Surviving the Holiday Season: Entertaining (and Being Entertained) on a Budget
With the holiday season upon us, invitations to dinner parties – and expectations of reciprocating invitations – are on the increase. You bring a nice bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers (or even a Christmas present for closer acquaintances) to every home you visit. And you whip up a marvelous meal for those who visit you. Before you know it – without even starting your Christmas shopping, you have blown your holiday budget.
So how do you navigate this season of dinner parties and other seasonal cultural expectations without going broke at the end of the day? The answer to this question is as much a mystery to me as it is to anybody else. But here are a few ideas:
Gifts for your Host
Common etiquette prescribes that we bring along a gift when invited over for dinner (or lunch, or tea, or whatever). But what to bring?
Scrap the Flowers
Cut flowers are pretty and all, but they don’t last, they shed petals and pollen everywhere, and are bloody expensive to buy. Your host will appreciate them for about the first two days and then it will just be more of a nuisance than anything else. Save your budget – and think of something else to bring along as a gift.
If you insist on bringing something living, a potted plant can sometimes be a better bet, less expensive, and will last longer. This is ideal if you know your host enjoys cultivating plants, and may even wish to transplant it to their garden.
Know Your Wine
If you don’t know your wine, and/or your host does, your attempt to be budget friendly by buying the cheap stuff will be foiled and tacky. But how much do you spend on a bottle? This largely depends on the circles of friends you keep. I believe that a $15 bottle would be more than acceptable for most people. It still ain’t cheap, but it’s a quick fix for a last minute invitation.
And what about the wine bags, which add an extra few bucks to the price tag? Unless you have a stack saved from bottles previously given to you, do your wallet – and the environment – a favor and find alternate forms of wrapping up your bottle if you must wrap it at all.
Wildly popular during holiday time are home-baked goods and other candies. These are often a good bet, most people love them (even if they’re on a diet – it is the holiday season after all), and it shows that personal touch which goes a long way beyond even pricier store-bought gifts. The down side? You have to bake. Hopefully you’re good at it.
For a twist on bringing bad-for-you cookies and cakes, you could bake a loaf of bread instead (made fancy with nice herbs or other flavors), or even concoct a cream cheese dip from scratch. Try this one: whip up some plain cream cheese with a little lime juice, add green onions or chives, then spread it in a (recycled) plastic container (the kind you get from the deli). Top it with sweet chili sauce, and you have a dip that will make you a hit at parties for a fraction of what you would pay to buy the manufactured stuff.
Don’t know what to get the host with the most? Join the club. Stop guessing and simply get (or even better – make yourself) something consumable. Do you have an herb and flower garden that is on its last legs? Make a dried loose leaf tea mix and give it to them in a nice bottle with a tea strainer (both purchased at a dollar store or equivalent). Can’t cook to save your life? Then make up a gift basket if you must. Fill it with inexpensive but nice staples and wrap it up nicely. The basket and bows can be purchased at the dollar store, and the contents don’t have to be extravagant. A total purchase price can even be under $10 if you’re smart about it and your host will appreciate this creative grab bag of goodies. They may even be able to turn around and serve those crackers you gave them at their next dinner party.
This is where being budget minded can get a little more tricky. You want to put on a good show – crackers and cheese (and wine) to start, then a two or three course meal (with more wine), and all of a sudden you spent the entire day in the kitchen, spent a small fortune on ingredients, and have one hell of a mess to clean up. Sounds like enough to turn your stomach from entertaining any day. A few tips to reduce your cost and burden:
Buying just two or three nice cheeses and crackers could cost you $20 if you aren’t careful, and you haven’t even touched upon the drinks or the actual meal to be served. Instead, placing out a bowl of nuts (bought in the bulk section – they’re cheaper) can whet the appetite just as well. Serve the kind of nuts that need shelling (like pistachios or even walnuts for a treat), and your guests will be nicely occupied and won’t fill up on the pre-dinner stuff.
Unless you keep company with high-brow folks (in which case you will always have a problem satisfying both your budget and your friends) your guests won’t be horribly offended if you skip the appetizer course altogether. Go straight to dinner if you can. Otherwise, choose ingredients you can whip together easily and inexpensively.
Done Like Dinner
Pasta is always a great bet for a budget-friendly main course: it fills your guests up, is inexpensive, and can be presented in a very luxurious manner.
Unlike appetizers, rarely can you skip serving dessert without at least a few raised eyebrows. Baking something yourself is usually the least expensive and shows the most care and personal flair.
Serving drinks all night is where you can end up spending the most money. Stocking up with wine, beer, and other beverages in an attempt to anticipate what your guests might like will fill your fridge, but empty your wallet. Get a bottle of wine to serve with dinner, and stick to non-alcoholic drinks for the rest of the occasion. Before dinner, you can prepare a non-alcoholic cocktail of various fruit juices and soda water for fizz. Serve it up in a big punch bowl with lots of ice and nobody will notice the lack of alcohol and will come back for seconds and thirds. Tea or coffee after dinner is the perfect way to compliment dessert, cap off the night, and stop the drinking in its tracks. This is also good protocol for guests who have to drive home…
This is a simple collection of ideas on how to keep your holiday entertaining budget to a minimum. But we want to hear from you! What are your tips, techniques, and recipes for getting through the holiday entertaining season financially unscathed?