Feed a crowd for forty bucks
The calculations are complete. Total cost per person for our Thanksgiving meal (one generous serving each of six dishes and two desserts): $3.50.
Note that I didn’t skimp on quality of ingredients — I used such expensive items as pine nuts, heavy cream, whole vanilla beans, and real maple syrup. I also did nothing different from my usual shopping habits here — although we don’t usually eat this much, we do eat this well, and this cheaply, all the time.
I also cooked a lot more than we needed. I regularly double-cook for dinners — I like the efficiency of ‘cook once, eat twice’ — but for Thanksgiving I pretty much go at it like I’m feeding an army, instead of (in this case) just four people. So we all ate various permutations of this meal for the following three days. (Each dish ranged from 8 to 16 servings, and for what it’s worth my total expense for these quantities was $41.11.)
With only two people eating meat, cooking a turkey seemed like a waste. Jak said he wouldn’t miss turkey so long as we had cornbread dressing and pumpkin pie. So I decided to make an entirely vegetarian meal.
However, I did make note of what a whole turkey would have cost, since I know many people can’t imagine Thanksgiving without one. Essentially, adding a roast turkey serving to the existing meal (for a total of nine dishes instead of eight) would have added .49 per person, for a total of $3.99. (This was a special Thanksgiving sale price, not likely on a non-holiday.)
That means you could serve this meal plus turkey to ten people for under $40.
What isn’t included: energy cost to run the oven, microwave, and so forth. Butane for the creme brulée torch. Water from the tap. Everything else is accounted for, including the cost of items I already had in the pantry.
Below is the menu and the cost breakdown by dish (you can see the first six on this plate, clockwise from top; desserts are separate). Where applicable, I have linked to recipes, with the following caveat: I almost never follow recipes exactly as written, so I may have made liberal adjustments.
NEW: I’ve ported my spreadsheet over to Google Docs, so you can see the breakdown of cost by ingredient.
Maple Sweet Potatoes with Pecan Streusel
$5.65 for 10 servings
Made this one up on the fly: mashed sweet potatoes flavored with butter, maple syrup, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, covered with a streusel made from ground pecans, flour, butter, sugar, and cinnamon. (Pecans and real maple syrup account for 57% of the cost.) My only regret is that the streusel made it brown instead of vibrant orange; I wish I’d had a clear dish to bake it in.
Charmoula Green Beans and Carrots
$4.33 for 12 servings
I was seduced by the gorgeous photo on Kalyn’s blog into trying this for Thanksgiving. The charmoula sauce is an amazing discovery. I am going to be putting it on everything now. It was crazy-awesome.
Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
$2.62 for 12 servings
No recipe here — just roast a huge wad of garlic cloves in olive oil in the oven, then mash and add to potatoes along with generous amounts of butter, cream, and salt. Potatoes are so cheap that even with the dairy this is still a bargain.
$4.40 for 16 servings
This is a permutation of the cornbread dressing I grew up with in Texas. First you make homemade cornbread, then crumble and rebake with sauteed celery and onions, eggs, milk, broth, and poultry seasoning. Not the most attractive dish in the world (especially since I used whole wheat flour in the cornbread, making it darker) but yummy all the same.
Cauliflower & Brussels Sprouts Gratin
$10.49 for 16 servings
I’ve been running variations on this Epicurious recipe for about a year now, to universal acclaim. Usually I make it with just the cauliflower, but this time I wanted a second green vegetable on the table, so included Brussels sprouts — albeit not in the proportions of the original recipe.
This dish is pricey (relatively speaking) because of the cream, Parmesan, and pine nuts. But OH MY GOD is it good. Just ask our twelve-year-old, who was begging to eat more at every meal including breakfast for the next three days. (Yes that’s right, my child eats Brussels sprouts at breakfast. Booyah!)
Spiced Whole Cranberry Sauce
$4.51 for 16 servings
Classic fresh cranberries + simple syrup, flavored with allspice, cardamom, and ginger.
Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream
$3.76 for 8 servings
I was willing to buy pumpkins and bake them, but took Jennifer Reese’s word that canned pumpkin is actually better. I used her recipe — more or less — for the filling. I did, also on her recommendation, bake the pie crust myself. My very first pie crust attempt ever, so I was worried, but it was actually good! I used Elise’s recipe for the crust, because her directions are specific enough for piecrust newbs. Also: real whipped cream with sugar and vanilla. None of that Cool Whip crap. (Note that my $3.76 includes the whipped cream; without topping the pie would have been $2.82 — cheaper than Jennifer’s $3.68.)
Vanilla Bean Creme Brulée
$5.35 for 8 servings
This was Jak’s contribution to the meal. He doesn’t normally cook at all. But he loves creme brulée and so a few years back I got him a torch set and a creme brulée cookbook for Christmas, in hopes that he would be tempted. Well, it finally paid off.
This is the other relatively expensive dish, but like the gratin completely worth it. He picked this Martha Stewart version for his first attempt, and I’d say it was a tie with the best restaurant creme brulée I’ve ever had.