11 ways to have a budget-friendly Thanksgiving

11 ways to have a budget-friendly Thanksgiving

by Courtney Woodruff
Stripes Europe

Norman Rockwell’s oil painting, “Freedom from Want,” is an iconic representation of the American holiday meal. Grandpa is standing at the head of a long table while Grandma makes room for the massive roasted bird, and multiple generations sit around them—elbow to elbow—in eager anticipation. Family, good food and togetherness are the central themes of the moment.

For military families and their civilian counterparts, the Thanksgiving table often looks a bit different, especially in times of overseas assignments. Without extended family members to celebrate and share the expense of the holiday meal, the extra costs often fall on our shoulders in times of high stress, seasonal blues and homesickness.

But don’t worry. It is possible to plan a memorable Thanksgiving feast for your family on a tight budget at an overseas duty location. Here’s how:

Plan early

Thanksgiving items are now on display at commissaries throughout Europe. DECA begins planning in early March to ensure the right products and quantities are available to meet the holiday needs of OCONUS commissary customers—including the demand for 715,000 turkeys sold in overseas stores every year. Plan your menu ahead of time, so you are able to participate in the season’s best promotions.

Shop at the commissary

When it comes to finding traditional Thanksgiving menu items on a budget, shopping at your local commissary is the way to go. Since many ingredients are not available on the economy, DECA manufacturers do their best to provide the best prices while also offering special coupons and additional savings to service members, civilian workers and their families. According to DECA representative Richard Brink, “European commissaries try to offer the same type of products as patrons are used to stateside, bringing a ‘taste of home’ to overseas customers.”

Stock up a little at a time

Instead of waiting to purchase all of the items for your budget-friendly Thanksgiving feast in one shopping spree, consider collecting dry, canned and frozen goods over several visits to the commissary. This will help spread the total expense across several pay periods.

Keep it simple

Curb the desire (or perceived pressure) to go all out. Avoid complicated dishes, and stick with a maximum of three family favorites for sides and two desserts. Also, for smaller gatherings, compare the price of turkey legs or cutlets to the cost of a whole turkey.

Host a potluck

Entertaining a crowd? Ask guests to contribute one of their favorite family dishes to the spread, and organize who is bringing appetizers, sides, desserts and drinks. This way, the cost and time it takes to prepare the meal is divvied up between partygoers, and it is likely you will each get to try something new. Everyone wins.

Consider a non-traditional menu

If you are not fully committed to the idea of preparing a traditional turkey dinner with all of the fixings, why not change things up a bit? Go with an inexpensive crowd-pleaser, like lasagna—or come up with a new theme, altogether! Remember, at the end of the day, the holiday is about who is around our tables, not what is on our plates. Also, changing things up a bit may help stave off those unwelcome blues that tend to come along with spending holidays away from extended family members.

Stick to your list

Resist the urge to deviate from your original game plan. Even though flashy promotions and last-minute deals may seem attractive, buying on impulse can quickly derail your budget.

Opt for frozen or canned ingredients

In most cases, you can save a little bit of money (and time) by choosing frozen or canned ingredients over fresh products, especially when it comes to the bird. Keep in mind the cost of the turkey will be 40 percent of your total meal budget. Forgo the fresh fowl, and purchase a frozen one with a coupon. Just be sure to plan ahead for the time it will take your turkey to thaw—one day in the fridge for every five pounds.

Decorate with handmade and natural items

Fall in Europe is one of the most beautiful times of the year. Instead of blowing your budget on store-bought décor, get creative and take a look around. Go on a scavenger hunt to collect colorful, dry leaves, fresh berries, acorns and sticks for centerpieces. Have your little ones join in the fun, and encourage them to craft personalized napkin rings, placemats and name cards from items you already have around the house.

Plan meals for leftovers

Stretch your pennies by planning inexpensive meals for the rest of the week that can incorporate the inevitable turkey dinner leftovers. Get creative or try new twists on old favorites, like substituting shredded turkey meat for ground beef in tacos and pasta dishes.

Even though a budget-friendly Thanksgiving feast overseas may not resemble the typical American holiday in one way or another, we can do our best with the resources we have available to us. Friends and neighbors who become family, good food and togetherness are still the central themes of the moment—and, at the end of the day, being thankful for what we have is still what matters most.

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