For anyone planning a holiday meal for a crowd and watching food costs, higher prices are going to make shopping trickier this year. What’s the best approach: buy in bulk and freeze what you don’t use? Scale back the menu so you’re not stuck with leftovers that go bad? How do you extract the most out of every ounce?
One answer might be: dine out. According to a Wells Fargo analysis, Thanksgiving dinner ingredients this year cost 15 percent more than last year — while restaurant prices have also risen, but somewhat less. On the other hand, cooking at home introduces plenty of ways to save money.
Three San Diego chefs stick to budgets in their own professional kitchens as a matter of routine, and more so as prices have gone up this year. The Union-Tribune asked them how they would handle meal planning, budgeting, ingredient selection and food preparation if they were making Thanksgiving at home for their families. Here’s what they said.
Stephane Voitzwinkler, executive chef at Mister A’s Restaurant
Voitzwinkler started learning about cooking — and celebration meals with family and friends — from his mother. His parents’ parties in France were noisy, musical, food-stuffed affairs with multiple courses prepared by his mother. “I remember trying to go to sleep and I couldn’t sleep because they were too loud, you know?” he said.
Whether for parties or everyday cooking, she shopped at local markets — sometimes on her bike, with a market bag — and was resourceful with food storage, because their refrigerator was tiny. Oysters and beer in the basement, cheeses on the windowsill. Efficiency and planning are key with holiday meals, he said.
1. Pour yourself a glass of wine and plan your day
Voitzwinkler’s kitchen and team at San Diego fine dining icon Mister A’s are a highly efficient enterprise. With two convection ovens, they prepare 300 to 500 covers. “I like to, you know, strategize,” he said. He creates a “firing chart” with what goes into the oven, and when. “If I can do 500 covers with two ovens, they should be able to do 12 covers with one oven,” he said.
His home-chef tip: plan calmly, before you’re hungry and on deadline. “You know, sitting down, having a glass of wine and see how’s your day’s going to (play out) tomorrow when everybody’s there and hungry.” After dinner, take notes to help plan for next year — including if you cooked too much or not enough.
2. Go ahead and freeze that bread
Voitzwinkler hesitated when he was asked about freezing leftovers. “I’m not really a fan of freezing,” he said. Then he paused and reconsidered. “I mean, if you want to bring it up, if you freeze fresh food, especially bread — bread freezes very well. The moisture from the freezing the product will actually give you a nice, warm, crunchy bread out of the freezer.”
3. From scratch stuffing can be cheap and satisfying
“Buy your fresh vegetables, which are basic vegetables. Carrot is still cheap. Celery is still cheap. Onions: still cheap. You buy a bag of each … and you make your own stuffing,” he said. Those same vegetables, with turkey bones, make stock, he added.
In Wise’s kitchens, which serve diverse genres of food with an unifying blend of purity and panache, dealing with rising food costs has “made us a strong group from an operations standpoint,” he said.
To cut waste and stretch budgets, teams from the kitchen, bar, pastry department and butcher shops put their heads together. One result: new products, such as The Wise Ox’s beef butter, made from fat trimmings, and a new cocktail at Fort Oak that uses corn husks — while the pureed kernels go into a steak dish. Here are some of his pointers for creative, affordable holiday cooking:
4. ‘We throw almost nothing away’
“We’ve always been cautious with waste and how to reduce what we throw away, but when ingredients are suddenly so much more, our back is against the wall and we have to get creative,” he said, of restaurant cooking. “So we throw almost nothing away.”
The same goes for Thanksgiving. Stick (washed and dried) leftover herbs and garlic cloves into a sealable olive oil jar and store in a cool, dark place for up to two weeks. For a turkey stock with more depth and flavor, smoke it: “I would cold-smoke the whole thing for a few hours, enough to let it take on some of the flavors of the smoker and the wood/pellets. Then, boil the carcass and go about making stock as you would,” Wise said.
5. Adapt and swap ingredients
“Utilize multiple ingredients in multiple ways,” he said. Yams can stand in for pumpkin. (Pumpkin prices have risen more this year than sweet potatoes and are now pricier, according to the USDA.) Served one way, they’re a side dish, and flavored with nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon, they mimic pumpkin’s texture and color in a dessert.
6. Buy less
Wise said one of the hardest parts of planning a big holiday feast is getting the portions right. “We tend to over-buy and end up with waste because we think people are going to eat more than they do,” he said. His suggestion: underestimate. “Go for the smaller bird,” and watch people still leave the table with full, happy bellies.
“People don’t usually eat more than eight ounces of meat per serving, and two to three ounces per side per person. That’s a lot less than you would think,” he said.
Tara Monsod, executive chef at Animae
At Animae, the downtown steakhouse and Asian fusion restaurant Monsod helms, the menu is packed with sumptuous, inventive dishes that can also be resource and labor-intensive. Growing up, Monsod was exposed to a simpler, more frugal style of cooking in her family’s kitchen. She learned that using the right techniques can save money without sacrificing quality. “Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be expensive,” she said. Here are some of her tips:
7. Starch is your friend
Potatoes, bread and rice are “good fillers for when you’re balling on a budget and you want people to leave very satisfied,” Monsod said. Versatile potatoes have the added plus of being “very Thanksgiving.” Monsod, who grew up eating Filipino food, said rice was a staple at her family’s holiday meals. For Thanksgiving, rice stuffing is “always a winner,” she said.
8. Serve cold appetizers
On the casual side: dips or crudites. On the fancier side: “Although charcuterie boards and cheese boards are pricier, that’s something that saves electricity,” she said.
9. Keep it simple with salt, pepper and acid
The right amount of salt, pepper and acid “is really the key when it comes to being frugal on your meals,” she said. “You can make something really great with four ingredients. You don’t have to get crazy with it. And you don’t have to buy fancy things.” Acid can be a marinade of lemon, oregano, salt and pepper or it can be used after cooking — a squeeze of lemon.
For home cooks who can’t afford groceries, there are a few programs that offer free and reduced Thanksgiving meals. Details are at San Diego’s 211 program website. Also, Walmart is keeping its Thanksgiving ingredient prices the same as last year, the company announced last week. Another low-cost grocer, Aldi, is “rewinding” its Thanksgiving items to 2019 prices. And if you’re looking to donate to the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank to fund holiday meals, click here.