Thanksgiving to New Year's is the season of elaborate holiday meals. When most families try to keep expenses in check at this time of year, they focus on the gift giving, even though there's a secret budget-breaker on the loose: food.

Thanksgiving to New Year's is the season of elaborate holiday meals. When most families try to keep expenses in check at this time of year, they focus on the gift giving, even though there's a secret budget-breaker on the loose: food.

"Food costs can certainly get out of control over the holidays with extra entertaining, larger meals and food gifts," said Kate Shumaker, a nutrition and wellness educator with the Ohio State University Extension. She teaches the Cooking with Kate class series.

But all hope is not lost. You can feed the masses, bake the cookies and not be stuck eating the same boring leftovers day after day. When it comes to containing the grocery bill, "The classics still work," she said. "Use coupons, watch for sales, shop lower-price stores, try store brands, plan ahead and know the usual prices on the foods you commonly purchase, so you know when a store offers a better-than-usual deal on something."

For instance, if you're an avid holiday baker, watch for sales on basic ingredients and nonperishables in the months leading up to the holidays "to spread out the spending," Shumaker said. "I once snagged a great deal on white chocolate chips in the summer for use at Christmas."

It also helps to not go overboard. "Most of us don't really need dozens of cookies or meals that could feed a small village. Our waistlines certainly don't need these," she said. "Give yourself permission to scale it down. We create our own stress. If you have family or friends pushing for the usual big spread, ask them to help."

If you love to eat, but either don't have a lot of time to cook or have two left thumbs around pots and pans, don't fret. "Cooking from scratch is often the least expensive option, but not always," Shumaker said.

Buy some foods fully or partially prepared. Or, "If you don't like to cook, or don't have time or space, make your holiday meal a group effort," she said. "We've done holiday meals where my mother-in-law does the turkey, my sister-in-law does the sweet potato casserole, and I do the dressing, mashed potatoes and pies (which can be made ahead). This spreads the cost and the work."

Once the turkeys and hams are baked and eaten and the guests have headed home, "immediately freeze some of the leftovers (to eat later as) homemade TV dinners," Shumaker said. Then, stretch your food budget by using those items creatively. That doesn't have to mean eating some variation of the same holiday meal every day for the next two weeks. To avoid the dreaded leftover boredom, "Try to find recipes that are a bit different from the original," she said.

Need help? Remember turkey can be substituted for chicken in any recipe, she said, "So think quesadillas, shredded with barbecue sauce, added to ramen noodles." Ham can be added to casseroles, eggs and soups.

If you're still lacking for ideas, there are many reliable resources for new-to-you recipes. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has free recipes online for turning holiday leftovers into meals, such as ham and potato skillets with eggs, ham and Swiss breakfast casserole or collard green gumbo. The site also has advice on stretching holiday food budgets, all at whatscooking.fns.usda.gov.

The University of Illinois Extension service has a page devoted to turkey leftovers, with recipes for broth, pot pie, turkey and black bean wraps, as well as cooking tips at extension.illinois.edu/turkey/leftovers.cfm. The University of Nebraska offers recipes for turkey tarragon pitas and white turkey chili at food.unl.edu/recipes-turningturkey-leftovers-planned-overs.

With these and many other reputable cooking and recipe websites, you've got the tools to keep the family fed and happy while keeping that grocery bill in check.

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.

Recipes from Kate Shumaker

Turkey Fried Rice

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 cups cooked rice

1 cup frozen peas and carrots (or other vegetables)

1 tablespoon frozen diced onions

½ cup diced cooked turkey

Soy sauce, to taste

Nonstick cooking spray

Directions

1. Spray cooking spray in a nonstick skillet and heat on medium-high.

2. Add egg to skillet and scramble, breaking cooked egg into small pieces.

3. Add cooked rice, vegetables and turkey and heat through.

4. Add soy sauce, a little at a time, until you reach the desired flavor.

5. Serve immediately.

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Ham and Corn Chowder

8 ounces ham, cooked and diced

1 can cream of mushroom/chicken/celery soup

1 can creamed corn or whole kernel corn (14-15 ounces)

1-2 cups milk*

1 can diced potatoes (14-15 ounces)

¼ cup cooked and crumbled bacon (approximately 4 slices)

1 tablespoon dried onion

½ tablespoon dried parsley

Salt

Pepper

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Simmer until heated through.

*Using 1 cup of milk will result in a thick soup. Using 2 cups will result in a thinner soup. Adjust to your preference.

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Ham and Asparagus Fettuccine

4 ounces dry fettuccine noodles

1 cup fresh asparagus, trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces

8 ounce can sliced mushrooms

1 package garlic cream sauce mix

Milk

Butter

Water

1 cup cooked ham, diced

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente. Stir asparagus into pot in the last five minutes of cooking; drain.

2. While pasta is cooking, make sauce mix according to package directions. When mixture begins to bubble, stir in ham and mushrooms and heat through.

3. Toss pasta and asparagus with sauce and serve immediately.

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Fiesta Turkey Soup

1 16 ounce can fat-free refried beans

1 14 ounce can fat-free chicken broth

1 cup cooked, chopped turkey

1 15 ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 11 ounce can whole kernel corn with liquid

1 cup chunky salsa

Directions

Combine all ingredients and heat to a boil. Simmer together for 10 minutes.

Source: From the kitchen of Kate Shumaker