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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Natascha Mirosch

Raid the pantry and skip the turkey: how to host Christmas lunch on a budget

A family Christmas lunch with a little girl wearing a cracker crown in the foreground.
When it comes to sides, keep it simple. There’s nothing wrong with a one-ingredient salad. Photograph: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images/iStockphoto

You may have offered to host Christmas lunch and are now living in a world of regret, or have simply drawn the short straw among your family and friends. You may be looking at your dwindling bank balance, drained by pre-Christmas spending and the well-documented cost-of-living crisis. But 25 December is near and like it or not, hungry guests are destined to show up at your front door in a matter of days.

Christmas lunch, however, doesn’t have to be an elaborate, costly exercise. We’ve asked some hospitality industry experts – Alex Elliott-Howery, the co-owner of Cornersmith and co-author of The Food Saver’s A-Z; Travis Harvey, the executive chef at OzHarvest, and Shaun Christie-David of social enterprise restaurant Colombo Social – for their tips on hosting a Christmas meal on a budget.

The table setting: opt for op shops

A fork and knife tied up with twine on a red and white spotted napkin, on a rustic table.
If you need to top up your cutlery, crockery and linen, a visit to your local op-shop is in order. Photograph: Anna Bogush/Alamy

Charity op-shops are your go-to haunts for your Christmas table setting, says Elliott-Howery. As well as chancing upon vintage linen, you’ll also find plenty of extra tableware to top up your home collection. “Op-shops are also great for extra plates, glasses and cutlery – mix and match for an eclectic style.”

For table decorations, she recommends looking in your own garden, or foraging in your neighbourhood, for native foliage. (Check your local council rules on foraging in public places and nature strips.)

“We use gum leaves, grevillea, lemon myrtle and whatever is growing in the garden,” she says. “If we’re feeling extra festive, we dehydrate orange slices and long red chillies to decorate the Christmas tree or the table.”

The canapes: raid the pantry

Tom Hunt’s recipe for spiced nuts.
Raid the pantry for surplus nuts and turn them into this tasty snack by Tom Hunt. Photograph: Tom Hunt/The Guardian

Bite-size snacks on a bite-size budget? It’s possible. If you have surplus nuts in the pantry, they can easily be turned into a tasty snack, says Harvey. Roast them in an oven, then while they’re still hot, toss them in a light soy sauce and your favourite ground spices and serve with pre-meal drinks. Or, follow Tom Hunt’s recipe for spiced nuts.

As for biscuits, there’s no need to fork out for expensive brands, he says. Yesterday’s bread is tomorrow’s croutons. “[Drizzle] with olive oil and salt and roast until golden, to serve with homemade dips, cheese, or in a salad to add some crunch. Lebanese bread is great for this.”

If your pantry has crackers that are not quite packet-fresh, try Elliott-Howery’s “resurrection recipe”. Lie them on a baking tray, brush with a little melted butter and sprinkle with brown sugar, dried herbs, salt and pepper. Bake for 10 minutes or until crisp – your crackers will have a new lease on life.

Leftover roast vegetables can also be transformed into simple dips, she says. Roasted capsicums or carrots are excellent blended with nuts, spices and lots of garlic. And instead of expensive cheese, Elliott-Howery suggests making your own labne.

“Start the day before with a big tub of Greek yoghurt, a good pinch of salt and whatever herbs you want. Spoon the mixture into a colander lined with a muslin cloth or clean Chux, cover and pop in the fridge to firm up overnight.

“To serve, spread [the labne] flat on a plate, drizzle generously with olive oil, sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs and serve with Turkish bread and homemade pickles.”

The main event: give turkey a miss

Thomasina Miers’ recipe for roast chicken with black olive garlic butter
Chicken or fish? Either can be more affordable options than the Christmas turkey. Thomasina Miers’ roast chicken with black olive garlic butter may be simple, but it yields a beautiful flavour. Photograph: Yuki Sugiura/The Guardian

“Remember to cook seasonal Australian produce and think twice about the traditions that may come from Christmas in other parts of the world,” Harvey says. “Chicken can stand in for turkey any day and is a lot quicker and easier to cook.”

Christie-David suggests looking for cheaper cuts of meat and slow-cooking them overnight “to reduce game-day stress”.

Elliott-Howery suggests roasting or barbecuing a whole fish. “It looks impressive … and feeds a crowd.” If you need a vegetable showstopper for mains, “a whole-roasted butternut pumpkin, cut in the hasselback style and glazed with miso and mustard powder is so delicious and so cheap too.”

The sides: keep it simple

Meera Sodha’s recipe for ratatouille.
Zucchinis, eggplants, capsicums and tomatoes are all affordable around this time of year and that means Christmas ratatouille. This recipe by Meera Sodha comes with a crumbly coconut and almond topping. Photograph: Yuki Sugiura/The Guardian

When it comes to salads, make things simple and affordable with the “one-ingredient salad”, says Elliott-Howery. “Choose what’s in season – the best way to tell is what’s at the front of the grocery store or supermarket. It’s cheap because there’s lots of it. If it’s tomatoes, then that’s what’s on the Christmas table.”

If you’re fortunate enough to have a garden of green leaves and the odd dandelion, “make a bitter green leaf salad with a few sliced roasted peaches, toasted pepita seeds and a simple dressing”.

For a colourful vegetable side, put a summer ratatouille on your Christmas menu, she says. Zucchinis, eggplants, capsicums and tomatoes can be bought as seconds or imperfect picks, at lower prices, at markets or select grocers. “All these veg are so cheap around Christmas and [the ratatouille] can be served hot or cold.”

And don’t forget the humble but well-loved potato salad, says Christie-David.

“At home, we add hot sauce, quality mayo and some curry powder to make the most indulgent potato salad. So cost effective, filling and [it] only takes 10 minutes.”

The drinks: there’s skin in the game

Pineapple segments and pineapple skins on a wooden chopping board.
Don’t throw out your pineapple skins – they can be made into tepache, a refreshing fermented soda. Photograph: Tom Hunt/The Guardian

If your home goes through a lot of citrus and ginger, don’t throw out the peels, says Harvey – they can be turned into a shrub (a fruit-and-vinegar syrup) for mocktails, cocktails and to add to sparkling water.

“Save all your ginger peel and juiced citrus halves in the freezer until you have a good four cups’ worth. Defrost and add two cups [of] sugar and three cups [of] apple cider vinegar. Let sit for a week, then strain. Use a tablespoon or more to taste in chilled drinks. Keep refrigerated and use within three months,” he says.

As for pineapple skins, Elliott-Howery turns the prickly peel into pineapple-skin soda or tepache.

Dessert: rice is nice and it’s cheap too

Two white bowls of rice pudding with a plum sauce.
Nigel Slater’s rice pudding comes drizzled with a dark plum sauce. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin

For a festive end to your meal, make your own Christmas-flavoured ice-cream, says Elliott-Howery.

“Take slightly softened vanilla ice-cream and stir through any [half-finished] jars of jam in the fridge, for instant ripple. Add dried fruit, chopped nuts or chocolate buttons and a splash of whatever spirit you have. Refreeze and serve.”

Store-bought meringues are the basis for an Eton mess, says Harvey, complete with “sweetened whipped cream, seasonal fruit and bought cookies for crunch.”

He also suggests a chilled rice pudding, which can be “veganised” with coconut milk. “It costs next to nothing, is easy to prepare and goes with any fruits you have on hand.” Nigel Slater’s rice pudding, by way of example, is drizzled with a dark plum sauce.

The leftovers: hang on to that sparkling wine

Three bowls of poached apricot halves with almond cream on a pink tablecloth.
Ravneet Gill’s recipe for poached apricots with almond cream. Photograph: The Guardian

There’s more to leftover ham than just sandwiches. Enter: Christie-David’s devilled ham. “Fry onions until caramelised, then throw in crushed garlic. Add leftover ham, chilli powder, diced capsicum, chilli sauce and a dash of tomato sauce.”

If whole fish is on your Christmas menu, reserve the bones and head to make a stock, says Elliott-Howery. “Homemade fish stock makes a very impressive paella, which we often make for New Year’s Eve.”

If, for some reason, you have half-finished bottles of sparkling wine (Australian, of course), don’t let them go to waste, she says. Use them to poach cherries and apricots for a sweet, boozy start to Boxing Day brunch.

And the biggest budget hack of all

Host Christmas on 27 December. Yuletide foods and paraphernalia go on sale on Boxing Day, so it’s your time to snap up marked-down ham, panettone, fruit mince pies and boxes of Favourites. It’s Christmas, fashionably late and right on budget.

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