SIU expert and ‘food nerd’ offers tips for creating happy holiday meals despite rising prices

As the holidays approach and you begin preparing for festive meals, your wallet may notice a pinch, but Niki Davis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management Program manager and professor of practice, offers tips for holiday meals on tight budgets.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, we have lived through toilet paper shortages, empty flour shelves, a lack of Sriracha sauce, the disappearance of chickpeas and cluck-worthy prices on chicken,” Davis said. “Items we are able to find at the grocery store cost 9-12% more than last year, according to the USDA. Now, we are faced with a great turkey shortage, causing the price to increase by a whopping 73% over last year.”

The biggest culprit is avian influenza, which swept the nation in late spring and cut the poultry supply by more than 47 million turkeys and chickens. This supply chain disruption has increased prices and left some wholesalers lacking inventory. Given the length of time it takes to replace lost flocks – up to 6 months – Thanksgiving tables may be missing that large, splendid centerpiece this year. 

There is some good news – turkey supplies are built up throughout the year specifically for the holidays. While prices may be higher, some of the large grocers may take a loss on the limited supply of whole birds to keep shoppers walking through the doors for other holiday meal-related items.

Cooking through the turkey shortage

If you cannot go without a turkey on the table for the holidays, purchase a frozen bird early and avoid the mad pre-holiday meal shopping rush. If you wait for the holiday sales, try to get to the store as soon as you can or have an alternative plan for protein.

Other meats that are appropriate for Thanksgiving, albeit less traditional for most Americans, are wild game and wildfowl, as well as less common holiday fare.

Good choices include:

  • Venison.
  • Goose.
  • Duck.
  • Game hens.
  • Ham.
  • Roast beef.

Many families already serve other meats and offer vegetarian main courses, but adding choices instead of or alongside a turkey, turkey breast or legs will still provide a wonderful holiday experience for your friends and family.

You can also take a nontraditional approach and serve lasagna, chicken and dumplings or some other family favorite or even have a taco bar.

Home Economics 101: Cooking from scratch

Purchasing alternative products, watching for sales and cutting back on general spending can help, but the name of the meal planning game in times of inflation is cooking from scratch and wasting as little as possible – like many of our grandmothers cooked.

Take a few cues from older generations to steer through tough times in the kitchen:

  • Cook with the season by shopping at local farmers markets for seasonal ingredients like winter squash, root vegetables and greens. Available foods will be different across the U.S., but eating local means less worry about supply chain disruptions and access to fresher ingredients. Local meat markets may have better availability of proteins or alternative meats to prepare during the holidays, too.
  • Get savvy in your kitchen by saving and using foods that normally get pitched:
    • Store the heels of bread loaves and stale bread in the freezer until needed then use them when making dressings and similar dishes.
    • Rendered bacon fat is a tasty substitute for increasingly expensive butter in most savory dishes. Lard and shortening are great substitutes for butter in pie crusts and other baking. Margarine in stick form is also a butter-flavored substitute.
    • Vegetable and meat scraps make better and cheaper broth than you can buy and then you can use the broth to make turkey gravy and soup.
  • Consider making food from scratch that you would normally buy prepared. The USDA estimates the price of fresh cranberries will drop about 6% this year. Mix a bag of fresh cranberries, sugar, water or wine and spices to get nearly twice the amount of cranberry sauce that’s in one can for the same price or less, and it will taste better and fresher, too. (See the quick, easy recipe below.)
  • Repurpose leftovers so nothing goes to waste. Plan “leftover meals” ahead so you can use what remains, including the side dishes, in other recipes. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
    • Mashed potatoes make great potato pancakes and also work well to thicken potato and vegetable soups.
    • Creamed peas are the beginning of turkey à la king for breakfast.
    • Save that turkey or chicken carcass to make soups and stocks.

The most important tip for a successful holiday meal is one our collective grandmas would offer: Remember what draws us together. The family table is about community, connections and celebrating time spent with those we love. Turkey and the trimmings are just a bonus.

Homemade cranberry sauce

Yield: 2 cups. Time: 20 minutes plus time to chill 

12 ounces fresh cranberries 

1 cup sugar 

½ cup water 

½ cup dry red wine  

Zest of one orange 

Directions: Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium and cook until most of the cranberries pop. Pour sauce into a heat-safe bowl and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The sauce will thicken when chilled. Serve cold.    

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