Friday, November 14, 2014

Setting the Thanksgiving table on a dollar-store budget

I've complained many times about Christmas creep, the phenomenon of jumping ahead to the "holiday season" earlier and earlier each year, leaving Thanksgiving (and now, it appears, even Halloween) in the dust. As Alexandra Petri of the Chicago Tribune points out, this devalues not only Thanksgiving, but Christmas as well; by the time the holiday actually arrives, everyone's already sick of it.  ("I complain about it every year," she laments, "and it still happens. It is almost as though writing about things on the Internet had no impact on them whatsoever.") The solution she proposes is to keep the focus on Thanksgiving as much as possible: "Buy Thanksgiving greeting cards. Insist on turkey garlands. Dress up as a pilgrim. Dress up as a turkey. Clap and shout, "I do believe in Thanksgiving! I do! I do!" Anything you can think of."

So, as my contribution to this movement, I'm going to do a post on Thanksgiving entertaining. I already did one three years ago on how to throw a great holiday party on a reasonable budget; now it's time to give Thanksgiving its fair share of the attention.

The idea behind this post came from an article I saw in the November issue of Good Housekeeping, which, to be fair, is actually all about Thanksgiving (though it was undermined somewhat by the fact that the "fabulous holiday issue," decked out in red and green, arrived at the same time). The article bills itself as "An Easy Lesson in Beautiful Table Settings," showcasing four different styles for decking out the Thanksgiving table. The four place settings, which you can view in a slideshow on the Good Housekeeping website, feature distinctive styles of dishes, glassware, flatware, and napkins or other decorative objects, with accompanying text telling you where to buy them and how much they cost. The cheapest of the four place settings—a "fresh modern" look in stark, minimalist white—cost $55; the most expensive was $117. That's for one place setting, mind you. If you had a dozen people at your holiday table, as my family does, you could spend over a grand just to set the table, before you even put a scrap of food on it.

Even more irksome, to me, were the cutesy place cards accompanying each table setting. For one thing, I've never been at a Thanksgiving meal where we actually needed place cards, and frankly, I'm not sure I'd ever want to spend the holiday with a bunch of people I didn't know well enough to sit down to a meal with unaided by formal seating arrangements. But even supposing, just for the sake of argument, that I decided to make place cards for our Thanksgiving gathering just because I thought they would look cute, why on earth would I need to attach each one to a colored glass bottle (for which the article advises you to "hit up your local flea market"), or a faux pheasant feather, or a spray-painted pear? (That one probably bothered me the most of all, because a pear is food, and spray-painting it so that it's no longer edible is wasting food, which is about as un-frugal as it's possible to be. If you want to stick your guest's name on a pear, then for heaven's sake, why not just use the pear in its natural state? It looks just as nice that way, and after the meal is over, you can remove the little tag and save the pear for breakfast. Spray-paint it, and all you can do with it afterward is throw it out; it probably isn't even safe to put in the compost bin.)

So I decided to put together an elegant place setting to rival those featured in Good Housekeeping on as low a budget as possible. Of course, in real life, I'd simply use the dishes, glassware, flatware, and napkins I already own, and if I wanted to dress up the table a bit, I'd do it by folding the napkins into fancy shapes and making a nice centerpiece of some kind. But assuming I didn't actually own any of that stuff, or didn't own enough pieces to host a large group, how would I build an elegant table setting from scratch on a bare-bones budget? To me, there was just one obvious answer—one that started with "Dollar" and ended with "Tree."

I don't get out to Dollar Tree very often these days, since the one closest to us closed down, but it's actually one of my favorite places to browse aimlessly. They have such a huge variety of stuff there, from food to cleaning supplies to housewares and even clothing. You never know just what you're going to find there, but you know that anything you find can be yours for only one dollar. And I remembered quite distinctly that, on previous visits, I'd seen plates there, and glasses, and maybe even utensils. If I needed to outfit a table for a big party in a hurry and on the cheap, it's certainly the first place I'd look.

So, on Wednesday, while running another errand, we stopped in. I headed for the tableware section and quickly discovered that the problem with this plan wasn't going to be finding something I liked; it was going to be deciding which of the many styles available I liked best. They had a remarkable variety of dishes, plain and patterned, in white and every color of the rainbow (plus a few that the rainbow leaves out).

Glassware, too, was available in a vast array of styles: stemware and tumblers, colored and clear, delicate and hefty.

With all the choices there, I could easily have put together four place settings in different styles, just like the folks at Good Housekeeping. But I decided to show some restraint and limit myself to two. For a simple, elegant look, I chose these white plates with a gold-edged rim:

And to go with them, a set of tumblers with a matching gold rim:

Then, for a more colorful and festive look, I chose these casual dishes in a vivid, country-themed pattern:

And, to play up the color scheme, stemware with a clear bowl and a green stem:

My job was only half done, however. I'd found dishes and glasses, but the Dollar Tree couldn't help me with either napkins or flatware (except the disposable variety, which, aside from being wasteful, don't cut it as elegant in my book). To round out my place settings, I'd have to turn to the Great Marketplace of the Internet.

Fortunately, finding these items cheap online was pretty easy. A quick search turned up a wide selection of napkins at a site that supplies the bridal industry. I figured satin napkins in "champagne," at 62 cents each, would go well with the gold-rimmed plates, while more casual polyester napkins in dark red, for 53 cents each, would complement the multicolored ones. These prices don't include shipping, because I didn't want to put the items in my cart to calculate it, so I just rounded up and assumed the napkins would cost a dollar apiece with shipping.

Flatware was a little trickier. On the restaurant supply sites, it was mostly sold by the piece, and I figured it would be cheaper by the set. So I tried eBay, where I found this 44-piece set—8 place settings—for a "Buy it Now" price of $41.50 with shipping. That's a little over $5 per setting, and the simple "New Century" pattern looked like it would go well with either of my place settings. Add it all up, and the place settings come to about $8.33 apiece—less than one-sixth the price of the cheapest setting in the Good Housekeeping article.

There was just still just one little detail left, though. Since Good Housekeeping included place cards in its photo shoot, I figured to be fair, I should come up with ideas for some as well. But I certainly didn't want these to add to the cost of the place settings, so that ruled out any ideas that would require buying supplies from a craft store or "scouring" flea markets. Instead, I stole an idea from party planner David Moen, whose plan for a $30-a-head holiday party, as outlined in the New York Times, inspired my earlier post on holiday entertaining. His place cards were simple teardrop shapes cut out of card stock, with names written in gold marker. I thought for a Thanksgiving meal, you could go one better and cut the cards out of brown kraft paper, since everyone has a couple of brown paper bags lying around somewhere—and instead of a teardrop shape, pick up a nice fallen leaf from your yard and trace that shape onto the paper. The only cost would be a couple of bucks for the marker, which could be reused after the holiday. I even mocked up a little prototype to show what it would look like (though I had to use green marker, since we didn't have a gold one).

That one, because of the gold color scheme, seemed like a good match for the white-and-gold place setting. For the more colorful one, I figured I could do the names on white paper, in colored marker—maybe even a different color for each person—and simply tuck them inside the wine glasses. Maybe even tuck a colorful leaf in there with them, for an extra touch of fall splendor.

So there you go: a choice of two place settings, one traditional and elegant, one cheerful and casual, for under $10 each, with the place cards thrown in. Let's see the Good Housekeepers beat that.

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