Once you’ve grown out of bar-hopping, you cross over into the “entertaining-at-home” phase of fun-having — because dinner parties with good food, people, and conversation make for an even more enjoyable Saturday night.
As a host, it can be a lot of fun crafting, planning, and decorating for a dinner party, but it can also get expensive and overwhelming quickly. In reality, there’s absolutely no need to set your credit card aflame just to entertain your friends for the evening.
Follow these money-saving tricks from two party planning pros and you’ll be able to throw together a culinary soiree that will leave a wow-worthy impression on your guests.
Plan and Shop Ahead
If you’re throwing a dinner party on a budget, start with that: A budget. Decide how much you’re willing to spend in total, then an amount per guest— so if your budget is $150 and you want to spend around $20 a head, skip the pricey brie wheel.
You’ll also want to make a list and plan your menu a few ahead of time —this way, you can continuously scope out the deals in your grocery store’s weekly circular ads and stock up on items as they go on sale.
Finally, “Always shop for in-season produce,” says Marylee Santoro, event planner and owner of Events by Marylee. It’s more likely to be on sale and will taste way better.
Get Clever with Your Appetizers
Kick off the evening with an array of light bites for guests to enjoy before sitting down dinner, because “the best events unfold in phases,” says Helen A. Edwards, event planner and owner of Spark By Design.
While a cheese and charcuterie board may be a favored classic (and a labor-free option on the host’s end), it’s the antithesis of budget-friendly; by the time you buy multiple hunks of cheese, meats, and accoutrements, you’ve easily spent $50 before getting to the meal.
To get more monetary mileage out of your hors d’oeuvres, “deconstruct the expensive cheese platter and rework it,” suggests Santoro. For example, incorporate cheese by making individual crostinis with goat cheese and jam, then introduce meats by wrapping prosciutto around melon balls or pretzel sticks. Edwards also shares her fave gluten-free option: Replace crackers with cucumbers slices and top with cream cheese, pepperoni, and a shake of Italian seasoning. Cheaper and more creative? That’s a win-win.
Make Your Table the Focal Point
“An interesting table design serves as a festive focal point and source of discussion,” says Edwards. So instead of going overboard and decorating your entire house with excessive trinkets, spend your energy (and those dollars) on setting a really gorgeous table — after all, this is a dinner party and it’s where your guests will be gathering.
There are a ton of good ways to even work in a plethora items you already own. Santoro encourages you to steer clear from being too matchy-matchy: “Embrace being eclectic, which allows you to incorporate your own style.” Here are a few great decór ideas from the pros:
- Use items in varying heights to give dimension to the table, but nothing higher than 14 inches tall; i.e., stacks of books, spray painted jelly jars, flowers from the farmer’s market
- Candles set the mood! Consider unscented votives or flameless so they don’t compete with the food or blow out
- Want some extra twinkle? Run last season’s white Christmas lights across the table or float tea lights in clear bowls with submerged greenery
- Mix vintage with contemporary; i.e., use stemless wine glasses for water and bust out your grandma’s colorful china for serving wine
- Try edible decór: “Arrange fruits, veggies, or fiesta peppers in cylinder vases or cubes,” suggests Santoro. “It creates interest and you can repurpose by eating them after.”
- Carry the design through the house with your chosen elements by accenting your mantle or appetizer table
Be Smart With Your Beverage Selection
Booze is always a big expense when you’re throwing a party. While this fact might make it tempting to ask guests to BYOB, that’s arguably an uncouth move as an adult, and they’ll probably show up with a bottle of something unprompted anyway.
To stretch your dollar in the alcohol department, skip the bottles of expensive Champagne and “limit your beverage choices so you don’t need mixers, which adds up,” says Santoro. Consider serving a big-batch signature drink (i.e., a seasonal sangria or punch) that guests can help themselves to while noshing on appetizers. It’s festive, pretty, and also saves you the pain of shaking up cocktails all night.
With dinner, select one kind of white wine and one red wine that complement the meal as to not overspend and overcomplicate things.
You can also use the budget-friendly nature of bubbly, non-alcoholic beverages to your advantage. Santoro likes to serve sparkling water at the table in a sophisticated vintage bottle; Edwards suggests offering guests a welcome cocktail of flavored seltzer, a splash of orange or cherry juice, a twist of lime, and a fresh herb garnish.
Lean into Multiple Courses
It may seem easier to set up a buffet table of all the delicious food you cooked, but there are multiple reasons you should go the extra mile of plating the food.
First, the cost. If you serve a meal family style, you must ensure you both buy and make a ton of each item, since some people will over-serve themselves or come back for seconds. By pre-plating the food, you’re able to control portions and amounts and thus, save money.
Secondly, presentation is everything. “Even the simplest of dishes become more appreciated when composed to stand alone,” explains Edwards. “Choose to plate your dishes with intention instead of quantity.”
For example, you can jazz up reasonably priced chicken thighs with a mushroom gravy, then round things out with rice and garlic broccoli; for bonus points, accent the plate with a fresh herb sprig from the garden.
And yes, plate your salad course, too. “People tend to skip over the salad if there’s just a big bowl on the table,” says Edwards. “Plating the salads as its own course makes sure people eat them.”
Don’t forget dessert! Instead of wrestling with a bunch of pie dough, Santoro suggests keeping things simple and enticing your guests’ other senses to make it a memorable experience. A scoop of gelato and fresh berries is both yummy and pretty to look at; or you can also pop fresh cookies in the oven just before it’s time for dessert so the aroma fills the house.
It’s All in the (Affordable) Details
Seriously, you don’t have to spend all of last week’s paycheck to impress your guests. Incorporating a bunch of little inexpensive (or free) details will tie your evening together perfectly and make all the difference:
- Send out actual invitations to make the event feel “official,” whether that’s good ’ol paper invites via snail mail, or using a free e-vite design option from Minted or Paperless Post
- Print out menus for each individual place setting
- Use cloth napkins; wrap them with ribbon and accent with a little flower or herb
- Put on a playlist
- From invites to decór, stick to a color scheme or seasonal theme — two easy ways to make your even feel cohesive
- Label your light bites with handwritten signs
- Ask your guests’ dietary restrictions ahead of time and make sure you incorporate their asks into some portions of the meal