Family meals can wreck your budget during the holidays. Even in the age of COVID-19, when large get-togethers are not advised, cooking for those in your household can still torment your wallet. Thankfully, these cheap holiday meal ideas can make your holiday meal affordable and less stressful.

1. Avoid Food Waste

One Thanksgiving, after my family finished eating our feast, I scanned the table. We had enough leftovers to feed us for days, but some food still found its way to the trash.

If your finances are tight, cut out the extra cooking. In fact, aim to end the meal with few to no leftovers if you’re struggling to afford a holiday meal in the first place. Cook less and save your money.

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2. Ask People What Food They Love

Another idea that can cut costs is to ask each person about their favorite holiday meal. Turn this year into an experiment, steer away from the traditional holiday grub, and find out what your family really likes.

You’ll end up with less food waste and a fuller, happier household.

Worst case: You’ll have to make these dishes again next year as an encore!

3. Stick to the List

Avoid impulse buying at the grocery store by writing a detailed, well-thought-out shopping list and sticking to it. There are many temptations at the store, but once you have a list to reference, it can help you rein yourself in and stay on budget. All the extra dollars and cents add up, no matter how much of a good deal they seem to be.

Top Grocery Savings Apps

To help you save even more this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of top couponing sites and apps that’ll help you reduce food costs.

  • Ibotta offers many ways to earn cash back on your everyday grocery purchases, helping you save your hard-earned dollars. You can unlock rebates when you shop online or use the mobile app.
  • SavingStar allows you to use your phone to get rebates by linking your card to the app.
  • has online redeemable coupons as well as downloadable and printable coupons. Plus, it brings you cash-back offers and loyalty coupons.
  • The Good Stuff, sister site of, collects deals that are available across the internet and compiles them into one handy site for you, so you don’t have to scramble to find the best savings.
  • The Coupons App brings you local coupons and deals and is updated regularly, so you don’t have to worry about expired deals.
  • Coupon Sherpa offers online redeemable coupons, if using apps isn’t your thing.
  • Local Saver lets you pop in your zip code and have this site do the rest. No more trawling through the internet!
  • The Grocery Coupon Network does exactly what it says in its name and also has events and giveaways for consumers. Be careful though: Not all coupons are digital. You will have to print some.

4. Have a Potluck

The good old-fashioned crowdsourcing method! Assign each person to cook a dish or two.

Give multiple dishes to those people making less expensive items and just a single dish to those providing more expensive parts of the meal.

This will save you a lot of stress, as your family members will be doing or helping with the cooking!

Of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is best to restrict this potluck to members of your household.

So reserve each contributor a spot on the stove before you start cooking to save you from some chaos!

5. Strategically Buy Ingredients

If you’re like my family, you already know what you’ll be cooking for a holiday meal ahead of time. Make a list of essential ingredients weeks in advance.

Then, whenever you see a particular ingredient on sale (that won’t expire before your meal), go ahead and buy it.

The savings each week won’t seem like much, but over the course of a few weeks, this can be a serious savings strategy!

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6. Buy in Bulk

If you know your family members are huge fans of certain dishes or treats, prepare in advance and buy in bulk at your local warehouse club store.

Sodas, cooking oil, butter, milk, and so on can be more affordable if you buy lots at once and stick to generic brands rather than name brands. No one really cares if the cola isn’t Coke! If you’re the one serving it, they’ll never even know.

7. Make Anything You Can

Yes, running to the bakery and grabbing a cake or specialty dessert is easy and will save you time, but it’ll cost ya.

Consider making your own desserts or pastries for your holiday meal, since bakeries rarely have discounts or savings at this time of year. It might also be a fun way to include the kids in helping with the meal.

8. Raid Your Pantry

Let’s face it: Finances run the tightest as you get closer to the holidays. If you’re just days away from a big holiday meal and you're broke, try raiding your pantry.

I don’t think anybody would mind a substitution that would save money and stress for the host.

For instance, we have corn each year, but if we had a few cans of green beans in the pantry, I doubt the family would object to a substitution.

9. Coupons, Coupons, Coupons!

Stores actively offer coupons around the holidays, so keep your eyes peeled and grab those flyers to save yourself some money. And if the idea of physically cutting out coupons horrifies you, check to see if your local supermarket has an app or if one of the apps in the sidebar above offers coupons for holiday meals from your favorite stores.

10. Have a More Intimate Gathering

Given the ongoing pandemic, it is best to have a smaller group for the holidays this year. It is also best to keep it to only those in your immediate household.

There's no shame in telling your family that you can’t host the usual 20-plus-person get-together. This will help keep you and your budget healthy this year.

Just make sure you let everyone on the “uninvited” list know so that they can make other plans for the holiday.

Better yet, host a Zoom get-together, so that you can talk to your family members from a safe distance.

If you do choose to host a large get-together, the CDC recommends that you wear masks and try to social distance.

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Next year you can go back to hosting as you usually would, with savings tips you can apply for many holiday seasons to come.

Additional reporting by Kelly Meehan Brown.