How to save time and money on Thanksgiving prep, according to Martha Stewart and other pros

A new survey found that Thanksgiving dinner hosts will spend an average of $310.17 this year for about 10 guests. Stay sane and save money with these tips.
Image: Turkey Dinner
Martha Stewart says "serving buffet style when hosting a big gathering is most practical."LauriPatterson / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

My husband and I are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner this year, and while I’m looking forward to having friends and family over, I’m daunted by the hard work, high costs and inevitable chaos that goes into executing such a formidable gathering.

New research shows me that I have good reason to be intimidated: A new survey from LendingTree found that Thanksgiving dinner hosts will spend an average of $310.17 this year on the affair, for an average of 10 guests. Most of these hosts (64 percent) won’t receive offers from their guests to help cover costs. Additionally, research from Capital One Walmart Rewards Mastercard found that 75 percent of Americans admit to having to make a trip to the store on Thanksgiving Day, coming home with an average of 18 more items.

Looking at these stats gave me pause, and I wondered if perhaps we shouldn’t just call our affair off; but after consulting numerous experts in the realms of food, events, and savings, including the one and only Martha Stewart, I feel totally capable of pulling off a splendid Thanksgiving shindig that won’t cost a fortune or wear me out.

Here’s what we can all do to save time and money so that we can actually enjoy this day of gratitude.

Invest in these time-saving kitchen must-haves

When we plan for Thanksgiving dinner, we tend to go right to the ingredients we need, but keep in mind that you’ll also likely need specific appliances and/or tools for cooking. Best to make sure you have them now than to be forced to run out at the last minute to shop for them (likely at a higher than normal price).

“The best kitchen gadgets make food prep so much faster and easier that you’ll rely on them for both Thanksgiving feasts and everyday dinners,” Martha Stewart told NBC News BETTER in an email. Be like Martha and add these must-haves to your collection:

  • Microplane zester
  • Balloon whisk
  • Stainless steel measuring cups & spoons
  • Potato masher
  • Garlic press

Michael Silva-Nash, EVP of Molly Maid of Greater Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas, a Neighborly company, recommends that Thanksgiving hosts also purchase Press’n Seal liner for the fridge shelves to “avoid having to clean cranberry sauce and gravy. Get the ones without designs and don’t leave on forever — they have to be removed on a regular basis.”

He adds that you might also want to get slow cooker liners, disposable baking pans, pie tins and plastic storage containers.

Making a menu will help you make a budget

Rather than making your menu to match your budget, I find it more practical to build my budget around my menu (going into it with the obvious understanding that I mustn’t go too crazy). This approach is helpful because I can calmly make my list without obsessing over prices the whole time. Once I make the menu, I estimate the total cost and then, if it looks reasonable, as in something I can afford to pay for in cash and not on a credit card, I proceed. If I find that it’s a little high, I reassess the need for some dishes.

Don’t blow your budget on decor. Use acorns, squashes and tea light candles

This time of year you’ll find ample collections of seasonal table settings, throw pillows, bath towels and a million other things with golden leaf patterns and turkey decals for sale. If you’re sticking to a budget, it’s best to ignore all this pricey kitsch and take a more DIY approach.

“Don’t underestimate the aesthetic appeal of things like acorns and foliage, or a sprig from a pine tree,” says Melanie Berliet, general manager of The Spruce. “There are so many items you can collect in the backyard to add a touch of nature to your mantel or tablescape. If you have a little more time for a simple DIY project, spray paint some nuts in gold to make your own decorative accent or transform a gourd into a vase. “Another idea is to learn some simple festive napkin folds that will make your place settings really pop and impress your guests — colorful, festive, and you can find packs of bold-colored napkins in bulk for cheap.”

Where can you find such napkins for cheap? Probably at your local 99 cents store, which is where Miguel A. Suro, a lifestyle writer at The Rich Miser does his holiday decor shopping. Here, you can also find tealight candles and other dirt cheap knick-knacks to add some festive pizzazz to your home.

“Budgets tend to be blown on decorations — especially last minute when you snatch up everything in sight to try and make your tablescape perfect,” says Yankel Polak, head chef at ButcherBox. “Candles and lighting are the best ways to set the mood. Tea lights are great because they are inexpensive and burn for a really long time. Farm stands and nurseries are usually selling off the rest of their funky squashes, so grab a few on sale, cut the tops off and set the tea lights on the squashes.”

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Make all the food except for the turkey ahead of time

Did you know that you can prepare pretty much every traditional Thanksgiving staple (save the bird) well in advance? The only caveat is that you’ll need a fairly capacious freezer and fridge for storage.

Anna Rider, food writer and recipe developer at GarlicDelight.com, dishes her favorite tips on this subject:

  • Dips: You can make dips like the Knorr vegetable dip or clam dip one week before Thanksgiving and freeze them. Dips and casseroles defrost beautifully. All you need to do is assemble the crudité plate [on] Tuesday or Wednesday evening and store it in the fridge, ready to serve on Thanksgiving day.
  • Stuffing: Assemble the ingredients for stuffing and put them in casserole dishes the week before Thanksgiving. Freeze the raw stuffing in the casserole dish and take it out to bake on Thanksgiving morning as you prepare the turkey.
  • Sweet potato casserole: Peel and boil sweet potatoes the weekend before Thanksgiving. Put the cooked sweet potatoes in a casserole dish and store them in the fridge. Remove Thanksgiving morning and bring to room temperature. Spread the marshmallow on top of the sweet potatoes and bake just before serving.
  • Charcuterie boards: Cheese spreads with dried fruit and salami are possible to assemble Monday night and kept in the fridge.
  • Pie crusts: Prepare pie crusts [up to] two weeks ahead and freeze them. Opt for pumpkin pies or fruit pies from frozen fruit because they are much less effort to prepare. Assemble the pies on Tuesday and bake them on Wednesday. Reheat them in the oven before serving on Thursday. Serve with ice cream which you can buy this week.

Jessie Sheehan, author of The Vintage Baker, stresses the convenience of making all desserts before the event, noting that “even a baked and frosted cake can be made ahead and frozen, too. I freeze pre-baked biscuits, as well as overnight cranberry French toast to feed all my house guests on Thanksgiving morning or the morning after.”

When guests ask what to bring, don’t be shy (and ask everyone about dietary restrictions)

You know how people ask what they can bring and you say something really nice like “Don’t worry about it, just bring yourself!” Well, that’s the wrong answer if you want to save money and time.

“Have a good answer for guests that ask you what they should bring, or you might wind up with a bunch of bottles of red wine,” says Suro. “A great request is dessert, because it’s hard to make, and it’s usable even if the guests arrive late. Just ask multiple guests to bring dessert, in case some don’t show up or what they bring isn’t too great.”

Suro reminds hosts to ask each guest if they have any dietary restrictions ahead of time so that you can be sure to accommodate them. If they’re bringing anyone else, including kids, be sure and ask about them, too.

Take it a step further and make it a potluck

Perhaps the best way to save on money and time, is to take some of the burden off yourself and make your Thanksgiving dinner a potluck. To avoid confusion, consider taking charge of the core dishes and having the guests provide the rest.

Zaria Zinn, Evite marketing and communications coordinator, adds that more and more people are having “Friendsgivings”, where people come together in a potluck arrangement.

“Encouraging friends and family to bring food and contribute to your feast is no faux pas,” says Zinn. “In fact, new Evite data found that the majority of Friendsgiving parties are potluck style and 24 percent of Friendsgivings ask guests to sign-up for something to bring.”

Have kid-friendly foods on hand to stave off hanger

Kids are infamously picky eaters, so if you’re having any over, be sure to have their finicky needs covered.

“I usually will put out a cheese and fruit tray of some sort and if you want to have some fancier cheese that adults appreciate, you can still separate them and include some kid-friendly options (manchego, cheddar, gouda) and just cut into a format that kids can easily pick up and manage by themselves,” says Leslie Forde, founder of Mom's Hierarchy of Needs. “I use crackers and some soft slices of cut wheat bread [so] if dinner is running late children don't get fussy and hangry. I also add clusters of grapes (cut in half if toddlers will be there), sliced apples and some almonds or walnuts. [This] could be expanded upon with veggies instead of (or along with) fruit such as carrot sticks, cucumber sticks and mild bell pepper slices.”

Serving buffet style when hosting a big gathering is most practical and setting a beautiful and impressive buffet is easier than you think.

Martha Stewart

Serve all foods buffet style and set the table up in advance

It’s lovely to serve people one by one, but you’re not their waiter, you’re their host. Let your guests get their own food; it’s what Martha Stewart would do!

“Serving buffet style when hosting a big gathering is most practical and setting a beautiful and impressive buffet is easier than you think,” says Stewart, who lends the following tips:

  • Bundle your flatware by placing a fork, knife and spoon in individual napkins. That way each guest can pick it up and take it with them to their chair.
  • Set your buffet table a couple nights in advance of Thanksgiving and label the placement of each dish with a post-it note. This way you won’t forget anything that should go on the buffet and you ensure your table layout is ready in advance.”

Accept help not for meal prep, but for clean-up

Just as guests may ask if they can bring anything, they may also ask if they can help you set up. Personally, I find this offer to be more trouble than it’s worth based on the “too many cooks in the kitchen” philosophy. Why add more chaos to meal prep by having guests bumbling around trying to make themselves useful? But if someone wants to help me with clean-up after the event? Well, that’s an offer I’ll gladly accept.

“If guests offer to help out with the labor, it’s better if they do so after the party rather than before,” says Suro. “That’s when there’ll be a mess to clean up, and you’ll be tired.”

And above all, remember to take a few moments to really enjoy this time, which is, after all, not just about eating and drinking and cooking and cleaning and spending and saving — but about enjoying the people you love and being grateful for their company.

More Thanksgiving tips and recipes

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