With grocery prices up, many Americans are wondering how to put a festive holiday meal on the table without breaking the bank. NBC senior business correspondent Stephanie Ruhle told TODAY Food that part of the problem is the expectation for many of us to cook not one, but multiple holiday meals.
"One of the reasons this busts our budget is that it's not just one meal like with Thanksgiving," she said. "It could be Christmas Eve, Christmas dinner, breakfast on Christmas morning." Ruhle said that if you are responsible for some or all of these festive gatherings, that doesn't mean you have to make it expensive.
"You don't have to serve steak or ham," she said. "You could do a beautiful pasta, or soup and homemade bread."
Here are some more great tips for bringing the family together without going broke.
Set a beautiful tablescape
Setting the scene for the festivities can make the meal feel special, even without Beef Wellington, said Ruhle.
"Set a beautiful table. A nice tablescape can include candles, and a white tablecloth." If you have good china, now's the time to pull it out and even if you don't a few dollar store purchases can make for beautiful place settings.
Ruhle says the sooner you can do your grocery shopping the better, because as the holiday gets closer the selection in the stores will get smaller, resulting in a bigger bill for you.
"If you know you're making cranberries, buy them now a week ahead," she said. "If you wait until the last minute the only choice might be organic, hand-picked with a high price tag."
Keep the menu simple
Another way to save is to keep your meals manageable.
"Just like our kids have full Christmas dream list, your menu might be your dream," she said. "But then you pare it down. It’s not just the expense but it’s the stress of it."
Ruhle said that by keeping the menu simple we can save big bucks.
"One way we overspend is that we choose a complicated menu with lots of ingredients," said Ruhle. With appetizers, desserts and drinks, the grocery (and liquor) bill can quickly add up. Ruhle said it's smarter to double up on recipes by using the same ingredients across multiple dishes.
"When you make your menu, actually write out a grocery list and find ways to consolidate," she said. "Don't choose recipes with totally different ingredients."
Spices, for example, can be very pricey and can end up going to waste if you otherwise don't cook often.
"Ask yourself, what can I make where I can reuse ingredients?" she suggested.
Alex Van Dyke, owner of Van Dyke Hospitality of Brick Farm Cooking School in Ringoes, New Jersey echoed Ruhle's sentiments about getting ingredients that are versatile across multiple recipes.
"One thing that can add up on your shopping receipts is a large ingredient list," he said. "Many times, a recipe may call for one tablespoon of a particular item, but you end up having to buy an entire bottle. Using one ingredient in multiple ways not only helps save money, but it also minimizes food waste."
Van Dyke said every cook should ask the following questions: What scraps are being thrown out? Why are we throwing them out? And lastly, What can we do with them to transform these ingredients into something delicious?
Focus on quality not quantity
When grocery shopping Van Dyke said to shop for a few good quality items rather than a long list of many ingredients.
"My philosophy has always been that I’d rather have a few great ingredients than a bunch of average dishes," he said. "Keep things simple this year by concentrating your efforts, and your budgets, on a few fantastic plates." That could mean making a simple salad using local greens and a homemade vinaigrette, he said.
"Those local greens may cost more, but you're able to purchase high quality ingredients when you're not spending money on all the other small things that add up. And on top of that, you are supporting your local farmers."
Van Dyke also suggested looking at ways to cut costs on meat purchases.
"Instead of buying chicken parts at a mark-up, learn how simple it can be to break down that chicken yourself," he said. "Most consumers pay outrageous markups for convenience, when those seemingly daunting tasks can be simple and enjoyable. Diced vegetables, peeled squash, boxed chicken stock, these items not only cost more but are often less tasty than when you do them yourself."
Let them bring cake (and cheese and wine!)
If you're hosting, remember that it's perfectly fine to take people up on their offers to bring something. "Ask one person to bring a cheese plate, another to bring dessert," Ruhle suggested.
Start new traditions
Consider making a pasta dish one night, or even starting a new tradition by setting up a taco bar or making empanadas together as a family the day before.
"A new tradition doesn't have to be an expensive one," Ruhle said.