Holiday parties on a budget

Plan ahead and have fun

By and
December 16, 2011

The holiday season is a time for parties, and where eating is concerned, it’s also often a time for excess. But even as we put extra care (and potentially extra butter) into our dishes and serve more courses than usual, we never forget about budget — especially with all the stockings, and turkeys, that need to be stuffed.

We’re big believers in the less-is-more mantra, although that doesn’t mean putting out a bowl of dip and a bag of chips and calling it good. To really feed your friends well, you’ve got to plan ahead — and ask them to help, too.

Here are our best tips for keeping the holiday merriment and good food in large supply without overspending.

  1. Look at your bank account and choose a budget. It may sound simple, but knowing your spending threshold long before you get to the supermarket will help you stay within your budget once you get there. This is the first step for planning a money-conscious holiday meal. Once you’ve gotten a sense of your maximum allowance, you can decide on the number of partygoers and the menu, figure out how to divvy up your cash, and choose which tasks to delegate to guests (see no. 7).
  2. Make a list and check it twice. Before heading to the grocery store, make a very thorough shopping list. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to start crossing things off. It’s the smaller items that tend to add up, so take a look and see what accoutrements can be removed from your dishes without sacrificing too much flavor or complexity. Using one ingredient in multiple dishes is another great way to save money. For example, if you’re using carrots in your stew, buy in bulk and consider using the extra in your root-vegetable gratin.
  3. Stew, roast, or braise. Slow cooking allows you to choose cheaper cuts of meat, and to turn your dish into a luxurious fall-off-the-bone creation. A big pot of stew or a whole chicken in a roasting pan also makes for a great centerpiece, and allows you to serve family style — the best kind of style for the holidays. Choose a main course that uses one of these techniques, and round out the meal with inexpensive sides from there (see no. 4).
  4. roasted potatoes
    Roasted potatoes are a cheap and easy side dish for dinner parties.
    Carb it up. Loading the table with baskets of bread and bowls of pasta is always a good tactic for bulking up a meal without overspending. Luckily, the holiday season is prime time for cheap root vegetables. Buy a big bag of spuds and mash them, roast them, or make them into fried appetizers. (You can treat similar mashable vegetables, such as butternut squash, in the same ways.)
  5. Remember: less is more. During the holidays, it’s easy to abandon the classic meat-plus-two-sides formula in favor of a buffet overflowing with items. But going overboard isn’t a holiday-dining prerequisite. You can still have a special holiday dinner without serving upwards of 10 dishes. Keep your menu focused, and your budget will stay in check, too.
  6. Embrace the BYOB. No holiday dinner is complete without a festive cocktail or a good bottle of wine. But alcohol can really set you back in the wallet department. Don’t be afraid to ask your guests to bring a bottle with them. That way, if you decide to make one specialty drink, you’ll be investing in only one bottle, not 10.
  7. Delegate. To piggyback on the above, we must stress how worthwhile it is to lean a little bit on your friends and family. People not only don’t mind pitching in, it also helps them feel like a bigger part of the meal. Once you’ve decided on your budget, think about assigning appetizers or a cheese course to one of your guests. Even something as small as bread can be a big help, and it’s no trouble for someone to pick up a few baguettes en route to your house. Delegating dessert also gives the less kitchen-savvy guests the option of stopping by a bakery for delicious, store-bought options.
  8. Don’t stress — and have fun! It’s the holiday season. It’s time to be thankful for what we have, and to give back to our friends and family. We believe there’s no better way to do that than with food. So while you’re cutting corners, try not to stress too much about your bank account. Remember to have fun. Love is the most important ingredient in any dish, and guess what? It also happens to be free.

Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine are the bloggers behind Big Girls, Small Kitchen and Small Kitchen College. Their first cookbook, In the Small Kitchen, was published by William Morrow in May.

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1. by vintagejenta on Dec 22, 2011 at 6:50 AM PST

I’m unemployed and we just threw a holiday party last night. The boyfriend dropped $25 on 5 pounds of beef bottom round roast and I made slow-cooked french dip sandwiches with brown ‘n’ serve rolls (they were on sale and quicker than baking bread), made a honey mustard and creamy dip from a mix for a bag of pretzels, put together a salad with some homemade dressing, cut up a block of cheap sharp cheddar, and made apple cranberry pastries. We had about a dozen people over and it was perfect and low-key. And less expensive, less food, and less work than previous parties I’ve done. If we hadn’t wanted to spend the money on the beef, I totally would have used the crock pot to make dried beans into delicious taco filling and had tacos. But tacos didn’t seem Christmasy enough, hence the french dip sandwiches.

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