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Thanksgiving main on the cheap

I'm hosting a Thanksgiving potluck for a group of friends. We're all on tight budgets and I don't think I can swing a full turkey, but I'd still like to be able to provide some sort of focal point dish with some protein. No preference as far as meat/vegetarian, but a few people don't like egg dishes, so quiches and strata and whatnot are probably out of the question. Any thoughts?

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  1. Keep an eye out for turkey specials--most grocery stores use them as loss leaders to get people into the store. Some stores in my area will give out free turkeys if you spend a certain amount (and it's not a huge amount) while other sell them for as low as 39 cents a pound.

    3 Replies
    1. re: chowser

      same here...the turkey is usually free

      1. re: chowser

        I agree, turkey is the cheapest main dish for thanksgiving. Most grocery stores give them away at cost to get you to buy the 200 dollars worth of stuff that you need to go with the turkey. And as LaLa said many grocery stores do promos to give them away. Even at Whole Foods or Wegmans the turkey would be the lowest cost main and one goes a long way. Roast the turkey in some herbs and your guests will think it cost way more than it did.

        1. re: drake0388

          Agreed. You should be able to buy a turkey cheaply, at the very least. Another possibility is a roast chicken. But the turkey will be a better buy. Another decent buy might be a ham.

          A nicely roasted turkey is easy to accomplish, and with some extras--like the herbs drake has suggested--your guests and you will feel that they have had a true Thanksgiving.

          Sides such as homemade stuffing and mashed potatoes are not expensive to do either.

      2. Roast pork maybe? Pork butt...

        If not a lot of people, then how about substitute with a chicken?

        1. What about a pot pie? You can use less poultry meat and still have a warm comforting meal.

          1. How about Turkey (rather than Chicken) Tetrazzini? This dish can be made w/1 or another canned cream soup (mushroom + celery work well together). I like to add some sort of shredded cheese; but, this is completely optional. Don't forget bread crumbs + melted butter/margerine on top. Obviously, a variety of things might be added & you could serve w/canned cranberry sauce for a holiday touch. W/a side salad & good bread, could go over well @ little cost.

            1. Turkeys this time of year are cheap. I usually buy several to have throughout the year. Save your grocery spending for one trip that gives you the discount price (like $6 with a $25 purchase).

              1 Reply
              1. re: wyogal

                I agree. Turkey is the cheap part of the meal. Add mashed potatoes, stuffing made with old bread (day old stores abound) and a vegetable of greens and you have a full meal. If someone is willing to make a pumpkin pie and someone else adds some heavy cream for whipping you have a feast.

              2. Isn't the turkey usu. the cheapest part of a traditional American Thanksgiving feast?

                Unless you are buying a heritage or organic bird, many places will give you a free Butterball turkey for buying $X amount of groceries.

                1. Turkey is cheaper than any of the vegetables in a typical T-day meal. A whole one is cheaper than parts. Roast one with stuffing and you will be getting off cheaper than your guests will.

                  1. I agree that turkeys are usually on super sales during thanksgiving, but if you can't find one cheap or free, you might consider a butternut squash or pumpkin lasagne, with some sausage for protein if you like. However, I know that I couldn't make a lasagne nearly as cheaply as I can make a turkey.

                    1. So far I've seen three places giving away turkey this year when you buy other Thanksgiving groceries.... but you could always sub large chickens and most people wouldn't really notice the difference.

                      1. I'm going to add my voice to the chorus and say just keep your eye on the newspaper specials. The Turkey is always the cheapest part of the meal, and is often free at most markets in most parts of the country if you just buy the stuff you'd buy every week anyway at your local market. The annual specials haven't hit the papers yet where I live but I expect them to do so this week or next.

                        I have never paid more than $5 for a 25 lb Turkey at Thanksgiving time. A typical bird will yield about 33% carvable meat after cooking, not including the drumsticks and thighs, so allow about 1 pound per person of bird when buying.

                        Any other main you choose will be much more expensive than Turkey.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: acgold7

                          Somewhere along the line, I picked up the information that a 16-lb turkey is about the maximum skeleton size, so birds heavier than that have a better meat-to-bone ratio. I think that if you have a large bird, you can get away with 3/4 pound per person and still have leftovers aplenty. There isn't much labor difference between preparing a huge turkey and a small one so I say the bigger the better.

                          1. re: greygarious

                            After doing several dozen Turkeys of various sizes from 13 to 30 pounds last summer, and carefully weighing, deboning and re-weighing every single component of every bird, raw and cooked, down to the hundredth of an ounce, I can tell you that regardless of size, exactly 65-68% of every Turkey is edible. Bigger birds are only 3% higher yield than smaller ones, which is statistically insignificant. The "carvable/slice-able" yield is even lower, about 33%, regardless of size, depending upon your skill with a knife. And of course in my prior post above I meant not including the drumsticks and wings, not thighs.

                            I have the spreadsheet to prove it. I have numbers for skin, bones, fat, giblets, legs, thighs, wings, breasts, bone-in and boneless, raw and cooked, roasted and rotisserie and smoked. There's no number I don't have at this point.

                            Dashed my theory all to hell. I used to buy bigger birds based on that theory too and I was pissed as hell to be proven wrong. There is really no difference in percentage yield between big birds and small birds.

                            All that being said I still love to get the biggest birds I can, even though they are monsters to flip in the oven and are just a pain in the ass overall to work with. They're just more fun. Common sense says to get smaller ones but I just can't resist a 30-pounder if I can find one.

                            1. re: acgold7

                              I do not have your statistics, but can tell you that there's a significant difference from one variety fo turkey to another. One year I hadn't planned on roasting a turkey until the last minute. Picked up a Marval bird, about 16#, and was a little surprised at how small the cavity was, stuffing being the best part. So the separately baked stuffing was a larger dish than usual. Started carving the breast, and carving the breast, and carving the breast. Dubbed the bird Dolly Parturkey. It had the thickest breast I have ever encountered. The next year I got one of Trader Joe's uncaged turkeys, 17#, quickly named The Pelican. It had long legs and very large wings, with a narrow, thin breast. This bird was far closer in build to a wild turkey than to the unnatural form of a "big farma" battery-raised turkey, and I can assure you it had less meat than Dolly did.

                              1. re: greygarious

                                Oh, absolutely. "Wild-style" Heritage birds are an absolutely horrible value, economically, and have much less white meat and a much lower yield than a supermarket bird. They are totally unlike commercially raised conventional birds, which are bred for maximum white meat production, so much so that they can barely stand up, because that's what Americans like. So my comparison is only within that type. Different types and varieties will obviously be different. But we weren't talking about type/breed/variety, only size.

                                But within normal supermarket birds available nationwide and accounting for probably 99% of the Turkeys consumed annually (commercially known as the Broad Breasted White), % yield does not vary significantly by size. Not in any way worth stressing about. But still, nothing makes me happier than coming home with six 28-pound Toms for about five bucks each when I can find them. That's my form of hunting.

                        2. While I agree that turkey prices are crazy cheap with various specials, have you considered buying just a turkey breast (assuming you don't mind not having dark meat)? Over the years, we've cut down substantially on the over abundance of side dishes (just too much food), so the costs really aren't bad. Or, since everyone on your list is on tight budgets, could they each chip in x amount for a whole turkey?

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: pine time

                            A nice breast goes a long way and is easier to make in some ways. Sticking with fewer better sides is great too. Sometimes when you have so many sides you want some of them and others you just feel obligated to eat.

                            1. re: drake0388

                              Buying just the breast will cost you way more than a whole bird on sale. You could buy the whole bird and throw away the bottom half and it'd cost half of what it would to just buy a breast, because they never put those on sale.

                              A 8-lb (average wt) frozen Turkey breast at $2.39/lb (average price in my area) would be $19 or so. To get a breast that size you'd need about a 15 pound whole bird, which at 39 cents a pound sale price (typical around here, although as mentioned above can be as low as .19 or even free with qualifying other purchases) would run you less than six bucks.

                              1. re: acgold7

                                Yup, breast only can be pricey, especially if stores are offering great prices on whole birds. Already, stores in my area are doing buy one/get one free on whole turkeys. Too bad I don't have the freezer space.

                          2. Like risotto? You could purchase one pound of (unsliced) cooked roast turkey at the deli counter and add it (cut in pieces) to a mushroom risotto.

                            1. Times are tough, but there is help out there. In my area of Connecticut many churches and social service departments are giving out food baskets. In those baskets is a gift certificate for a turkey at a local food store. Make a couple phone calls. Information is kept confidential. If you were around here I would get you a turkey.

                              1. Well, the common wisdom here is that Turkey is the cheaper component of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, and I do concur. But if stretching the protein to feed a lot of folks is the issue, you might consider buying just turkey legs, which are cheap anyway but super-cheap this time of year, because most people who want just a part wish to buy the breast, so off come the legs and thighs, which you can poach or roast and turn into a turkey and stuffing combination casserole, using the stock and drippings for a gravy. Another idea might be to buy and roast a very small bird and pre-slice it very thinly and offer up a turkey sandwich buffet with good bread and lots of fixings.

                                1. The turkey part is the cheapest. Just watch your local grocery circulars or give a call to your local food banks. Many larger cities will have free turkeys at food banks. Though if you are hosting a party, I'd say you don't need the food a food bank provides. Since you mention potluck, then others are also contributing. So organize it so that people are bringing various parts of the tranditional meal. That way you don't get one turkey and 20 desserts or plates of cookies.

                                  1. Could you go in with one other person to buy the whole turkey? When my husband was in the air force and we were stationed overseas, we did that. 2 couples paid for the bird, the others each brought a side dish. We had mashed potatoes, gravey, stuffing and green beans. No other sides. And Pumpkin pie for dessert. It was wonderful. That was 45 years ago! Our first Thanksgiving.