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How to Cut Your Grocery Bill This Holiday Season

With all the cookie exchanges, open houses and family feasts, your year-end grocery bill can be a doozy. Here are 8 ways to simplify and save.

Entertaining friends and family during the holidays can be fun and rewarding. On the other hand, those happy get-togethers also can take big bites out of your budget.

With a little creativity and planning, you can spend less on holiday entertaining—and stress less, too.

1. Plan your budget, menu and shopping plan

First, figure out what you’ll need, how much you can afford to spend, and where and when you plan to shop.

Make it a class project, suggests Bon Crowder, a special education teacher in Houston, Texas, who created MathFour.com to help teachers and parents support children’s math education.

Crowder suggests using this holiday-planning article as a guide for a project-based lesson. “Have students do the budget and cost savings,” she says. You’ll save time, your will students learn, “and you just might get a new set of ideas,” she says. “Kids tend to think of things that grownups don’t!”

When you shop with a well-planned list, you save time and gas, says financial counselor Harrine Freeman, author of “How to Get Out of Debt” and CEO/owner of H.E. Freeman Enterprises. Planning prevents last-minute dashes to pick up key ingredients you forgot and helps you avoid buying unneeded extras.

Figure out your budget first, then decide on your shopping list. “Remember to include food, drink, decorations, serving dishes or utensils you may need,” says Kevin Gallegos, a vice president with Freedom Financial Network.

Don’t finalize your menu plan too early, cautions grocery savings expert Teri Gault, CEO of TheGroceryGame.com. Wait for huge holiday sales in November and December to base your decision on getting the best prices. “Let the sales dictate what goes on your menu,” she says.

Be sure you don’t bust your budget, though. If you wait until the last minute to plan your holiday meal or party, you’ll be more likely to spend too much, Gallegos says.

2. Count all the ingredients you need

Be realistic about quantities: How many servings of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, rolls, dessert and drinks will everyone really consume? If you plan to store leftovers, do you have enough freezer or refrigerator space? If you want to send home leftovers with guests, do you have enough disposable containers?

Don’t prepare more than you need, Gallegos says: “Cooking enough to feed an army will only result in waste if your ‘crowd’ is more like a handful.”

“Preventing waste can create substantial savings,” says “The Messy Baker” author Charmian Christie, who notes that most North American households throw out at least a fourth of the groceries they buy. The “waste not” section of her TheMessyBaker.com blog helps people make the most of the foods they buy.

For example, Christie loves to use nuts in her baked goods, so she checks the quantity her recipes call for, adds it all together, then goes to the bulk-food store and buys exactly the amount she knows she’ll use.“If I left them in the pantry, they’d be rancid in three months,” Christie says, but when frozen, they’ll last a year.

When butter is on sale, Christie buys several bricks and wraps each unopened package in plastic, then puts the wrapped butter packages in freezer bags. Double-sealing helps prevent transfer of odors, and frozen butter keeps well and thaws quickly when she’s ready to use it.

3. Use lower-cost ingredients

“Consider the cost of ingredients before deciding what to serve,” suggests Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com, a grocery savings website. Instead of making an appetizer with prosciutto, provolone, Dijon mustard and puff pastry that costs about $10 to $15 to make, instead create a budget-friendly carbon copy using crescent roll dough, deli ham, mozzarella cheese and brown mustard for under $5.

Freeman recommends looking online for budget-stretching recipes at Food.com, FoodNetwork.com, SouthernLiving.com, Pinterest, and MyRecipes.com.

Or check cookbooks such as “Good Cheap Eats: Everyday Dinners and Fantastic Feasts for $10 or Less” by Jessica Fisher. “Don’t be brainwashed into thinking that you have to make a turkey on Thanksgiving,” writes Fisher, who also blogs at LifeAsMom.com and GoodCheapEats.com. “I made chicken one year because it was easier, and we like it better.”

4. Shop sales, buy smart

November and December are the best times to buy flour, sugar, cake mixes, pie filling, frosting and other baking ingredients. Sale prices are great, says grocery savings expert Gault, and the products have a long shelf life—up to a year.

Think past your immediate holiday needs and stock up while traditional foods are on sale at the grocery or drugstore. In November and December, drugstores offer great savings on holiday staples as well as crackers, olives, cookies and desserts, Gault says.

Buy appetizers and beverages in bulk, says Robert Nickell, founder of Daddy & Co., a gift and apparel company celebrating fatherhood. Go to a wine and spirits shop and stores such as Costco, where you can “stock up on big boxes of easy-to-make appetizers and a pack of multiple bottles of wine,” he says.

“Take advantage of their deals on bags of chips, candy and kids’ beverages like milk and juice,” says Nickell, a father of seven who also blogs about parenting. You’ll save you a lot of money because you won’t have to buy individual items at a grocery store.

5. Plan your cooking and baking schedule

After you finalize your menu, plan your cooking schedule, Gallegos says. Do all—or as much as possible—of your baking at once, while your oven is already hot, to eliminate the cost of repeatedly reheating your oven.

If you have a toaster oven, cook smaller side dishes there: It costs less than heating the oven. When you need to reheat those dishes for mealtime, don’t waste energy by firing up the microwave, Gallegos says. Instead, pop the dishes into the hot oven after you’ve removed the main dish.

6. Simplify your plan

Sometimes it’s fun to splurge on elaborate or expensive recipes, but when you’re on a budget, it’s smart to stick to simple favorites that you know your family and guests love.

Consider hosting a casual gathering with less expensive foods to save effort and money, Nelson suggests: “People care more about being included in social gatherings than the specific menu.”

Try a holiday pot-luck meal where “the host provides the beverages and entrée, and guests bring appetizers, salads and dessert,” Nelson says. Or plan a fun theme such as a make-your-own taco or baked potato bar, where you provide the main ingredients and selection of toppings.

Health-conscious guests may enjoy salad suppers with crisp veggie sides. All the heavy holiday meals that people have splurged on can leave them feeling worried about their waistlines, so they’ll likely be happy to enjoy a lighter alternative, Christie says.

Cut costs even further by switching from dinner to a luncheon or brunch. “Daytime entertaining generally means not serving alcohol, which is also easier on the budget,” Nelson says.

If you’re hosting large groups of 50 or more, “host a grazing party of fancy frozen appetizers from club stores,” and serve a variety of appetizers periodically throughout the party, Gault suggests. It’s fun for guests to mingle, it’s less work for the host, and it’s cheaper than catering.

Spirits run high during the holidays, as does the proliferation of alcoholic spirits. “Your party bar can be a budget breaker if you try to provide an open bar,” says frugal living blogger Kristl Story, of TheBudgetDiet.com.

Instead, limit the selection to three choices. Select a signature cocktail that can be made with inexpensive ingredients, such as Poinsettia Punch, which is a 50-50 mixture of cran-raspberry juice and champagne, Story suggests. For your other two drinks, choose “one type of beer, and a pitcher of water with fruit immersed in it,” she says.

“One of my favorite ways to host without breaking the bank is to offer a self-serve wine bar,” says former elementary school teacher Debbie Andersen, who now blogs about entertaining. If you pour inexpensive, palate-pleasing wines into decorative carafes or decanters, guests won’t see the labels or know that you’re serving less pricey beverages.

7. Double-duty dishes

Forget pricey holiday bouquets: Let an attractive appetizer double as your table centerpiece, Andersen suggests. One of her favorites is a holiday shrimp wreath. To create it, she buys bag of frozen shrimp at Costco, covers a foam ring in dark green kale secured with toothpicks, and spears in bright-red cherry tomatoes for add a splash of color. Next she uses colorful cocktail toothpicks to spear thawed shrimp to the “wreath.”

“Add a bowl of homemade cocktail sauce in the center, and I’m ready to entertain!” she says.

8. Have it catered

Sometimes, paying for holiday entertaining help is worth the cost. So when does it make sense to either buy premade meals or hire a caterer?

Freeman says both are good choices when:

  • You don’t have time to prepare the meal due to travel, personal or work schedule conflicts.
  • You’re unable to prepare everything due to illness or disability.
  • You find a great deal on catering or premade foods that will cost no more than if you did all the work yourself.
  • You’re not a great cook but you need to make a good impression.
  • You don’t have adequate cooking space.
  • You want to have the time and energy to enjoy the holiday meal.

“If you hire a caterer, get three price quotes,” Freeman advises. “Ask friends and family for recommendations of caterers they’ve used,” or contact culinary schools who they recommend.

Extra credit: Starting prepping for next year

After (or during) the holidays, make a list of what worked and what didn’t. Did you run out or have too much of any ingredient or food? Was it more difficult to find a good selection of turkeys, stuffing mixes or other necessities in mid-December? Did everyone rave about your pumpkin pie but ignore the mincemeat? Should you have started roasting the turkey earlier? Did your fudge fail this year because you switched brands of sugar?

Jot down anything you’ll want to remember and apply to next year’s planning and shopping.

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