The holidays are stressful, and not just because you might be cornered by a distant relative for an awkward conversation. One of the biggest stressors around this time of year is, unsurprisingly, money.
According to a new survey from Country Financial, 70% of Americans are feeling the anxiety of the season, with 32% of respondents feeling the heaviest burden when it comes to finances.
Personally, I love Christmas but loathe the pressure of traveling around with some sort of gift in hand for everyone. So I mostly opt out. Instead, my favorite way to hang out around the Christmas tree as an adult is by inviting close friends and family over for a more casual, festive, and hearty get-together.
The secret is Trader Joe’s. The specialty grocery-and-more store nails seasonal selection, and at a shockingly low price. You can find everything you need there for a delightful Christmas party — all the way down to the tree (though it is a tiny one).
I plotted out an entire holiday-themed party in my cozy studio apartment in Los Angeles using only Trader Joe’s products, explained in detail below, which cost me exactly $84.90 (prices and availability may vary by location). Since Trader Joe’s is not a lighting or decoration store, I cheated slightly on the bulbs and ornaments, but hopefully you have some from past years (if not, try hardware and dollar stores for affordable options). The recipes also assume you have olive oil, basic spices, and kitchen tools.
The easily accomplished spread starts with olives and cheese and chips and salsa, moves on to ready-to-bake bites, then turns toward beefy carne asada chili. (Oh, and there’s boozy champagne punch and chocolate, too.)
This vague Southwestern theme is a welcome reprieve for anyone tired of gorging on birds and hams, and takes advantage of the California-based chain’s strengths. The dishes are more delicious than your average roast turkey and sneakily incorporate Christmas colors (red, green, gold-ish) without, you know, turning your food neon. Chili is immensely shareable, warming, and comforting. Bonus: It freezes and reheats well for leftovers.
Rosemary Christmas Tree, $8.99
Christmas trees leave thin needles all over your floor and are generally giant overrated hassles. Instead, opt for the Trader Joe’s mini Christmas tree selection, including a cypress “Grump” tree and this rosemary plant. It smells lovely and also provides fresh herbs you can use after the holidays.
Antipasti Trio Tray, $9.99
Antipasti in Italian roughly translates to: yummy little first courses. This trio package gives you all the cheese, vegetables, and salty goodness to satisfy guests while they wait for the chili, including feta, asiago, olives, artichokes, and peppers. You can take it straight from the refrigerator to the serving table.
Sourdough Baguette, $2.49
Trader Joe’s flexes its California spirit with this pungent sourdough, which gained its U.S. foothold through San Francisco baking. It’s properly crusty on the outside. Serve it with the antipasti, and if any remains, with the chili.
Chips and Two Salsas, $5.97
Mexican food may not be everyone’s idea of Christmas, but nothing looks quite as seasonal as red and green salsas alongside a bag of extra-crispy tortilla chips. About those chips: Go for Trader Joe’s restaurant-style white corn tortilla chips ($1.99), which deliver the thick crunch of a proper Mexican restaurant's chips and are seasoned with the right amount of salt and lime. The mild salsa verde ($1.99) and slightly hotter red “Autentica” salsa ($1.99) are simple, as they should be. And the salsa verde shouldn’t offend anyone who’s heat-averse.
Pimento Cheese Puffs, $4.99
Pimento cheese remains one of the most underrated joys to come out of Southern cuisine. Trader Joe’s has stuffed this pepper-laced cheddar and mayo concoction into seasonal puff pastries topped with caramelized onion and uncured bacon, ensuring that 99.9% of the human population will fall in love with them. They're ideal appetizers for guests getting antsy about their empty stomachs while smelling the fragrant chili cooking. But instead of heating them according to the directions (straight out of the freezer), let them thaw first, then put them in a 375-degree Fahrenheit oven on a lined baking sheet. Remove after 10 minutes, or until golden brown and not yet exploding with cheese.
Carne Asada Chili, $24.12
Skip marinating meat with Trader Joe’s economical pre-marinated carne asada. The hefty log of sirloin beef in the refrigerated meat section is flavored with orange juice and spices, and comes in around 1.5 pounds (which rings in at about $15). Browning it quickly on high heat first locks in flavor and adds texture, before the beef mingles with broth and other chili ingredients for a slow-and-low cook that brings out even more flavor and makes the meat incredibly tender. You can also do this recipe (after browning the meat over the stovetop) in a pressure or slow cooker.
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1.5 pound (roughly) carne asada steak, chopped into 1-inch chunks
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 1 15.5-ounce can Great Northern beans
- 1 quart (4 cups) beef broth
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 2 tsp red pepper flakes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Plain Greek yogurt
- 1/2 cup chopped green onion
Fill a large pot with oil and place over high heat. Add steak chunks and brown for 2 minutes on each side. Reduce heat to low. Add onion and cook until soft and translucent, about five minutes. Throw in garlic and saute for about three minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients except garnish, increase heat, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, decrease heat to low (the lower the better). Simmer, covered, for 1.5-2 hours, stirring occasionally, until chili is thick but still plenty moist. If it gets dry, add more broth (Trader Joe’s sells broth in 2-quart cartons).
Serve each bowl of chili with a generous spoonful of Greek yogurt and a sprinkling of chopped green onion. Top with salsa for extra heat if desired.
Yellow Brown Rice, $2.99
Brown rice has a nutty flavor and more fiber than white rice. Trader Joe’s sells already cooked frozen brown rice in boxes of three 10-ounce packages for a few bucks each. It just needs to be warmed up in a matter of minutes. I do it in a rice cooker for ease and add 1 tbsp of water so it doesn’t dry out, but the stovetop works, too. I also throw in 3 tsp of turmeric spice to add a bright yellow color. (Rice just looks better when it’s yellow.)
Champagne Punch, $22.37
Eggnog out of the carton is, well, not very good. The phrase "sludge-like" comes to mind. It’s also a pain to make by hand (i.e., the right way). Champagne is perfect for any occasion celebratory or otherwise, and punch always makes party guests perk up. The trick is to impress with a giant piece of homemade ice in the punch bowl. The day before your get-together, fill up 3/4 of a smaller steel bowl with water and cover in the freezer. When ready to make the punch, pop it out by pouring warm water on the bottom of the bowl over the sink, keeping your hand on the ice so it doesn’t drop down into the sink.
Trader Joe’s is known for its absurdly affordable wines, though there are some clear winners. The magnum-sized (equivalent to two regular bottles so you can fix up a second batch of the punch) Incanto Prosecco ($11.99) and Pierre Duchene Napoleon brandy ($9.99) are drinkable on their own but work better in a punch where they’re softened by everything else.
This punch, especially with the large ice (which melts more slowly than small cubes), is boozy, so be sure to add the extra water in case your guests over-serve themselves.
- 750ml (equivalent to 1 normal bottle) sparkling wine
- 4 ounces brandy
- 1 cup water
- Juice of 1/2 lemon (first slicing zest off of whole lemon for garnish)
- Giant hunk of ice
- Slices of 1/2 lemon zest
- Ground nutmeg
Place ice in a large punch bowl. Add lemon juice, water, brandy, and sparkling wine. Gently stir. Throw on an artful smattering of lemon zest slices and nutmeg.
When your guests inevitably drain the punch, make a second batch using the remaining ice in the bowl.
Dark Chocolate Orange, $2.99
There’s no shame in avoiding an elaborate and pricey pie. Dark chocolate and orange is a classic combination, and Trader Joe’s chocolate balls are cheap and extremely shareable. Just punch down that orange and spread out the slices on a plate. Pair with the extra brandy from the champagne punch. Your guests won't ever want to leave.