The $20 Dinner Challenge

$20 Holiday Dinner Challenge
The holidays are a time for giving, sharing and spending time with your loved ones. Preparing festive dishes for your holiday table is not an easy task. But doing so on a small budget is a greater undertaking.

So is creating a three-course holiday meal for four people on a $20 budget possible? Absolutely! And we share our tips and recipes with you in our Savings Experiment: The $20 Dinner Challenge.

First, create a desired menu by browsing recipes on budget-friendly sites. I am a Francophile and my favorite site for easy French recipes with ingredients that are not hard to find is Chocolate and Zucchini. Some other great sites are All Recipes, Recipezaar and AOL Food. They offer delicious, easy-to-make meals, which could be prepared in kitchens of any size. Next, go through your nearby supermarkets' circulars to see if any of the items on your list are on sale. Do not rule out browsing the isles at your neighborhood's ethnic stores. You may find that certain ingredients will be much cheaper at these shops than at the supermarket. Finally, buy seasonal ingredients, because we all know that when supply goes up, prices go down.

My initial menu included a pumpkin soup, a roast turkey with gratin dauphinois (potato gratin), glazed baby carrots and a traditional apple pie for dessert. Here's the breakdown of the cost:

Turkey: $8.90 (with a $0.89 per lb special at Stop & Shop Supermarket)
Pie crust: $2 (a two for $4 special at Stop & Shop)
Cinnamon powder: $1.19 for a 1.4-oz jar at my local Chinese supermarket
Sour cream: $1.29 for a 16-oz container (special at Walbaum's Supermarket)
Garlic--$0.23 at my local Russian supermarket

Pumpkin--$3.49 for a 5 lb pumpkin at my local Kosher market

Chicken stock--$1.33 (special at Stop & Shop)
Whole milk: $0.89 at my local Russian supermarket
Idaho potatoes: $1.99 for a 5-lb bag at my local Chinese supermarket
Golden Delicious apples: $1.66 for 9 apples at 2.81 lbs (with a $0.59 per lb special at Stop & Shop)

Pack of peeled baby carrots: $2.49 (special at Walbaum's)

TOTAL: $25.46

Even with my cunning savings work, I was still $5.46 over budget. Therefore, I had to tweak the menu to create a palatable three-course meal that still stayed true to holiday flavors.

I decided to go with a hearty leek and potato soup instead of a pumpkin soup since the latter requires a pumpkin and chicken stock, which together, cost $4.82. Fresh pumpkins are harder to find in the month of December, and thus, they're more expensive. The leeks cost $2.17 for 2.2 lbs and I can use the left-over potatoes for the gratin dauphinois. This will result in a savings of $2.65; however, I will still be $2.81 over budget. I moved on to the entrée next.

Even with a discount, the smallest turkey at the supermarket weighs 10 lbs and costs $8.90. It will keep me over budget and might put my three guests into a food coma, so I decided to go with a 4-lb duck, which costs $7.59.

In my Ukrainian family, duck is always the bird of choice for the holidays. It's a smaller and more compact bird, so you won't have to buy more than you can eat. The meat is denser and fattier than that of the turkey and thus, more satisfying. The fat melts and bastes the bird by itself. That's the beauty of aquatic birds.

I was still $1.50 over budget, so I decided to create a mushroom sautee side dish--which perfectly complements the duck and the gratin dauphinois--instead of glazed baby carrots. That brought my total down to $20.68.

At just under a dollar over my $20 budget, I altered my dessert. Instead of the traditional apple pie, I created my favorite French dessert: apple compote. The hot compote--with a dollop of ice cream--makes a light and delectable finish to a robust meal. Here are my final calculations:

Fresh whole duck without the head: $7.59 for 4.22 lbs at my local Chinese supermarket
Sour cream: $1.29 for a 16-oz container (special at Walbaum's)
Garlic--$0.23 at my local Russian supermarket

Whole milk: $0.89 at my local Russian supermarket
Idaho potatoes: $1.99 for a 5-lb bag at my local Chinese supermarket

Golden Delicious apples: $1.66 for 9 apples at 2.81 lbs (with a $0.59 per lb special at Stop & Shop)
White mushrooms: $1.19 for an 8-oz package at my local Chinese supermarket
Large Spanish onion: $0.49 each at my local Chinese supermarket
Leeks: $2.17 for 2.2 lbs at my local Chinese supermarket
Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean ice cream--$1.99 (special at Stop & Shop)

TOTAL: $19.49

I came in $0.51 under budget and made a delicious, fulfilling holiday meal for four.

Easy Holiday Recipes
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The $20 Dinner Challenge -- Savings Experiment
2.2 lbs leeks, the thinner the better1 lb potatoes smooth and firm, about 4 medium1/2 to 1 teaspoon fine sea saltFreshly ground pepperSour cream, for serving (optional)Serves 4.Trim the leeks, keeping about 2 1/2 inches of the green part. If your leeks are on the thick side, remove and discard the often fibrous outer layer. Carve a deep slit all along the length of the leeks, driving your knife almost to the other side, but not quite, to expose all the layers. Run each leek in turn under a stream of cold water, green part down, to wash away the sand and grit. Squeeze off the excess water.Separate the white from the green parts. Discard the toughest green leaves, and set aside the most tender. Slice the leek whites thinly. Peel and dice the potatoes. Put the sliced leeks and diced potatoes in a saucepan and add 1 4 cups cold water. Bring to the boil over medium-high heat.Season with salt, lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.Purée the soup using a blender, stick blender, or food mill. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and return over low heat.Cut the reserved leek greens in superfine strips with a sharp chef's knife. When the soup returns to a simmer, add the leek strips, stir, and remove from the heat. Cover and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve hot, with a spoonful of sour cream and a few resolute turns of the pepper mill.Taken and adapted from
Wash a 4-lb duck, pat dry. Rub inside and out with salt, and one bud mashed garlic. (Finely chopped garlic will do, too.) Place in covered container and let stand at room temperature for approx. 1 hour. Peel, core, and cut into eighths about 4-5 apples or enough to fill the duck's cavity. Sew up. If you don't have needle and thread, stick toothpicks through the skin. Place duck on rack in roasting pan (although metal is preferred, glass pan is just as good) and roast in pre-heated 450 degree Fahrenheit oven for 10 minutes. Reduce to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and roast 80 minutes to 2 hours or until fork tender. Sprinkle with about 1 Tbsp water at start of roasting and puncture with fork at intervals to release fat. Baste occasionally with pan drippings. If you have apples left over, place them around the duck about 55 minutes into the roast so that the apples can roast as well. They cook fast, so do not need to be in the pan prior to that.
2.2 pounds russet potatoes 2 cups whole milk1 1/2 teaspoons saltfreshly grated nutmeg (optional, only if you have it in your spice rack)1 clove garlic, sliced lengthwise1/4 cup sour cream (not fat-free)Peel the potatoes, rinse them briefly, and slice them thinly (about 1/10th of an inch) and evenly. (A food processor or a mandoline come in handy at this point.) Do not rinse after slicing, or you will lose all that precious starch. Combine the sliced potatoes, milk, salt and a good grating of nutmeg in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, and keep simmering for 8 minutes, stirring the potatoes and scraping the bottom of the pan regularly to prevent sticking/scorching. The milk will gradually thicken to a creamy consistency. While the potatoes are simmering, preheat the oven to (430°F) and rub the bottom and sides of a medium earthenware or glass baking dish with the cut sides of the garlic clove. Transfer half of the potatoes into the baking dish, and drizzle with half of the sour cream. Add the rest of the potatoes, pour the cooking milk over them, and drizzle with the remaining sour cream. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until bubbly on the edges and nicely browned at the top. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.You can also bake the gratin a few hours ahead, let cool, and reheat for 15 minutes in a (430°F) oven before serving. Recipe taken and altered from
2 Tbsp cooking oil 1 lg onion, chopped1 8-oz box fresh white mushrooms, clean and thickly slicedsalt and pepper to taste In a large skillet, heat oil. Add chopped onion and sautee until golden. Add mushrooms, salt, and pepper and sautee for 5 minutes. Mix the ingredients well and sautee until mushrooms are tender.
4 apples1/4 cup sugar (optional)1 cup water Pour 1/2 cup water into a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, peel, core, and cut the apples into bite size pieces. When the water begins to boil, lower the heat, throw in the apples and cover with a lid. Stir occasionally, and when you see that water is evaporating, add another half a cup. Continue stirring until apples are very tender and the mixture thickens, so about 20 minutes total. Mash the apples. Let cool for about 5 minutes and serve with vanilla ice cream.

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