviantart.com Jennifer Megan Varnadore

    I actually prefer to make the cranberry sauce compared to the canned version. When I made my own last year, the actual cranberry pieces left in tasted better to me. Besides, warm especially it is great.