how to cook Christmas dinner on a budget

Want to make Christmas dinner but don’t have a lot of money to spend? That’s okay; just because you’re on a tight budget doesn’t mean you have to be a Scrooge about it and forgo a nice meal for your close family and maybe a friend or two. Cooking a special holiday dinner for six people for less than $75 can be a reality. No kidding. You gotta be smart about it, however.

The Cheapest Option: Potluck Power

For the most affordable option (which can also give you more wiggle room to spend on decor and a meaty main if you want to), make it a potluck! Pick one or two dishes you’ll make at home, like the main meat and a side dish, plus a cider or punch, then assign the rest to friends.

If you want to go this route, see our holiday brunch potluck guide and just adapt it to the evening hours by swapping in side dishes and easy party appetizers for the breakfast items.

Handling It All Alone? What to Watch Out For

If you’d rather do all the things on your own, you can still pull it off! But follow these tips, and then see our suggested recipes for keeping the meal under budget.

Know the Potential Trouble Spots

Wine, cocktails, cheese, ready-made canapés, and the main animal protein are often where people falter. No, that’s not the whole meal. First off, if you’re having a couple guests, ask them each to bring a bottle of wine. You could even ask them to bring cheese, but that depends how punctual they are if you want it as part of your hors d’ oeuvres.

Devils in Horseback (bacon wrapped dates)

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Related Reading: 9 Great Grocery Store Wines Worth Entertaining With

Take Inventory

Before planning your menu and definitely before shopping, go through your cupboards and refrigerator, including the door where you keep the condiments. You can then pick and create dishes based on what you already have. Plus, you also won’t commit the cardinal sin of buying an ingredient twice.

Plan Accordingly

Let’s break down Christmas dinner into its essential components and give you a budget, tips, and recipe ideas for each portion. Shall we?

Appetizer Budget: $15

Keeping this category under $15 can be hard, but stick to your menu plan, and it can be done. Make one kind of hors d’oeuvres, and then include random extra nibbles. If no one else is supplying the cheese and it’s important to you (as it should be, unless you are lactose-sensitive or intolerant) then spend no more than $10 on one nice cheese only. Get less if you don’t want to sacrifice quality. This is cheesemonger-approved advice.

If your chosen cheese is hard or semi-hard, serve it on a plate sliced into small pieces, which will spread the wealth better among more people. Include a little bowl of honey or jam you already have, as well as any dried fruit, pickles, olives, or pickled anything you find in the fridge. The same goes with nuts; if you have pecans, almonds, or peanuts in the pantry, toast them and toss with a little cinnamon, salt, sugar, and cayenne for a cheap and festive accompaniment.

Cheap Trick:  If you’re serving soft cheese, don’t put it on the cheese board or platter whole. Practice crowd (and budget) control by spreading that goat cheese or ricotta on toasted slices of French bread ($2). Top it with whatever fresh herb you bought for another dish, and fry it in oil so it’s shiny and crunchy. Use fig jam, if you have it. Or dried fig slices. Or roast a red pepper and place slices on top. Then it’s a crostini. Even better, consider whipped feta as a crostini topper.

Fig Jam and Goat Cheese Crostini

Fig and Goat Cheese Crostini with Fried Sage Leaves recipe

Chowhound

This could cost you the entire appetizer budget if you’re not careful, so if you don’t already have the jam or can’t find it for less than $6 a jar, use dried figs or dates, or another complementary jam that’s already in your fridge (maybe it just came in a gift basket from a generous relative). And use whatever fresh herb you do have, especially if it’s mint—skip it if the crisper is herb-less. Get our Fig Jam and Goat Cheese Crostini recipe.

Duxelles (Mushroom Paste)

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You may not be able to afford beef Wellington on this budget, but you can still enjoy the duxelles. White button mushrooms are cheap. Use sweet yellow onion or whatever onion you already have if shallots are too expensive. This is a good way to stretch that hard cheese you have left from your last batch of pasta. Get our Duxelles recipe.

Main Protein Budget: $25

You already did turkey for Thanksgiving, so try another meaty main. Ham is less expensive than beef, so go ahead and glaze one. At Albertson’s, the largest grocery chain in the U.S., one weekly ad shows a bone-in ham at $0.99 a pound for savings club members, so if you shop around for similar deals and can find a 10-pound maximum ham, you’re well on your way to an affordable yet festive dinner. Spend the savings on your apps, sides, or desserts!

Cheap Trick: You can view most store circulars online these days, or use Instacart to check prices at several stores before you actually head out.

If you do go for beef, pick one of the cheaper, tougher cuts and roast that hunk low and slow (like more than 5 hours) for some no-knife-needed tenderness (try one of these Crock-Pot Christmas dinner recipes).

Don’t buy gravy. Make it from the meat’s fat and drippings, plus flour or cornstarch and some stock if you have it.

Honey Mustard-Glazed Ham

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You see, if you buy a ham like this one at 10 pounds, you could have two to four servings leftover for day-after sandwiches. Yasss. If you only have 3/4 cup of honey, do it anyway, without buying more honey. Or swap in maple syrup if you only have that. No biggie. Get our Honey Mustard-Glazed Ham recipe.

Sides Budget: $20

Root vegetables are in season, and they’re cheap. That goes for carrots, parsnips, onions, and potatoes. The simpler you keep it, the less you’ll spend. Let the natural flavors of the vegetables assert themselves.

Mash your potatoes with butter and salt or roast them in wedges with some oil and herbs. Roast carrots with olive oil (or peanut oil), salt, and pepper. If you have herbs, sprinkle some in there too, or maybe add a little squirt of mustard and/or maple. Do the same with broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc. A seasonal squash can be wonderful too; pick up your sharpest knife and give it the Hasselback treatment to make it special (don’t worry about the pomegranate if it’s too much; it’s a nice touch but the dish is still great without it, or you can swap in dried cranberries).

maple hasselback butternut squash recipe

Alexis deBoschnek

Now you need at least one green. Buy whatever green is the least expensive and most in season, and saute it with garlic, pepper, or maybe even nutmeg. Or make a crisp, refreshing salad with a vinaigrette based on whatever’s in your cabinets; add dried fruit and nuts if you have those in the pantry too.

If you require stuffing, keep that simple too. Make a ($1) box of Jiffy cornbread for your stuffing, and use celery, onions, and broth to bump up the flavor. As with the salad, if you have any dried fruits or nuts in the kitchen, toss those in as well. About three side dishes should be enough. To be safe, you could make some dinner rolls or biscuits too (or have someone bring them).

Cheap Trick: Make your bread even more special with composed butter. Soften the butter and add herbs, honey, or spices and then harden the butter again in the fridge. It will seem fancy and will cost you nothing extra.

Sweet Potato Biscuits

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Consider this recipe, especially if you already have a bunch of flour and whole milk. You’ll only need to buy one sweet potato. Cut the biscuits smaller if you need more than eight total. Get our Sweet Potato Biscuits recipe.

Skillet Kale

kale recipe

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You could use any bitter greens for this dish, which pairs well with savory mains. It’s especially good if you have raisins on hand (like in this Citrus Collards with Raisins recipe), but a simple spritz of lemon juice will suffice.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Pears

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One large butternut squash, or two medium-sized ones if your guests have heartier appetites, a few pears, and onions and you’re ready. Save money by using dried rosemary. Get our Roasted Butternut Squash with Pears recipe.

Dessert Budget: $10

The trick here is to pick an in-season fruit and play off that. Apples, pears, or cranberries are go-to ideas.

Cheap Trick: If you don’t want to attempt a pie crust, make an apple-cranberry crumble. Serve it with freshly whipped cream, which requires only a small carton of cream. Add brown sugar or maple syrup to it if you wish (and have it).

Or go with simple cookies or bars, something that doesn’t require anything expensive.

Easy Apple Crisp

Easy Apple Crisp recipe with cinnamon oatmeal streusel

Chowhound

No crust necessary, just the oats and brown sugar you might already have in the cupboard (if not, buy just a small amount of oats from the bulk section to save money). Make it with whipped cream on the side or dolloped on top. Get our Easy Apple Crisp recipe.

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

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You might get away with making these wonderful and seasonally festive cookies by buying only a bar of chocolate and powdered sugar, if you don’t already have it, and if you have four eggs lying around. Get our Chocolate Crinkle Cookies recipe.

Drinks Budget: $5

Buy a big jug of apple or cranberry juice and make a mulled beverage. If you have a bottle of bourbon (or someone is nice enough to bring one), you can spike individual glasses). Or just save your five bucks and drink the wine that your guests supplied and give the kids and nondrinkers water. It’s all good.

Mulled Apple Cider

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Don’t have those whole spices this recipe requires? Use the powdered versions you do have. Be flexible. This is really an extra anyway. Get our Mulled Apple Cider recipe.

Cheap Trick: If you’re serving some of the same things you did at Thanksgiving, see how to make cocktails with your cooking ingredients too; assuming you have a little vodka or whiskey rattling around already, you can make a lot of easy, festive drinks from the dinner ingredients.

Stay strong. Stick to the plan. Don’t go credit-crazy. And don’t be afraid to enlist help.

See our Holiday Headquarters for more tips, tricks, hacks, and recipes.

Related Video: How to Make a Cocktail with Surplus Cranberry Sauce

Header image courtesy of emmaduckworth / RooM / Getty Images

Amy Sowder is a writer and editor based in NYC, covering food and wellness in publications such as Bon Appétit, Women's Health, Eat This, Not That!, Upworthy/GOOD, Brooklyn Magazine, and Westchester Magazine. She loves to run races, but her favorite finish lines are gelato shops. Learn more at AmySowder.com.
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