Festive, Non-Premade Christmas Dishes Serving 3-4 for Non-Cook on Limited Budget?
December 21, 2004 7:58 PM   Subscribe

I need a Christmas dinner menu for 3 - 4 people. I don't cook, so I need easy to prepare, festive dishes. I'm on a limited budget, so the dishes have to be inexpensive to prepare as well. Purchasing a pre-made meal is not an option. [+]

I'm cooking for my 90 year old grandparents and a friend. My grandparents don't eat much, but they will really appreciate a nice meal. I'm thinking ham, but I've never bought one, so I don't know what to look for (they're already cooked, right?). We had green bean casarole at Thanksgiving, so I think that's out. I really appreciate any ideas.
posted by Juicylicious to Food & Drink (31 answers total)
Potatoes au gratin are relatively inexpensive and easy, but very tasty. Ham varies wildly in quality; cheap ham tends to be packed with water and flavourless. Not sure how limited your budget is, but a nice turkey is actually pretty cost efficient if you count leftovers.
posted by Nelson at 8:38 PM on December 21, 2004

Quick advice: Ham just needs to be heated per the instructions and sliced. Roast in a crockpot is full proof. What about green beans with slivered almonds?

Mashed potatoes with baby red potatoes, a little cream and butter, tiny bit of garlic and some parsley flakes is easy. Don't over mash, scrub the potatoes, and leave the skins on.

Bake and serve rolls are foolproof.

I really like the idea of the turkey roast with herbs in "The Man Who Ate Everything" by Jeffry Steingarten, but it's not super easy. Lox, really good cheeses and crackers are good appetizers.

Just some ideas.
posted by mecran01 at 8:40 PM on December 21, 2004

Bourbon sweet potatoes.

Get 4 largish sweet potatoes. Peel them. Cube them. Boil them (exactly as if you were making mashed potatoes). When they are soft enough to be mashed with a fork, remove from heat and drain. Mash them. Add about 1/4 cup granulated brown sugar, 1/2 to 3/4 cup of milk, and 2 dashes of the cheapest, most aromatic bourbon or bourbon-like liquor you can lay your hands on (Southern Comfort, I find, has the requisite strong whiskey aroma needed). Whip until the mixture is silky smooth (absolutely no lumps). Spoon into a serving bowl. This recipe is supremely easy, very economical, easy to digest (perhaps not an unimportant consideration, given the maturity of your guests), and tastes like absolute heaven.
posted by Chrischris at 8:43 PM on December 21, 2004

Good turkeys can be hard to prepare. Good sides are easy though. I like steamed green beans with just almonds and maybe garlic. Mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes. butternut squash and carrot soup. Consider something non traditional for the meat. Prime Rib Roast is easy to make but can be a bit expensive.
I rather like Rosemary chicken but it's not all "holiday". It's good and easy though. Great with mashed potaters too.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:47 PM on December 21, 2004

Oh, for appetizers, and maybe this is just me, I like cold grapes, cheese, apples, raisins, sweet pickles, olives, crackers, melba toast, pickled herring (vinegar and sour cream kinds), other little sweet and savory snacks. My mom pickles everything so she'll lay out pickled carrots, radishes, onions, etc, but, of course that's not really an option if you have them.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:51 PM on December 21, 2004

Is chicken soup too weird? Is PBF procrastinating? I fear both answers may be 'yes.'
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 8:52 PM on December 21, 2004

This ham recipe looks pretty easy and festive. For some sides, I think sparkling cider, wild rice, and squash or glazed carrots would complement the ham nicely. Good luck!
posted by sophie at 8:58 PM on December 21, 2004

For a meat, consider a whole pork loin. Very economical cut of meat (3-5 lb. portions to be had for around $10 hereabouts) which can be prepared any number of ways (one of our favorite methods is slow-cooking it in a crock pot with a bit of orange peel and a can of cranberry sauce). Plus, there are few meats which lend themselves as well to a classy, festive presentation (simply slice into medallions, arrange on a large plate with the reduced cranberry mixture and a few sprigs of greenery--voila!).
posted by Chrischris at 8:59 PM on December 21, 2004

If they're in their 90s, they may have dietary restrictions. Make sure to ask.
posted by ColdChef at 9:18 PM on December 21, 2004

If you want poultry, for four, you're far better off roasting a chicken -- at about five or six pounds there'll still be plenty of left overs, carving carefully you could squeeze by on three pounds. Ham is easier though, and very nice as long as you don't get one of the cheap, reconstituted, watery ones. No need to get too fancy with side dishes, unless you want to, just get a variety whatever vegetables seem nice when you are in the supermarket. Add a salad, and you're nearly there.

If you want to make things festive you might try something like smoked salmon for an appetizer -- it's quite expensive if you buy a lot, but an ounce or two each is plenty to enliven the taste buds. If not that maybe a small amount of paté, served with melba toast... Nothing heavy but something a little out of the ordinary, that might set the mood.

If your baker/supermarket has good pies (too often they have nasty gloppy fillings), then a small one might make a decent dessert. Otherwise you can never go wrong with ice cream (unless you are avoiding dietary restrictions).

As for cost, it needn't be expensive if you are feeding people with small appetites: provide a tempting array of small amounts of appetizing things means that you don't have to buy too much of the more costly ingredients. The variety also means that is someone doesn't like, or can't eat, one thing there are other things they can eat.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:53 PM on December 21, 2004

How traditional are your grandparents? Turkey is of course the most traditional Christmas fare here in the states and you can get small turkeys or just turkey breasts for a small crowd of four. I like goose on Christmas (although I rarely get it - such is life), and a stuffed goose would serve four people nicely with some leftovers. Add, gravy, potatoes, vegetables (roasted is great) and some really nice dinner rolls. Don't forget a Christmas pudding to finish the meal. Good puddings come in cans these days.

OK, goose costs more than chicken, but it is Christmas. Chicken probably tastes better though, it's just that most people already eat lots of chicken so it really is not special. If it were scarce it could easily fetch $20 a pound - a real gourmet budget food and healthy too.
posted by caddis at 10:21 PM on December 21, 2004

If you go for ham, get one with a bone and fat still in it. Much, much tastier. You can get soup from the bone.

To keep the price down, get several kinds of pickled things (onions, a few pickles, cauliflower, etc.). I can often find these in my local dollar store. Cook several kinds of veggies. Parsnips are delicious steamed or sauted. Frozen peas with a small can of mushrooms tossed in or some slivered almonds on top. Sauted cabbage. Steamed beets. Splurge on a good loaf of bread. Real butter makes a huge difference. Baked potatoes are easy, and can go in with the ham (or chicken-better than a turkey for 4 people, as noted).

If you go the chicken route, cranberry sauce is really easy to make. Just use the recipe on the package. I like to use some lime zest in it, rather than orange. It is best made a day or two ahead of time.

I'm fond of fruit for desert. 3 or 4 different fruits, one usual fruit to make it festive.

Your grandparents will love anything you cook, even if it isn't perfect. Your friend must praise everything, lest you never serve them anything more complex than a preztle in the future.
posted by QIbHom at 10:43 PM on December 21, 2004

I second the suggestions for a whole chicken roast (we do that frequently in our family and it easily feeds 4, including 2 teenaged boys), and also for the pork loin roast, which comes off as very elegant, imo. Both are easy, but the key thing you will need is a meat thermometer. If you don't already have one, make sure the one you get has indications of what temps each type of meat should be heated to, and make sure the tip of it is in the middle of the meat (more or less). Stick it in when you start cooking and just leave it there. We like to use a glass Dutch oven with a grate in the bottom and a cover for either dish; it keeps in the juices. With either dish you can make homemade gravy from the drippings.... yum! Also, plan to have the meat sit for at least a 1/2 hour before serving; a roast tends to be better if it does that for some reason (and gives you just enough time to make the gravy).
posted by Doohickie at 10:44 PM on December 21, 2004

Oh... I've also done the pork loin roast in a crockpot with great success as well. The beauty of a crockpot is that the meat cooks slowly and ends up very juicy & tender. You can still probably get gravy from the drippings. (Did I mention I like gravy? ;- )
posted by Doohickie at 10:48 PM on December 21, 2004

a nice pasta dish should do the trick, like spaghetti alla carbonara or penne all'arrabbiata. also, you can have a democratic, multicultural interfaith dinner and surprise them with something unusual like Hanukkah brisket or a nice taboulet

posted by matteo at 12:35 AM on December 22, 2004

Hey, matteo, how about bucatini all'amatriciana? I can thrill people with the fact that I can get guanciale, and make really good pasta, and it's a tiny bit more special than arrabiata. Or US people could even do a good version with bacon chunks for even cheaper. Che ti pare?
posted by lackutrol at 3:36 AM on December 22, 2004

Most people I know wouldn't really enjoy a pasta dinner on Christmas. Of course, I think they're nuts.
posted by spaghetti at 4:09 AM on December 22, 2004

I'm thirding the roast chicken idea, mostly because I did it last night for dinner and it occurred to me once more how hard it would be to screw up. We bought a four pound chicken for $5, and I rubbed it with olive oil and garlic inside and out (if you like garlic, stick cloves cut in half under the skin), squeezed lemon juice over it and stuck the lemon halves in the chicken cavity. Salt and pepper, sprinkle liberally with rosemary inside and out. Roast for 20-30 minutes at 425, then reduce the heat to 350 and cook until the chicken juices run clear (maybe another 60-80 minutes).

You can also do sweet potatoes in the crockpot; my mother in law's require canned sweet potatoes (not in syrup) but you could also use fresh potatoes peeled and cut into fairly small pieces. She adds sliced peeled apples, orange juice concentrate and brown sugar to taste - it smells delightful as it cooks, and again, is hard to screw up. If you have no crockpot, never fear - you can fake your way through this with a heavy pot and low heat.

Have fun - they'll love that you cooked for them.
posted by deliriouscool at 5:54 AM on December 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'll second (third? fourth?) the ham idea. Couldn't be simpler to prepare and plenty for everyone. Usually this time of year most supermarkets have spiral-sliced hams available - I've had good luck with Carando brand hams.
posted by isotope at 7:19 AM on December 22, 2004

If you really truly do not cook, ham is your best option. Here are some ham tips. Roasting meats requires a meat thermometer and a little bit of savvy to realize when the meat is done, and some serious consternation if it's not quite done. You can get a high-end ham, glaze it a number of different ways and basically heat it up in the oven and then get some fancy side dishes going. A side of some potatoes [au gratin is good, or you can literally just chop them up, toss them with some olive oil and rosemary and salt and bake them on a cookie sheet in the oven at 350 for 30 minutes and they'll be good] add some crusty bread [or dinner rolls are pretty easy and possibly easier on the teeth of your relatives]. If you get a box of Bisquick you can really make some nice biscuits [add a handful of grated cheese and a few tablespoons of parsley to the batter, brush them with milk a few minutes before they're supposed to come out]. Add some sparkling cider, have a plate of cheese and crackers, maybe some veggies/olives for appetizers, use some nice plates, play some good music and burn a few candles and you'll have a nice meal.
posted by jessamyn at 7:23 AM on December 22, 2004

ah, lackutrol, l'amatriciana is to die for. with a nice veil of pecorino romano
posted by matteo at 7:49 AM on December 22, 2004

I'll add another vote for roast chicken. I'd never roasted a chicken before this Thanksgiving, and just by following a simple recipe (some herb butter under the skin and stuffing the cavity with lemon and onion halves and some herbs) it turned out great even with my lack of skill in the kitchen. If I could do it you can certainly do it better.
posted by gyc at 8:19 AM on December 22, 2004

Use plenty of flavoring. By the time people are 80-90, it takes 4-10 times the amount of flavoring agent for it to be detectable to them (20 times in some flavoring cases - for instance, lemon). I used to work at a geriatrics research lab that was testing this sort of thing.

Much of the reason seniors don't eat much is that the pleasure is gone from it - they can't taste the things they used to cook regularly, it's just a texture. Additionally, false teeth rarely fit perfectly and saliva production tapers off in old age, so it's difficult to chew/swallow food. Many elderly people would like to eat more, if only food tasted like it used to and was easy to get down.

It's too late for this for this christmas, but if you cook for your grandparents again, look up the "Easy to chew, easy to swallow cookbook" by a former colleague of mine. It's full of things that are great for seniors but also taste amazing on their own - your other guests would never know you cooked it specifically for gram and gramps. We once had a buffet of the recipes and it tasted like restaurant meals, not "old people food." Very flavorful, very interesting.
posted by u.n. owen at 9:53 AM on December 22, 2004

I'd follow jessamyn's advice---ham is very low fuss and almost impossible to mess up (just make sure that you're using a pink cured ham---uncured is essentially a pork roast). Scalloped potatoes go very well with ham, but if that's too fussy simply make mashed (but buy a cheese sauce to go with it). Green beans or peas (frozen, the trick is not to boil but to steam or microwave until just green) and you've got most of a meal. Add a squash or carrot soup (Campbell's makes very nice ready to serve soups in a paper cartons) to start, pick up a baguette or another hot crusty bread and you've got a meal.

Ham likes light-tasting wines: a hearty white or a light red work equally well.
posted by bonehead at 10:24 AM on December 22, 2004

I think the roast chicken is a good call, but if you're not a cook, you may want to brush up on how to carve fowl first to avoid having to figure it out on the spot. Bell's Seasoning is a tasty and easy flavoring shortcut. Just rub it in, inside & out, before roasting.
posted by obloquy at 12:28 PM on December 22, 2004

Response by poster: Ham it is. Or maybe I'll try the prime rib roast. I'll make baby red potatoes with butter and parsley. I'd like to make brussel sprouts, asparagus, or broccoli too, but I need to find something to spice them up. I'll look for the Campbell's soup in cartons. Wild rice too (what do I add to it when cooking?). I'll get some decent bread. A bunch of different pickles & olives. Some melba toast. They have enough cheese to choke a horse, so I'll use theirs. I'll also pick up some pate.


Ham/Rib Roast

Broccoli/Asparagus/Brussel sprouts

Baby red potatoes

Wild rice

Spinach salad

Crusty Bread

Vanilla ice cream w/Baileys





melba toast

How does that sound?
posted by Juicylicious at 2:56 PM on December 22, 2004

Sounds fabulous. A bit more advice: beginning cooks preparing dinner for guests need structure. You must plan carefully, or you'll regret it.

1. Get recipes, and read them all the way through twice. Learn the definitions of any unfamiliar terms.
2. Look through the spice cabinet to locate stuff you THINK you have.
3. Locate every measuring cup, spoon, serving platters, pots and pans needed, etc. so you don't have to hunt for them while company draws near.
4. Make a shopping list.
5. Shop.
6. Plan how your cooking day will go. Cutting bread, turning broccoli into florets, washing potatoes, assembling salad all takes time. Rice takes 30 to 45 minutes cooking, usually. Chart out how you will take all the steps needed to have the stuff ready within a 30-minute window or so, when you plan to serve.

You might not hit the window without help, but you'll be a darn sight closer for all the organizing.
posted by sacre_bleu at 3:13 PM on December 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

Sounds delicious. What time did you say dinner was?

I just add water to wild rice when I cook it. Serve with butter and salt.
posted by QIbHom at 3:37 PM on December 22, 2004

brussel sprouts, asparagus, or broccoli

Those vegetables can be kind of hard on the digestive systems of older folks... you may want to clear that with them first.

P.S. It's not to late too go with the roast chicken. Try it for dinner tomorrow and see how good it is! (We had roast chicken tonight. Yum!)
posted by Doohickie at 8:33 PM on December 22, 2004

Sounds like you are on the right track! (My wife claims that I don't think it's a meal unless peas are served, so for me your menu is lacking, but that's just a personal thing.)

Your menu also takes care of one thing that the inexperienced sometimes have problems with... arranging things so you get to eat too. You may not get too much of the appetizers as you will be dishing up the main course, but after that it's plain sailing (good choice of dessert -- no complicated preparation necessary).

Wish your grandparents a happy Christmas from all of us. Enjoy!
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:04 PM on December 22, 2004

Response by poster: I spoke with my grandmother earlier this evening and was informed that she has purchased a ham. So ham it is. I made tamales with my brother tonight and he gave me a mason jar of early harvest wild rice to use for Christmas dinner.

My grandparents don't have any dietary restrictions. I really appreciate your thoughts u.n. owen. I hadn't thought about the effect of dentures on the food that they choose to eat. I also hadn't thought about the amount of flavoring either. These are really good things for me to know.

Thank you everyone for your suggestions and recipes. We will have what will probably be our last Christmas dinner together and you've all helped make it better. Thank you.
posted by Juicylicious at 9:32 PM on December 22, 2004

« Older A late gift for my cool uncle. What to do?   |   Winamp lowers the volume after every song. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.