How to Throw a Fabulous (and Frugal!) Dinner Party

by Janey Osterlind on 23 November 2011 5 comments
Photo: Dinner Series

I’m excited to announce that we are fast approaching one of my favorite times of year. No, not Thanksgiving, or the holiday season, or even the New Year. No, it’s none of those things — it’s Dinner Party Season! I love dinner parties because they provide a fabulous excuse to dress up, decorate, and catch up. I love that they’re different from the standard weekend schedule, which generally involves small gatherings or loud bars. I also love that they give me a reason to not hibernate during the cold winter months. With all these reasons to love dinner parties, what’s to stop you from throwing one every weekend? Oh, right — feeding all those people can get expensive. Don’t let that ruin your fun, though! Instead, try these tricks for throwing your very own fabulous-yet-frugal dinner party. (See also: Frugal Cocktail Party Ideas)

Themes

People love theme parties because they add to the feeling that this is not just an everyday occasion. They also allow your party to take on aesthetically appealing flair without having to spend a lot of dough (unless, of course, your theme is opulence...maybe you should avoid that one). If you don’t have a specific theme already in mind, try picking one based on the party’s main dish. Twice-baked potatoes might suggest a harvest or fall theme, for example, while pulled pork tacos or chicken fajitas would go nicely with a Mexican theme. Notice that those main dishes are ones that fit squarely within a frugal budget, which leads me to my next section...

Main Dishes

In order to get the most bang for your buck when serving a big group, choose a main dish that can be made inexpensively. If you know, for example, that broiler chickens are steeply discounted at least once a month, pick one or two up to make a great rosemary roast chicken. Or go for a main dish with a protein that’s not meat. Try something like the twice-baked potatoes mentioned above. Of course, you probably don’t want to feed your guests ramen noodles in the name of frugality, although ramen noodles do have their place. Spend money where it counts by adding one or two upgraded ingredients to your main course, like gruyere cheese for your twice-baked potatoes or a béchamel sauce (white, milk-based sauce) for a pasta dish.

Appetizers

When planning dinner party appetizers, a few simple rules will take you a long way: stick with your theme, keep it simple, and, like with your main dish, throw in some luxury. Sticking with a chosen theme will keep your appetizers from being all over the board and will save you time by narrowing down possibilities right off the bat. Keep the appetizers you do choose simple, in terms of number served, number of ingredients per appetizer, and how you choose to serve the appetizers. The caterer’s rule of thumb is that, for a dinner party of 8-10 guests, three appetizer options are appropriate, with about 10-12 bite-size portions per person. Even though you’re keeping it simple and using as few ingredients as possible per appetizer, add some extravagance to your starters by using a few more expensive ingredients sparingly. For example, this is a great place to use seafood, which is generally a more expensive protein.

Drinks

To keep you dinner party more on the frugal side, consider making it BYOB. Like potluck dinners, BYOB dinners work because they satisfy a guest’s desire to contribute while satisfying your need to be economical. If you don’t want to ask guests to bring their own drinks, consider serving one signature drink (like red wine sangria for a tapas party or buttered apple cider rum for a holiday party). This is always less expensive than offering a full bar. Or, if you’re a real wine-lover like myself, head on over to your local Trader Joe’s for a great, cheap wine pairing. I once bought an entire case of completely respectable and drinkable white wine for less than $60 for a party. If you’re not lucky enough to live close to a Trader Joe’s, or you live in a state that doesn’t sell liquor in grocery stores (I’m talking to you, Pennsylvania), try finding a general type of wine to complement your main dish at Real Simple’s wine pairing guide, then do some online research to find inexpensive yet enjoyable labels of that variety.

Invites

Save money on invites by foregoing the old-fashioned mailed kind in favor of electronic ones. You could create a Facebook Event, or try one of the many free websites like Punchbowl, Smilebox, or Evite. Of course, if you’re having an impromptu dinner party, word-of-mouth and phone calls may be all you need.

Presentation

Even water can look fancy with sliced fruit or a few other ingredients in it. Don’t forget the old rule that we eat with our eyes first. To that end, consider how to present each course in a creative way (bonus points if you can tie the presentation into your theme as in, for example, serving a Chinese dish in cardboard take-out boxes). Other examples include making ice cubes infused with fruit or herbs, serving appetizers or desserts in shot glasses, dishing up a soup course in a bread bowl or giant mug, and adding garnishes where necessary. But wait, aren’t these extra serving paraphernalia going to cost me, you ask? Why, so glad you asked! This brings me to my next point...

Using What You’ve Got

Don’t buy new serving dishes; use things you already have around the house to serve up food in creative new ways. For example, I have some martini glasses that have yet to be used (I love martinis; I just don’t drink them at home). I could put those to work as adorable appetizer vessels, or as innovative serving containers for, say, chocolate mousse. My big glass hurricane, once it’s washed out, would be a great way to serve a dessert trifle or, alternatively, it could be filled with just about anything to make a centerpiece to match the party’s theme.

Getting the Group Involved

Of course, the most frugal (yet still fun) way to throw a dinner party is to go potluck. The upside to this one is that people generally feel compelled to bring something to a party anyway — this just formalizes the process. Also, the meal is not only cheaper for the host; it’s also usually less expensive for each guest to bring a dish than to make dinner for themselves at home. I would suggest sticking with a theme for your potluck, so you don’t end up with, say, a seaweed salad appetizer and a lasagna entrée (although I love both seaweed salad and lasagna, I think it’s a little incongruous to mix the two in one sitting). I would also assign people specific courses (appetizer, salad, sides) so you don’t end up with a dinner entirely composed of shrimp cocktail appetizers.

Progressive dinner parties are a variation on potlucks; however, not only does each guest provide a dish, but they also provide the venue — their own home. At a progressive dinner party, each guest agrees to provide one stage of the meal (appetizer, main course, dessert) and to play host for their particular course. One of the major benefits of a progressive dinner party is, of course, that the cost of providing one course of a meal is a lot less than providing the entire meal. It’s also nice to have a change of scenery, too, and progressive dinner parties spread clean-up duties over a number of households. Of course, a progressive dinner party works best when guests live relatively close to one another.

Games

Throwing a frugal, fabulous dinner party entails more than food and drink. Keep your guests entertained with some games, too. I’m not suggesting you pull out the old Twister mat (although you can if you’re so inclined), but games are a great way to bond with old friends and get to know new ones too. Games are also easily had for free; if you don’t have one of the classics, chances are, one of your guests will. To get an idea of which games are especially suited for dinner parties, check out this list of the top dinner party games, or try my personal favorite, Mexican Train dominoes (yes, my friends think I’m 80 years old for loving this game, but I promise you, they love playing it).

Have ideas that aren’t included here? Share them in the comments!

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Guest's picture
YFS

This is an amazing article. We all love to enjoy on our weekends and once in week because of our hectic schedule in office. What when we think of expenses all our enjoyment goes. But now onward I'll always take care of all the above mentioned points can make my dinner party rocking. Thanks Janey Osterlind.

Janey Osterlind's picture

Thank you for the nice comments! I hope it does help make your next dinner party even more fabulous. I'm getting excited for my own first dinner party of the season, coming soon!

Guest's picture
Guest

These are great ideas; I enjoy a party more knowing I can still buy groceries for the rest of the month.
Don't forget the thrift and dollar stores for linens, serving pieces, and centerpiece components to supplement your own supplies. I've found tons of great stuff at such places.

Guest's picture
Pablo

As a former sous chef from what seems to be a lifetime ago, I wish you worked with me on my private catering gigs I used to get hired for on the intracoastal waterways of So. Fla. Themes, appetizers and drinks set the tone for an amazing evening with friends, family and most importantly, good times. Using what you've got is where the penny pinching flows over to better ingredients for your main dishes and desserts.

Love the Facebook event idea rather boring and over-priced invitations.

Good Stuff Janey! Can I be invited to your next dinner party?

Guest's picture

I'm definitely going to have to keep all this in mind, for my next dinner party. I usually try to keep things on the cheaper side when I prepare meals, especially since I've been throwing a bunch of money into some websites, so this is definitely good to know :)