holiday dinner budget

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Put Your Budget Ahead of Your Menu
Whether you're setting aside $100 or $500 to host a holiday meal, figuring out how much to allocate for each component is the best way to make sure you don't spend way more than you wanted to. The biggest chunk (50 percent) will probably go to meat; reserve about 20 percent for appetizers and sides; 15 percent for dessert; and, 15 percent for alcohol, advises consumer and frugal living expert Lauren Greutman. Once you've determined how much money you've got for each component, you can start planning whether you're serving lobster or pigs in a blanket (or both!).
plum sangria

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Don't Stress About the Booze
Buying a case of wine is one of the best ways to save money (there are 12 bottles in a case; you can calculate how much you'll need here). But you may want to consider ditching bottles completely in favor of boxes. There's a new wave of premium-quality boxed wines out there that have earned praise from oenophiles—and they're priced lower than wines that come in a glass, thanks to reduced packaging and shipping costs. And you don't have to worry about fully stocking the bar; instead, try serving a seasonal predinner drink, such as this cranberry sangria or a sparkling wine (here are some great values).

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Shop the Cheese Aisle—and Only the Cheese Aisle
The cheese and crackers tray may not initially seem costly, but a $20 hunk of Pecorino can quickly put you over budget. Greutman recommends buying cheeses at club stores like Costco, Sam's or BJ's (they're usually 30 percent cheaper than at the local supermarket). She also advises people to skip holiday displays in supermarkets, since popular cheese varieties, such as cheddar, Swiss and goat, tend to be marked up there (you'll usually find lower prices in the store's refrigerated area).
spiralized ham

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Know the Main-Course Hierarchy
When it comes to traditional holiday entrées, prime rib is at the top of the list. It also might be the most expensive piece of meat you'll ever cook; supermarkets charge about $200 for a 10-pound roast that'll serve eight to 10 people, while an artisanal butcher's price could be more than $350. Other meats can be just as festive, though, such as the wallet-friendly spiral cut ham, which runs between $60 and $100 for 10 servings (plus leftovers). Jessica Fisher, who has written two budget-oriented cookbooks, likes pork tenderloin: She calls it "the poor man's steak" because it's tender, delicious and affordable. And if there will be kids at your holiday dinner, Greutman suggests chicken Parmesan, since it usually appeals to picky palates and feels decadent but uses inexpensive poultry.
roasted potatoes

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Keep the Sides Basic
With a solid main course (and delicious wine), you can afford to keep your side dishes simple. In fact, some of the best accompaniments to the entrée are also the cheapest. Think roasted root vegetables like carrots and rutabaga; potatoes in all their glory; and, even homemade applesauce. Another inexpensive side (whether or not you're serving roast beef) is Yorkshire pudding, which is just eggs, milk, flour, salt and butter. One more piece of advice from Fisher: Use ramekins to make everyday foods like mac 'n' cheese, potatoes au gratin or any other casserole-type dish feel special in individual servings.