A beacon, a clarion call, a light in the dark. Blair Stenvick

High on my list of pandemic comfort watches is the Food Network show Guy’s Grocery Games, in which chefs gather in a sound-stage grocery store and compete to see whose dish can get Guy Fieri to say “That’s killer” and “Oh, man!” the most times.

A common conceit on GGG: Chefs must create delicious, indulgent meals in the confines of a tight grocery budget imposed by Fieri.

It feels like a challenge tailor-made for the 2020 holiday season. Money is tight for many, and even those of us lucky enough to still have jobs face an uncertain future. We can’t go out for extravagant restaurant meals, even if we wanted to. Most of us will be celebrating with significantly fewer friends and family members than usual. With all those limitations, why even bother trying to cook a classic holiday feast with all the trimmings?

But here’s the thing: You still deserve a holiday feast. You deserve to gather around the table or couch with your family or even just yourself, and to enjoy a meal that feels special, budget be damned.

So, I decided to give myself my own challenge: Blair’s Grocery Outlet Holiday Meal. Before running over to my neighborhood Grocery Outlet, I gave myself these five rules:

• I had to buy all the ingredients for a full holiday meal that would feed four people, for less than $15.

• As on GGG, I could also use kitchen staples—an onion, bouillon, butter and olive oil, salt, and other basic spices—that I already had at home.

• The meal had to have a certain festive element, either through classic holiday flavors or through ingredients that feel luxurious.

• My meal would be meatless, because a) I try to keep it veg when I can, b) meat is typically the most expensive part of the meal, and c) meat at Grocery Outlet is… perhaps not the freshest?

• Cooking time had to be two hours or less.

This challenge could be done at any not-fancy grocery store—your WinCo, your local market, or even a Fred Meyer would probably work fine—but I favor Grocery Outlet because it has the box-of-chocolates factor: You never know what you’re gonna get. As I walked into the SE 72nd and Flavel location, I was greeted by this:

The gang's all here.

After doing a couple laps around the store, I started to devise my menu. I spotted dessert first: A no-bake truffle mix for a mere 99 cents. These bite-size babies are perfect for boring adults who are supposed to not want dessert, but still very much do—and with gold sprinkles included, they just scream “festive”!

Next up, I headed to the dairy section and found a brie wheel. There’s a reason rich people in movies are always eating brie: Its texture and subtle notes of truffle are the definition of luxury. And at Grocery Outlet, that luxury only costs $2.49. I grabbed a can of cranberry sauce ($1.29) to pour over the brie as an appetizer—a controversial move, I know, but if you’re among the pseudo-contrarian majority that despises the delightfully acidic stuff, you can sub in some other flavor of fruit jam or preserves.

Now I had an appetizer and a dessert, but no main course! I lingered around the produce section looking for cheap inspiration until the butternut squash caught my eye. I think what makes a butternut feel special is the sheer size of it; roasting one whole is akin to fixing a holiday roast or Thanksgiving turkey. At 79 cents a pound, this absolute unit came out to $2.92.

Bountiful.

Next up: sides. Everyone knows Pillsbury biscuits are meant for the holidays—they have all those saccharine TV commercials about it—so I picked up a tube for $1.49. (More foods should come in tubes, in my opinion!) I was stumped on a second side, until my eyes caught a bag of cornbread croutons ($1.89). That and a can of sweet corn (79 cents) was all I needed for cornbread stuffing.

All that was left to get was drinks. I’m nearing the end of my sober year, and was delighted to find a bottle of Martinelli’s for just $1.99. Even better: It was a special Northwest Blend variety.

WOW, indeed.

I should mention that if you do want booze, you’ll probably have to up your budget—but just a tiny bit. Grocery Outlet has legendary deals on wine and beer, and I was sorry to pass up a deal on some Pfriem Barrel Aged fruit ale.

It was time for the moment of truth: The checkout line. Would I meet my arbitrary price goal? YUP. I came in at $13.95—more than a buck under budget.

My haul. Should I start a YouTube channel?

Now it was time to actually cook the stuff. I started by throwing the butternut in the oven, following this basic recipe but adding some of my own spices (and using both butter and olive oil). I took it out halfway through cooking time to lovingly brush more oil on, and was happy with how it turned out—though next time I’d add a maple glaze, or perhaps the tahini butter from this recipe if I wanted to go in a different flavor direction.

Before...
After!

Next up was the cornbread stuffing, which I made stovetop-style. I threw in some leftover fresh rosemary and sage from my Thanksgiving feast, as well as a couple garlic cloves and the Trader Joe’s umami seasoning blend—and, of course, the sweet corn.

Okay, it’s confession time: I didn’t realize it when I bought it, but the truffle mix called for cream cheese—which, in my opinion, falls just outside of the basic kitchen staples definition. Fortunately, I always have some cream cheese in my fridge, because it’s the only way I can get my dog to take his medicine! This no-bake dessert was easy-peasy, even for someone as notoriously impatient with measurements as myself.

All that was left to do was pop the biscuits in the oven, throw some cranberry sauce on the brie, set the table and pour some cider. (Note: This meal fed two people, plus two extra servings that we had as leftovers the next day.)

Not pictured: The truffles, because truffles are very hard to make look appealing when using an old iPhone camera.

Sitting down at this table, eating this meal I paid about 14 bucks for, I couldn’t help but feel festive. It may have been a random Wednesday in early December, but I’d had a meal I’d cooked with love, good company, and my health. In a year as difficult as 2020, that’s more than reason enough to celebrate.

However you eat this holiday season—whether it’s the traditional big holiday dinner, a Postmated burrito, or your own budget grocery store haul—I hope you find a way to make it celebratory, whatever that means for you. It’s going to be a quiet holiday season, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve a little festivity.