How to put on a showstopper Christmas feast on a budget

Xanthe Clay - Andrew Crowley
Xanthe Clay - Andrew Crowley

It’s going to be a proper Christmas this year. For the first time in seems-like-forever, we can all get together and ­celebrate with friends and family. Yes, prices are spiralling and the cost of ­living crisis is biting, but I’ve spent the last year advising you how to save money at the supermarket and at home, and know that, with common sense and a few tips and tricks, it can be a less wasteful and more wonderful time of year. Here’s how to have a great Christmas without the financial hangover.

Christmas dinner - Andrew Crowley
Christmas dinner - Andrew Crowley

The meat

The meat is the biggest food outlay so it’s the obvious place to look to make savings – without compromising on quality

First off: consider ordering a smaller bird or joint. We’re all eating less meat than we used to, so scale back on size and pile on the vegetables.

Next, think about alternatives. There may be a shortage of turkeys this year, as so many have been lost to bird flu, so try an Italian-style ­porchetta instead, made by rolling pork loin and belly with lots of herbs and garlic. Pork is a great-value meat, all that herbage makes it taste very festive, plus there’s crackling, which is always a winner. Farmison & Co sells a porchetta kit for £27 (feeds six to eight; farmison.com).

If you want to stick with a bird, consider a chicken. Everybody loves them, you won’t have so many leftovers (a blessing or not, depending on your point of view) and with the money you save you can splash out a bit on a better-­quality chook than usual. A whole 4kg cockerel, raised free range for over 100 days, costs £56.25 plus p&p from mortonsfarm.co.uk – less than the equivalent quality turkey, and it’ll feed six to eight people.

Roast chicken - Andrew Crowley
Roast chicken - Andrew Crowley

The best-value approach, however, is to buy turkey legs instead of the whole turkey. Because so many people want only the white, breast meat, turkey farmers are left with ­hundreds of tonnes of spare turkey legs every year. Copas Traditional Turkeys donate their spares to the Country Food Trust charity, while online butchers Field and Flower is donating a pair of legs to FareShare South West for every turkey crown it sells as part of the Leg Up init­iative.

Keen to encourage us to support farmers by ­trying them too, it’s also selling the ­free-range Bronze legs for a bargain £7.98 a pair – enough to feed three to four people. Season them, then roast for an hour at 180C/160C fan/gas mark 6. The meat is much juicier and more flavourful than the breast, so there’s no need to worry about them drying out, and you’ll be ­eating fantastic quality turkey for a song.

Want to save fuel? Simmer the legs very ­gently in salted water with carrot, celery and onion trimmings added for two hours until very ­tender. Drain, pat dry. (You can do this a day ahead; store the legs uncovered on a platter in the fridge.) Rub them with oil and roast for half an hour at about 220C/200C fan/gas mark 7 (you can put them in with the potatoes) until golden.

Turkey legs - Andrew Crowley
Turkey legs - Andrew Crowley

If it must be a whole turkey, opt for the best you can afford. Even inexpensive birds can be transformed by giving them a dry brine, which intensifies the flavour and improves the texture.

Unwrap the bird 24 hours before you plan to put it in the oven, and rub it with 3 tbsp salt and 3 tbsp sugar, easing it under the skin where you can. Put it upside down in the empty bottom drawer of the fridge (or a plastic box). Turn it over after 12 hours. Take it out of the fridge an hour before cooking and pat dry with kitchen paper, brushing away any excess sugar and salt. Roast as normal.

One caveat about brining the turkey: it can make the juices that gather in the tin a bit salty for gravy. I make gravy ahead by roasting 1kg chicken wings and a handful of bacon trimmings (rinds or scraps are fine) with a large roughly chopped carrot, onion and celery stick until golden, sprinkling over 2 tbsp flour for the last 10 minutes (this can happily be done at the ­bottom of the oven while you are cooking something else, at a temperature between 180C/160C fan/gas mark 4 and 200C/180C fan/gas mark 6).

Tip into a pan and cover with water, add a couple of bay leaves and a few sprigs of thyme, plus a glug of red wine or port if you like. Simmer for half an hour or so, then strain, pressing out all the juices, and simmer to the consistency you like. This can be made up to a month ahead and frozen. On Christmas Day, add the juices from the pan, and then season.

The trimmings

It’s tempting to go overboard with the sides so stick to the essentials, which will save your sanity as well as your money

Brussels sprouts

Some of the popular accompaniments, such as chestnuts, pancetta and pine nuts, really add to the cost of the pre-Christmas shop. Make a sprout gratin instead with a creamy white sauce, cheese and chopped bacon, and watch it disappear.

Brussel sprouts - Andrew Crowley
Brussel sprouts - Andrew Crowley

Carrots and parsnips

The Italians are experts on frugal cooking, so whip up a “poor man’s parmesan” pangrattato topping by frying a crushed clove of garlic in 2 tbsp olive oil or butter. Stir in a mugful of fresh breadcrumbs and cook, stirring until golden. Add the grated zest of a lemon, some salt and pepper, and a handful of chopped fresh parsley. Scatter on top of the vegetables.

Roast potatoes

Forget chi-chi jars of goose fat, King Charles is right: potatoes taste best roasted in the fat from the joint. Parboil the potatoes for 10 ­minutes, then toss in 1 tbsp flour, 2 tsp cornflour and ½ tsp baking powder. Spoon over the hot fat from under the roast (add extra lard or dripping, which you can buy from the supermarket or butcher, if necessary) and roast in a hot oven for 40 minutes to an hour, turning once or twice.

Carrots and roast potatoes - Andrew Crowley
Carrots and roast potatoes - Andrew Crowley

Red cabbage

Braised red cabbage is the cook’s saviour as it can be made a couple of days ahead. Use leftover red wine to make it: I’ve got no qualms about ­saving half-drunk glasses for this – just bring it to the boil before adding to the cabbage.

Pigs in blankets

All the supermarkets do ready-wrapped pigs in blankets but you can save about 25 per cent by making your own. Cut a streaky bacon rasher in half and, scraping it with the back of the knife, stretch it to about half as long again (this helps the bacon stay on the sausage). Wrap it around a ­chipolata. If you are feeling fancy, a sage leaf wrapped in with the sausage is delicious.

Red cabbage - Andrew Crowley
Red cabbage - Andrew Crowley

Bread sauce

Make your own – it’s thrifty without even trying, especially if you save stale bread in the freezer over the next few weeks, so you don’t have to buy bread specially.

Stuffing

Another leftover bread winner. Rather than ­buying stuffing, or splashing out on expensive additions, make one with crumbs or try cubes of stale bread for more texture: it’ll also make the meat go further.

Stuffing - Andrew Crowley
Stuffing - Andrew Crowley

The sweet treats

Christmas pudding

Ask yourself: do you really all want some figgy pudding? I know many families who are ditching the pricey cannonball in favour of a pud that they actually like, which makes total sense – not least because the ­leftovers won’t linger balefully to Boxing Day and beyond. A big clementine and date ­pavlova will be just as festive, especially if you add a few indoor sparklers in lieu of the traditional flaming with brandy. Or bring out a proper steamed treacle sponge, imbued with lots of nostalgic charm.

That said, there’ll definitely be a Christmas ­pudding on my table this year because I can’t bear to give up on the ­tradition. It doesn’t have to be huge: buy the smallest one you can get away with. I’ll be thinking of it more as a ­garnish, ­alongside a brandy pannacotta or chocolate fondant puddings.

Mince pies

Mince pies are a Christmas staple but most ­supermarkets are selling even the cheapest ­versions for £1.25 for six, or over 20p each. I costed out my homemade mince pie recipe and it came to £3.29 for 24 (including fuel costs), less than 14p each and (I promise) so, so much nicer, with no weird food-manufacturer ingredients and no compromises either. If you opt to leave out the generous glug of brandy I’ve included in the mincemeat they work out cheaper still – only 11p each.

My recipe is with homemade mincemeat and ­pastry, both very easy even for pastryphobes. Not convinced? Use ready-made. A 500g block of shortcrust pastry costs on average £1.40 in the supermarkets and is enough for 24 pies. A 400g jar of mincemeat should just about fill them (put in too much and they’ll boil over ­anyway).

I’ve investigated the brands on sale and the main difference between the premium ­versions and the cheapo jars is booze – budget brands have none, while the premium ones have about six per cent or roughly 2 tbsp – the exception being Morrisons with a whopping 11 per cent in its Brandy and Gin Mincemeat (£2.25  or 411g).

Mince Pies - Getty
Mince Pies - Getty

If you like boozy mincemeat and have a bottle of something kicking around then you’ll save lots by buying the cheaper mincemeat and ­adding a splash of alcohol – brandy, whisky, Pedro Ximénez and rum all work well.

The best value mincemeat? A surprise: Marks & Spencer. Its mincemeat is a hefty 33 per cent vine fruits (sultanas, raisins and currants), low in the kind of industrial ingredients you won’t find in your own cupboard, and at just £1.50 for a 510g jar (less than 30p per 100g) it’s one of the cheapest out there.

The total cost of 24 pies made with M&S mincemeat and shop-bought pastry, therefore, comes in at £3.60 (including 50p worth of brandy), or 15p each. And you won’t just be ­saving money – you’ll be serving up a much ­better pie too.

Cheese

No need to overload the cheeseboard. While one soft, one hard, one blue and one creamy is the usual mantra, bear in mind that hard cheeses keep much better than soft, so limit the soft and creamy purchases.

Even a cheapo supermarket camembert tastes great if it is really ripe, so make sure you buy far enough ahead – it’ll probably be at its peak in the last week before the sell-by date. Store it in a plastic box with a clean, damp J-cloth alongside (camembert loves humidity) in a cool place out of the fridge, but away from central heating (10-13C is ideal) until it’s properly molten in the middle.

Cheese board - Diana Miller
Cheese board - Diana Miller

Inexpensive blocks of Lancashire or Cheshire can be given a boost by storing them with herbs: fresh thyme or leaves from a head of celery work well. Put the cheese on a layer of foil, greaseproof paper, beeswax wrap or clingfilm, and scatter ­liberally with the herbs. Wrap tightly and store in the fridge for one to two weeks.

Kitchen booze

No, not the cook’s tipple, but the cooking ingred­ient. Christmas recipes often call for a tot of Madeira, brandy, whisky or some other spirit, but it can get expensive shelling out for several ­different kinds when you only need a splash. Stick to one or two – ideally in your drinks ­cupboard already – and accept that the finished dish may not taste exactly the same but it’ll still be good.

The drinks

Susy Atkins shares her top-value Christmas wines

Susy Atkins' wine picks
Susy Atkins' wine picks

Fizz

Seek out crémant. It must be made in the champagne method but comes from different regions of France and uses local grape varieties (in Burgundy these are the same as champagne). A good crémant gives champagne a run for its money.

Susy's pick: Specially Selected Crémant du Jura 2019, France (12 per cent, Aldi, £8.99)

A fine sparkler made in the meticulous, bottle-aged champagne method but in the Jura region of eastern France. It’s 100 per cent chardonnay and mingles citrus – especially clementines – with a biscuit note, finishing dry.

White

Look to Italy as there are plenty of bargains to be had, though I can’t recommend the cheapest pinot grigios, which tend towards the bland and flavourless. Decent soave or verdicchio, or a white such as fiano from Sicily, are usually better buys.

Susy’s pick: Moncaro Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2021, Le Marche, Italy (12.5 per cent, Waitrose, £6.99)

Golden-hued and refreshing dry white with crisp lemon and lime and a herbal hint. A versatile white that works as an aperitif as well as pairing up nicely with light canapés and seafood starters.

Red

Most of my best-value picks come from South Africa, Chile or Spain, but keep an eye out for one-off gems – even Bordeaux, a region not noted for delivering great value for money, proves there are exceptions to the rules!

Susy’s pick: Pavillon La Tourelle Bordeaux Supérieur 2019, France (13 per cent, Majestic, £8.99 or £6.99 as part of a mixed six)

There’s plenty of fruit and spice in this remarkably low-priced Bordeaux. It’s made from 60 per cent merlot, 30 per cent cabernet franc and 10 per cent cabernet sauvignon and has been aged in oak for 12 months.

The decorations

I’ve hunted down some great decorations at bargain prices that look more Harrods than high street. Made of glass, paper and wood, they’re a greener option too

Red snowflake decoration

£2, flyingtiger.com

Danish company Flying Tiger has pretty stars and snowflakes made of sturdy card and equipped with magnet fasteners so they are easy to fold away for next year.

Gherkin bauble

£3, flyingtiger.com

For a massive range of glass tree baubles at a bargain price, head to Flying Tiger again: at £3 they are unbeatable value and include everything from a bottle of gin to a gherkin to an astronaut.

Red snowflake decoration and Gherkin bauble from flyingtiger.com
Red snowflake decoration and Gherkin bauble from flyingtiger.com

Joy red wooden pleated bauble

£1.50, Wilko stores

Wilko have some great buys, including mercury glass decorations that look far more expensive than they are, and this clever Bauhaus-esque bauble.

Berry wreath

£7.77, sostrenegrene.com

Readers in the north of England or Northern Ireland can head to small Scandi chain Sostrene Grene. It’s a chic version of Flying Tiger with beautiful colours and covetable kit, such as this pretty wreath that would make a good table centerpiece too.

Joy red wooden pleated bauble, Wilko stores; Berry wreath, sostrenegrene.com
Joy red wooden pleated bauble, Wilko stores; Berry wreath, sostrenegrene.com

DIY origami

Find instructions for Christmas stars @my_plastic_free_home on Instagram  

Use old maps and dilapidated books to make beautiful origami decorations.

Wooden hoop

£3, hobbycraft.co.uk 

Twist ivy and holly around a ring for an easy wreath. Bend a wire coat hanger or buy a wreath ring from a craft shop.

Make your own Christmas Crackers set

£3, theworks.co.uk 

Crackers are a complete rip-off. Make your own with a kit or (cheaper still) buy cracker snaps from a craft shop and construct the rest using old wrapping paper and cardboard tubes from kitchen roll.

DIY picks
DIY picks

Do you have any tips for a budget-friendly Christmas? Tell us in the comments below