A Thanksgiving feast for pennies

Line 'em up

The buffet is an almost foolproof feast idea and one that works well with bulk quantities and theme presentations. Not only does buying in bulk reduce your cost, but serving guests, for example, pieces of chicken rather than a whole bird also lets you stretch your dinner dollar.

"Buffets are definitely the easiest and they look great," says chef Lara Kierstead. She suggests dressing the buffet table up with simple decorations like a basket full of gourds for fall, which has the added benefit of making the table look fuller. Having a separate table for the food also frees up the eating table, so there isn't a lot of passing or reaching for the food.

8 tips for freezing foods ahead
  1. Under-cook the food.
  2. Skip the potatoes.
  3. Season lightly.
  4. Allow for expansion.
  5. Label everything.
  6. Set freezer at zero.
  7. Store in single layer.
  8. Use only fresh foods.
Steinback suggests a kabob bar, where the host can set up prepped items and the guests assemble their own skewer full of goodies. This concept also works with other assembled foods, such as fajitas and burritos. Bulk shrimp and scallops can be turned into a stir-fry main course. She then recommends a potato bar or salad bar as your side-dish items.

Another way to work with bulk foods is to build around a one-pot meal, Steinberg says. Make a soup, stew or chili dish. Serve bread or salad to complement the main dish, and offer "grab foods" as appetizers -- chips and dip, veggie trays, crackers and cheese or spinach dip.

Feasting for pennies doesn't have to starve your guests -- or your wallet. Planning, flexibility and presentation of the meal can make the difference.

When preparing or cooking items to be frozen, Steinback offers these tips:

  • Cook casseroles for slightly less time than the recipe directs. Cool quickly to stop the cooking action, pack solidly and freeze. When you reheat it, the cooking is done.
  • Slightly undercook vegetables, rice, spaghetti and noodles to prevent sticky-soft foods.
  • Don't freeze soups, stews or casseroles that contain potatoes. This can cause a grainy texture. Instead, add the pre-cooked potatoes when you serve the dish.
  • Go light with the seasonings because freezing tends to increase the intensity of certain ingredients like pepper, cloves, onion and garlic.
  • Give food room to breathe. Leave up to an inch of air space at the top of the freezer containers to allow for expansion without explosion.
  • Label items with name, quantity and date.
  • Make sure the freezer is at zero degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Spread foods out into single or thin layers. Store soups and sauces in resealable plastic storage bags. Press down and lay flat.
  • Freeze foods at their freshest.

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