The holiday season is all about excess. But in this financial climate, simple meals and décor can seem tastefully elegant instead of Dickensian. This year, it's de rigueur to forgo the fancy spread and get back to basics. Here's how:
Plan Ahead -- Open your day planner and circle Nov. 1 with a red pen. This is when you should start planning your menu. The turkey will account for nearly 40 percent of the cost of Thanksgiving dinner [source: All Recipes]. Buy it early, and get a frozen bird -- it'll store easier, defrost better and roast up juicier. A week before Thanksgiving, commit an afternoon to prep work. Tear up bread for stuffing, mix dough for pie crusts and dinner rolls, and simmer chicken to make stock. Plan your shopping excursion on double-coupon day, and take careful inventory of your pantry so you don't buy unnecessary items.
Stick to the Classics -- Thanksgiving is no time to experiment with unusual dishes or recipes that exceed your skill level. You've got a hungry crowd waiting, and they'll expect traditional dishes. When that clove-studded, orange-infused turkey falls flat, you'll have to tack on another $20 to your budget to cover Chinese takeout for your hungry guests. You really can't go wrong with a classic menu of roast turkey, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie [source: Martha Stewart]. As a rule of thumb, choose recipes with the fewest ingredients and steps to save money and time.
Deviate from the Classics -- An untraditional Thanksgiving dinner can make a chic culinary statement and cost less than the storybook spread. Instead of roasting a turkey, grill turkey burgers. Knead fresh tarragon into the patties, and finish them off with a Gwyneth Paltrow-approved condiment: cranberry ketchup, a combination of cranberry chutney and tomato ketchup [source: Huffington Post]. Instead of Champagne, serve cranberry-sparkling water spritzers, or make a root beer float with pumpkin-flavored ice cream.
Add More Décor -- Nothing sets the occasion quite like an enchanting dinner table. You don't have to spend a fortune at the florist to create an autumnal wonderland; rather, collect natural elements from your backyard for free, fresh décor. For the centerpiece, fill a vase halfway with acorns, then arrange willow branches, sturdy sticks and gold and red leaves to cascade over the top. Make place cards with tiny squares of ivory card stock secured to pinecones. Light a few taper candles, and the dining room will be aglow with the magic of the holidays.
Tell Guests It's BYOS (Bring Your Own Side) -- As long as you let guests know well in advance, they won't mind bringing something to dinner. You can focus on the bird and assign the starches, vegetables, cranberries and dessert to friends and family. This way, you can put a little extra toward your wine budget.
Be a Discerning Host -- If money is tight, you don't have to be the hostess with the mostest -- it's better to be a discerning host. Make thoughtful, smart choices about your dinner spread while keeping your guests' tastes and your financial means in mind. For instance, if your crowd prefers white meat, purchase a smaller, less expensive turkey breast. Perhaps a full dinner isn't an option this year. You could always host a morning brunch. A few pastries, quiches and mimosas will hold over your friends and family until they're off to their dinner celebrations. Or, throw an after-dinner soiree: Put on a pot of coffee, mix up a signature cocktail and arrange petit fours, fresh fruit and cheese on a tray. You'll close out turkey day with style and panache!