Entertaining on a budget is a challenge. Balancing the need to count pennies for a myriad of details against trying to create a dinner gathering that's enjoyable can be hard on a savvy host's spirit. The philosophy of Good Food Gatherings points to easy and delicious menus pulled from favorite cookbooks, foodie blogs and recipe resources as a way to take the intimidation and trepidation out of hosting a dinner party. Getting the menu gameplan in order is a good place to start your elegant entertaining on a budget but it's not all that's needed to make the event a success. The rule of thumb for an affordably elegant dinner party is the simple ABCs of entertaining -
streamline - stay Basic - with each entertaining essentials.
make Cuts in areas of biggest value.
Here are some of the tactics we've used over the years - and we haven't lost a guest yet ;-)
1. Soup is good food. Serving soup is a delicious way to fill hungry guests without breaking the bank. As an appetizer, guests can mix and mingle with a cup of gazpacho or gingered chicken consomme in hand. This replaces adding budget with an array of finger foods or appetizers. As a first course at the table, enjoy a roasted butternut squash soup, or creamy potato leek, or light broth with julienned vegetables. Flavorful with an invitingly fresh aroma, a soup starter makes an amazing first impression. For a maximum value hit to the budget, consider soup for your entree. Minestrone (winter or summer), Italian Wedding Soup, Asian Chicken, Corn Chowder, Spicy Tortilla - the choices are endless. An easy place to start is with 50 Easy Soups (Food Network).
2. Bar - Stick with a Signature. The bar can be one of your most expensive components to the dinner party. Here's a key place to streamline and stay basic. A signature cocktail is a perfect way to streamline and cut costs. Craft a signature cocktail that's balanced with juice and some sparkling soda or tonic, and you'll have a distinctive way to avoid stocking a full bar. A few of our favorites for a large punch bowl? Homemade sangria, Loretto Lemonade, or Key West Cocktail, with fruit garnish and ice. More creative cocktail Drink Recipe Cards can be found from The Intoxicologist.
3. Decorate from the Pantry. While we love fresh flowers and the artistry of elaborate table decorations, you can save time and money by repurposing what's available in your pantry and refrigerator. Lemons, limes, oranges, peaches, apples, cherries, kale, baby potatoes, cinnamon sticks, radishes, dried beans, fresh herbs, whole garlic...these are all possible elements of an interesting centerpiece. Start with a glass bowl, fill with dried kidney beans, add a leaf of kale (we like red) "planted" around the perimeter of the bowl into the beans, and finish with a mix of whole heads of garlic and trimmed red radishes in the center. If you have ribbon (see #6) - add some around the center of the bowl. Prefer fruit? How elegant and fresh is the simplicity of a large glass bowl filled with yellow lemons and bright green limes? Of course, all of the ingredients can go back into the kitchen to be used later.
4. Serve Family Style. Forget the fancy plate arrangements, and avoid setting up a buffet. To maximize the budget, get the guests around a table and serve them family style. A full platter or serving bowl communicates abundance of food, and focuses the entire group on the delicious main event of the evening - the meal. Each guest will take an appropriate portion (or less) to get started as etiquette should prompt everyone to take a single portion. Of course, if there is any remaining, it can be passed for a second round. And, should a guest still find that they are hungry after their first serving, they can see what's available at the table and ask for it to be passed.
5. Get Creative with Bread. As you plan ahead for the meal, let yourself get creative with bread. Not just for the bread basket, there are so many interesting ways to add bread to each course. For appetizers, we love grilled ciabatta slices, cut on a diagonal lightly oiled and rubbed with garlic, and served with a spread or two. A few of our favorites recipes are listed below. Serve bread at the table with a small dish of extra virgin olive oil sprinkled with salt, pepper and
Parmigiano cheese instead of a stick of butter. Or serve with a few heads of Roasted Garlic (we like the 3 ways offered by The Hungry Mouse). Add toasted day-old bread as croutons to mix into the salad or soup. If your main dish has a tasty sauce, hunks of bread provide just the tool needed to enjoy every last drop. Delicious artisan and whole grain breads are available at grocery stores, bakeries and even chains like Panera! For a few dollars, enough bread can be on hand to help round out the dinner party.
Tomato Bacon Spread
serves 10-12 as hors d'oeuvres
1 tablespoon mayonnaise (light can be substituted)
1 8 ounce package cream cheese (light can be substituted)
1 15 ounce can of diced tomatoes
1 clove garlic
1 cup chopped cooked bacon (cooked crisp)
1 tablespoon chopped bacon (for presentation)
Combine first 4 ingredients in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth. Slowly mix in chopped bacon with a spoon or spatula. Transfer to serving bowl - and add reserved bacon sprinkled atop the spread to serve.
Zesty Ricotta Spread
(adapted from Cooking with Caitlin)
serves 10-12 as hors d'oeuvres
12 ounces Ricotta Cheese (can be low-fat)
12 ounces goat cheese (unseasoned "log" works well)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil (thinly sliced "ribbons" if possible - save a few for presentation)
1/2 cup diced green onions
Salt & pepper to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Combine first 3 ingredients in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth. Mix in the basil and green onions with a spoon or spatula. Add salt and pepper to taste Transfer to serving bowl - and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and remaining basil ribbons to serve.
6. Wrapping it up with Ribbon. If you're like us, you always have some leftover ribbon SOMEWHERE in the house. Assuming you can find it, grab it for some easy table decor accents to "finish" the table. We use ribbon for a splash of color or texture as simple napkin rings, to add a band of color to a simple centerpiece bowl (we use glue/tape to secure seamlessly in place), to accent candlesticks (making sure the candles don't set them on fire!), around wine or champagne glass stems, and even to tie together the silverware at each place setting. No need to tie a fancy bow, simply knot and trim the edges and you're good to go!
7. Double-down on the Veggies. As you plan your menu, here's one rule that seems to make sense across the board. Increase the quantity of vegetables - in the recipe, as sides, in the appetizers. Vegetables tend to be less expensive, and they are HEALTHY! In 10 Trends in Savvy Entertaining (for 2010), we point to the shift in "plate geometry" with veggies taking over the
neighborhood. Want to learn more? Fine Cooking's Ellie Krieger outlines the new proportions in The New Geometry of the Plate. Not to mention, the vegetarians in your crowd - or those on a modified diet - will greatly appreciate the green variety. This is a huge opportunity to trim the dinner party budget - while still filling plates with plenty to savor!
8. Meet MELAMINE. This one might trigger some controversy - we're not fans of paper or plastic disposable plates. Not only do they create a lot of trash to manage, but additionally, we like to have entertaining essentials on hand - in our "tool box" and so disposable items don't tend to be a priority. For larger dinner parties, we're pleased to have met a new friend in melamine. From as low as $1.50/plate, the options in styles, shapes and colors range far and wide. We love the preppy elegance of custom La Plates - and the colorful designs of Two Lumps of Sugar. Look for new melamine options early this Fall in SavvyHostMarket!
9. Pot-Luck by Course or Cuisine. A time-tested and well-understood tradition to help defray dinner party costs has always been a Pot-Luck gathering. Take this in an elegant direction by orchestrating what each guest brings to coincide with a cuisine theme or by course. Serving family-style is also key to the budget (see #4), so be sure to ask participants to bring their dish ready to be served at the table (this also saves last minute kitchen mess). Take a look at Bring it: Potluck parties can mean a lot of food for shared cost from the Pittsburgh Gazette (tying together this tip with #1). 10. Pasta for Pennies. Pasta by any other name - noodles, spaetzle, vermicelli - has always been a dependable ally in the battle to save pennies (and dollars!). For dinner party entertaining, make your entree a dish involving some type of noodle or pasta. The sky's the limit in terms of cuisine - Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, German and Italian each have a variety of main dishes to offer. Szechuan Noodles (The Barefoot Contessa), Baked Ziti with Sausage for a Crowd (In Erika's Kitchen), Noodles with Pesto, (see our post on No-Fail Dinner Party #3 - Summer Pesto), Cajun Chicken Pasta (The Pioneer Woman Cooks), Pasta with Lemon Garlic & Shrimp (Reluctant Gourmet), and Spicy Asian Noodle and Chicken Salad (Bon Appetit). From a budget perspective, consider your options - if the recipe calls for shrimp, try using tiny bay or salad shrimp which are 1/4 the cost - if the recipe includes vegetables, increase the veggie quantity but not the meat/fish.
11. Basic Black & White. A strong whole-hearted recommendation for those savvy hosts seeking to make an investment in dinnerware to support numerous fall dinner parties and holiday entertaining occasions. Buy white or black. There is no doubt that many gorgeous patterns and designs are available, but from a budget entertaining perspective, white or black solids can be dressed up and accessorized in a limitless number of ways. Who needs other dishware?!? Added bonus - when you streamline the color, you can substitute different sizes & shapes (adding over time with hot deals from Overstock.com or an estate sale) without detracting from the elegance of your table.
12. Salad Saves. What more needs to be said? Hopefully a helpful reminder that a gigantic salad is a beautiful addition to the dinner party menu - as an appetizer, separate course, or entree - at minimal cost. The trick is to avoid the prepackaged salads (if you can - after all you still have to wash them). Buy bagged sets of romaine hearts or big bags of baby spinach greens or whatever greens are on sale. Greens are less expensive au naturel and you can afford more. And,the chopping is therapeutic. Invest in a large serving bowl to display your greenery - and remember to add color to the salad with tomatoes - cucumbers - sweet bell peppers - radishes - carrots. Again, go with what is fresh and on sale for a flavor and budget impact. A simple balsamic vinaigrette (see ours in GoodFood Menu #11) or lemon & extra virgin olive oil accompanied by cracked black pepper will make this a win.
13. Cookies & Coffee. We love the posh tradition at top-tier restaurants of serving a beautiful tray of small cookies and sweets with the coffee service. This is typically in addition to dessert! Why not copy this elegance at your next dinner party - and save a little on the cost of a bakery dessert? After a delicious evening of good food and good friends, close the gathering with a coffee and a stylish serving tray of mini cookies, chocolates or other sweets. If you prefer homemade, try your hand at Chocolate Truffles to truly impress the table. Whatever budget may be left in your pocket, you can always find something on sale in the candy aisle, or at the bakery counter. Mix the unexpected together and your guests will enjoy the sweetness of your creativity! 14. Wine Quality is Available on a Budget. Wine snobs should stop reading at this point as we're about to defy the law of the price tag. For even the most gourmet of dinner parties, you can find quality wine that is very affordable and appropriate to the meal. Some of the options from Argentina, Chile, Australia, and South Africa are achieving high ratings and popularity. Check with your favorite wine source, and then stay focused on 1 or 2 wines that you will serve. Most wine shops offer a 10% or more discount if you buy in sets of 6, so stay focused to save. (Note that for a group of 10-12, we recommend planning on 4-5 glasses of wine per bottle, and 2 glasses of wine per guest.) If you decide on wine, it is also very appropriate to ONLY offer wine as the alcoholic beverage. This will also save on a signature cocktail investment. In this case, we would recommend offering both a white and a red wine - as many will choose a white wine for an aperitif.
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These are some of the tips and tricks we've learned over the years - and they've helped us to stay within even the most meagre of budgets! What are your tips for achieving elegance on a dime?
Note - this was first publishing in August 2010 - and has been updated.)