Top budget tips when making Christmas dinner

There's no need to compromise on quality, flavour or abundance this Christmas if you're on a budget. Louisa Carter shares her top tips for cutting costs.

Christmas canapes

1. Make your own canapés

Readymade canapés may save time but they'll quickly add a frightening amount to your shopping bill. Making your own can save a considerable sum. Most are simple to make but can be time-consuming to assemble, so take advantage of helping hands, especially children who will enjoy wrapping sausages in bacon, spreading toppings on crostini, or garnishing individual canapés with herb sprigs. Anything with a pastry or bread base should help keep the cost down. Try these:

Crostini of artichokes & chives
Red pepper, walnut & goat's cheese palmiers
Crunchy Christmas crostini
Bacon, sausage & prune rolls
Pea & feta toasts
Mini jacket potatoes

2. Find cheaper alternatives to old favourites

Smoked salmon, dill and lemon pateSmoked salmon might be a regular on your Christmas table, but it's an expensive treat. Instead of forgoing it altogether, make your own smoked salmon pâté with smoked salmon trimmings. They cost less than half the price of even a basic smoked salmon:
Smoked salmon, dill & lemon pâté

Smoked mackerel is even less expensive and also makes an impressive pâté:
Smoked mackerel pâté with French bread & horseradish

Or you could try it flaked into a colourful salad for a Christmas starter with a difference:
Smoked mackerel salad with beetroot and horseradish dressing

3. Choose your bird wisely

This will probably be the most expensive item on the Christmas table. The cost varies hugely from as little as £3 per kilo for some of the cheapest supermarket birds, up to around £20 per kilo for the finest slow-reared, free-range bronze turkey. Put another way, the cheapest one would cost around £12 for a 4kg turkey, the top end bird closer to £80. Happily there is a middle ground with free-range white turkeys coming somewhere in the middle and various other options depending on your budget.

Beware of false economy though. I went to a Kelly Bronze taste test and found it yielded more meat per kilo once cooked than its cheaper opponent. It also had more flavour and a meatier texture and gave more flavoursome juices for the gravy. Most chefs will advise you to get the best you can afford and I'd have to say I agree.

4. Buy a bigger bird

Christmas turkeyThis might seem counterintuitive, but if you're thrifty and disciplined when it comes to using up leftovers then you could make your turkey stretch to several other meals. It's often cheaper per kilo to buy a larger bird, especially when buying from the farm gate or online.

5. OR buy a smaller bird

However if you often end up throwing away leftovers then you'll be better off buying only what you need. You can even opt for a smaller bird that you might think.

Allow a minimum of 500g on-the-bone weight per person (so a 5kg turkey would serve 10 for example) but keep costs down by replacing some of that weight with a sausagemeat stuffing. Even a good free-range sausagemeat or pork mince should only cost around £5-£6 per kilo. Make it even more cost effective by bulking it out and adding texture with breadcrumbs and an egg or two (freeze stale crusts throughout the year to make breadcrumbs).

Make that 5kg bird serve 12 or more by adding about a kilo of stuffing such as:
Sausage, sage & onion stuffing
... Or mix 500g sausagemeat with this fruity breadcrumb stuffing:
Apricot & hazelnut stuffing

6. Make your own gravy

Christmas gravyIf you've been tempted to buy fresh turkey gravy in the past then try saving a few pounds by making your own. The giblets and the roasting juices provide all the flavour you'll need, along with a spoon of flour, an optional chicken stock cube and a splash of wine if you've got a bottle open.

7. Shop around

This might seem obvious but it's easy to forget with everything else going on. Lots of shops and supermarkets will be offering discounts in the run up to the festive season and you can check most of them out online. You'll often find one is offering a bargain price for turkey, where another is the place to stock up on veggies and fruit.

8. Organic boxes can offer good value

Vegetable boxIt's a bit of a myth that organic needs to always mean more expensive. Seasonal produce, such as that from Riverford, comes direct from the farm, cutting out the middle men and minimising air miles and other transportation costs, so it can actually save you money and means your vegetables will have masses of flavour making for a memorable Christmas dinner. They also offer free delivery. Look at different websites and browse through the boxes until you find one that suits you

9. Posh up cheap mincemeat and make your own mince pies

Buy a cheap jar of mincemeat and spruce it up with some freshly grated orange zest, some chopped almonds and an optional glug of brandy. You can stir in a few extra spices such as ground cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger, or a handful of dried cranberries or prunes, or whatever else you might have lurking in your cupboards. Use to fill your own mince pies, which will be much cheaper and far better than shop-bought. Try these (you could use regular caster sugar which is cheaper than golden):
Unbelievably easy mince pies

TIP: Making your own all-butter pastry for this recipe will cost under £2 and will make at least 18 mince pies. Make it go even further by stamping out small stars instead of a full pastry lid. Freeze any leftover pastry for another batch.

10. Decorate your own Christmas cake

Ho ho ho Christmas cakePlain Christmas cakes can be bought fairly cheaply, but the lovely decorated versions can be very expensive. A block of marzipan, some ready-to-roll icing and a little bit of jam is all you need to cover your own cake, and then you can be as creative as you like. In the past I've given friends and family blobs of icing and asked them to shape angels, doves, even a forest and a small house! The shapes don't have to be perfect but they'll look impressive all in white on top of your cake.
Decorative stars
Sugar-dusted snowflake cake
Ho, Ho, Ho Merry Christmas cake
Shimmering forest cake

11. Check the cheese

If you like to serve a cheese board at Christmas then keep a beady eye on the price of cheese per kilo. When buying pre-wrapped it's easy to think you're getting a bargain when in fact the price per kilo could be quite high. In some supermarkets it's cheaper to buy from the deli counter, so take a few minutes to compare the costs. As lovely as the whole stiltons in ceramic pots and ready-prepared cheese boards might look, these can often be far higher per kilo than the same stilton on the deli counter. Make your own cheese board feel special with some dried figs or dates, some homemade chutney and some nuts.

And finally... before you buy anything, check your cupboards!

Jar of mincemeatIf, like me, you have old jars of mincemeat, half eaten packets of dried fruit and a long forgotten pot of mixed peel in your cupboards then you're halfway to making mincemeat or even your own Christmas pudding or Christmas cake. There might be chestnuts or nuts for a stuffing, marzipan for decorating your cake or a jar of sun-dried tomatoes for some canapés. Plus you'll give your cupboards a good clear out in the process.

Do you have a top tip for keeping festive cooking thrifty? We'd love to hear your thoughts below...

Comments, questions and tips

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29th Nov, 2017
To make mincemeat go further and less sugar per tart, add a fair amount of grated carrot, up to an equal amount. They will still be delicious but better for diabetics and cuts a few calories for the rest. I do this as routine now.
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