Debt-free holidays: Six easy ways to save on food costs

a Thanksgiving feastThe holiday season can be a wonderful time of year. It can also be a stressful time of year for those of us trying to keep our spending under control. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans are going to spend more this year than we did last year on our holiday expenditures -- almost $689 per person, a bit more than last year's $681.83.

To help you navigate through the season with your wallet and your sanity intact, WalletPop has consulted with our own expert team as well as experts in all things holiday. From food to entertaining to travel and more, we've got a bevy of tips and advice for keeping costs under control. Let's get started with one of our biggest budget busters: food.

Holidays can call for some pretty pricey fare, but our experts have some tips, tidbits and recipes to keep your food budget from disappearing faster than Frosty the Snowman on a sunny day.

Convenience foods can be expensive, says WalletPop's Christina M. Fierro. "Don't buy anything pre-cut -- vegetable trays and pre-made platters are very overpriced," she advises. You can cut veggies, cheese and the like up yourself if you have time, or you can kill two birds with one stone if you have one guest who always tends to arrive early and asks, "How can I help?" Even poor cooks can't mangle this task, and it keeps them out from underfoot while you're rushing around in the kitchen. Clear a space for them with a cutting board and a good sharp knife, and you're set.

When it comes to most meals, the most expensive part is the protein. Get around that by offering a frittata or a quiche for the main course; it will be just as filling and festive at a fraction of the price. You can either leave it meatless or add a bit of bacon, ham, prosciutto or sausage. Invite legumes to your holiday meals to stretch them and add some healthy nutrients at the same time. Puree chickpeas with garlic, olive oil and sesame paste to make homemade hummus (perfect as a dip for crackers or crusty bread), serve a hearty minestrone soup with kidney beans as a first course, or serve the meat over slowly simmered lentils or white beans.

Comfort food is inexpensive yet appealing around the holidays, says event professional Jaclyn Bernstein. As president and partner of Empire Force Events, Bernstein regularly coordinates receptions, dinners and other gathering for Fortune 100 CEOs.

"Many times for the holidays a lot of our clients are trying to go above and beyond what they think people want to eat and drink, but doing a twist on comfort food can be much more interesting and appetizing than trying to do the fancy food and cocktails," she advises. Bernstein says a couple of cheap dishes that get gobbled up even by the limousine set are pigs in a blanket and macaroni and cheese. Or add some ethnic flair: A big pot of chili or a pan of baked ziti will warm and fill your guests just as well as a more expensive option like a roast.

Howard Givner, executive director of the Event Leadership Institute and a professional event planner with 23 years of experience, has coordinated bashes like Mariah Carey's fragrance launch. Presentation is key, he tells WalletPop. "You can get food pretty cheaply, and if it's displayed decently, it's not necessarily going to detract from the experience," he says. "For example, Costco has these outrageous chocolate chip cookies. Take them out of the Costco plastic bin, and display them on a nice plate and boom!"

Another way to dress up inexpensive items is to make them part of an interactive experience, says Bernstein. For instance, instead of just spooning mashed potatoes onto plates, let guests get in on the action with a mashed-potato bar. Dish out the spuds into martini glasses, and let guests add toppings like sour cream, bacon, cheese, chives and so on for a snazzy spin on an old staple.

Don't forget to put your leftovers to work by typing "leftover turkey" or "leftover ham" into the search box of epicurious.com, kitchendaily.com or our own sister site slashfood.com for a bevy of ideas on how to use up your leftovers. Some of them are so good, you could invite your guests back and they'd never know you were serving leftovers.

WalletPopper Tom Barlow offers this inventive party dish for a hungry pre-dinner crowd. "My favorite party appetizer is Pate Chateau Blanc." Wondering what that is? "Take a bag of White Castles (yes, buns and all), puree them, form them into a log, and cover with cream cheese. Cheap, and people will eat it up unless you tell them what's in it," Barlow promises. If you try it, be sure to let us know how it went!

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