Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, which means it's time to uncinch your belt and prepare to eat. Of course, this also means that you need to get your kitchen and pantry ready for some serious cooking and prep. However, it doesn't have to mean spending a fortune at the grocery store. So, in the spirit of the season and saving money, below are six tips for feasting on a budget:

TUTORIAL: Budgeting Basics

Use Coupons
Using coupons is a great way to save money, and there is nothing wrong with using them. In fact, you can find a plethora of them not only in the Sunday paper but also online. This time is well spent as the savings can be upwards of $20 each week.

Purchase Sale Items in Bulk
Stock up on items when you find them at a good price - especially when it comes to dry or canned goods, or anything that has an extended shelf life. If you find a great deal on rice, beans, frozen foods, toiletries or paper items, load up. That way, you won't have to worry about running out for a while and the savings are substantial.

Find a Farmers' Market
If you have one in your area, a farmers' market can be a goldmine for your shopping budget. They usually carry better produce than at the grocery store, and offer significantly reduced prices. Farmers' markets also have hard to find items that your retail grocer may not offer, which can add variety to your diet and excitement to your menu. Perform a simple internet search to find a farmers' market near you, along with days and hours of operation.

Buy Fresh
You'll usually save money by purchasing food fresh and cooking it yourself, rather than buying ready-made alternatives - especially when it comes to cooking large meals. Though you may spend a little longer in the kitchen, you'll spend less money and end up with healthier and better tasting entrées as well. So, don't overlook the fresh fruits and veggies; take a little more time in the produce section and commit to preparing a few dishes from scratch. Your wallet and your health will be better off for it.

Substitute Ingredients
Substituting low-cost ingredients for their high-cost counterparts is another way to reduce your grocery bill, and it really pays off for big meals. Below are a few examples:

  • Cottage Cheese for Ricotta. Are you cooking lasagna? Buy cottage cheese to use in place of ricotta.
  • Dried Spices for Fresh. This can be a big money-saver, especially since your recipes will require less in the way of dried herbs as compared to fresh. In larger recipes, no one will ever know the difference.
  • Tomato Paste for Tomato Sauce. Buy tomato paste instead of sauce. Then add water and season it yourself. This is a money saver and often tastes better than the pre-made versions.
  • Turn Soups into Casseroles. This is not necessarily an ingredient substitute, but you can save money nonetheless. A perfect example is split pea soup. Once your soup is ready, add several cups of cooked rice to create a hearty and more filling casserole-like dish.
  • Store Brands. If your recipe calls for a generic ingredient, such as pasta, rice or beans, purchase the store brand instead of the name brand. You will save money and your finished product will taste just as good.

Sometimes the most expensive part of your feast isn't even the food. It's the wine and alcohol that can really wreak havoc on your budget. But by being creative, you can prepare delicious holiday drinks like eggnog and mulled wine for not much money at all.

This works because the alcohol gets masked by sugar, spices and other ingredients, which means you can use the cheap generic brands and still serve holiday drinks that will be greatly appreciated by your guests. Another option is to purchase at least six bottles of wine at a time, which will usually get you a 10% discount at most grocery stores. Warehouse type stores like Costco also often have great deals on larger bottles of alcohol.

The Bottom Line
Preparing to feed friends and family doesn't have to be stressful or expensive as long as you start ahead of time to find the best deals and plan an affordable menu. Plus, even last-minute shopping can benefit from a quick online search for coupons at your grocery store and by substituting expensive ingredients for more affordable ones. So, don't throw caution to the wind and hurriedly buy the items you think you need. Instead, follow the tips above to prepare great-tasting and memorable feasts without breaking the bank.

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