A Thanksgiving feast for pennies

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Serve up a dining delight without starving your bank account.

What better reason than a feast to bring family and friends together? Yet, pulling off a well-heeled meal can be a challenge on a shoestring budget. Minimize your load from the grocery store and lighten your food bill with a little consumer smarts.

Have a plan

First, you need to know how many people you’re expecting, what kind of eaters they are — second-helping stuffers or pick-at-plate patrons — when the feast will be and how it will be presented, says Jyl Steinback, author of the “Fat Free Living” cookbook series.

Before you head out to the supermarket, look around to see what ingredients are already sitting in your pantry. Melanie Barnard, author of “Short & Sweet: 150 Sophisticated Desserts in No Time at All,” suggests keeping it well-stocked, “Because pantry foods tend to be the most economical and the backbone to any feast.”

Bigger can be better

When you shop for your ingredients, Steinback recommends buying in bulk from wholesale retailers when possible. Then do the chopping, mincing, dicing and cutting of veggies, meat and cheese ahead of time, and freeze in sealed plastic sandwich bags. Prepare sauces, dressings and desserts in advance, too.

Another strategy for reducing food costs, says Barnard, is planning meals with items that are in season. This not only includes fruits and vegetables, but also dairy and meat. When items are in season they are cheaper and fresher.

Even though produce and foodstuffs are available year-round, they could be imported or harvested months before they’re sold. To find out when items are in season, Barnard recommends checking with your local farmer’s market.

Keep the recipes simple and flexible

That way, if you plan on using basil in your recipe, and you go to the store and it doesn’t look good that day, you can substitute with another herb if you’ve chosen recipes that can accommodate last-minute changes, Barnard says.

“The hardest recipes are gussied up because you don’t have good ingredients. If you have truly great ingredients, you present them the way they are. Let them stand for themselves,” Barnard says.

She suggests first preparing pasta. To accompany, fresh seasonal herbs can be sauteed in olive oil, then simmered together with a bit of wine, some tuna, canned tomatoes and maybe a little chicken broth. Barnard says indulge your creativity by adding some artichokes, olives or even anchovies to this mixture. With the meal you can serve Italian bread and a salad of seasonal greens.

“That is a wonderful dish,” Barnard says, and one that fits almost any budget.

For dessert, she suggests freezing fruit cocktail in heavy syrup — the kind you can buy in a can. When you’re ready for company, put the frozen fruit-syrup combo into a food processor and add some fruit juice or liqueur.

“In a few minutes you have an unbelievable fruit sorbet,” she says.

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.