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In college, my friends and I always got together for a home-cooked meal once a week. It was our way of taking a break from campus food.
Plus we got to test our culinary skills.
But, since we were all living on a college student budget, we had to learn to cook for a large crowd at a cheap price. Without sacrificing the quality of the food.
As a result, we learned how to be the perfect, but cheap hosts and hostesses. Being cheap isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, I think being able to save money and host a great dinner party is a useful skill to have. If you are curious to see how it can be done, keep reading.
1. The Decor
A fancy or special dinner wouldn’t be complete without the right decor. How you set up your space will set the mood for the evening.
A casual barbecue is very different from a chic Italian themed meal. While one can get away with paper plates, the other cannot.
The first thing you’ll need as a dinner host is a dining table and chairs. Find something that fits your needs. Will you host large gatherings or small, intimate dinners?
Check out Craigslist for nice sets at a good price if you need them. If you already have a dining room set, then make it work and don’t waste money buying something bigger or new.
If you need extra chairs or seating, see if friends will let you borrow something for an evening.
For anyone planning to be a regular dinner host, you will need to invest in some dinnerware and drinkware that can be used every time.
When I say invest, I don’t mean you actually need to splurge on anything expensive. In fact, I advise against it.
Instead head to a thrift store or vintage consignment shop.
At a thrift store you can find whole dining sets that haven’t been used. Or you can mix and match your glassware and plates. If it’s not chipped or broken, then snag it.
Get creative and go on Pinterest to see how you can make a mix of things look fancy instead of like the thrift store goods that they are.
If vintage is more your style, pursue your local consignment shops. There you can score sweet items like brass serving platters, wooden salad bowls, and even stone plates.
While there, you should also look for napkins. Linen napkins are a must have for any dinner party. A table cloth is another nice thing to have, especially if your table isn’t much to look at.
You should also keep an eye out for nice wine glass or cool goblets that can serve as wine or beer glasses.
Your final piece of decor should be a nice vase that you can use as a centerpiece for flowers if you want to use them.
Or get creative and fill your vase with different rocks and a few twigs or leaves from your neighborhood. Check this out for inspiration.
Candle holders are another decorative item you could use. These are generally sold in pairs at a really cheap price. Because who uses candle holders any more?
Mix and match tall and short candles in these to make the table setting unique.
Or you can skip the table decorations and just use your food as a centerpiece and serve the meal family style. This is when nice serving platters come in handy.
2. The Drinks
I’m pretty sure guests look forward to the alcohol served at a dinner party just as much as they anticipate the food.
Serving alcohol isn’t mandatory at dinner, but for many it is an expectation, unless you’re hosting a strict group of abstainers.
When offering beverages to your guests you need to consider your audience. Do you need wine, beer, liquor or a mix of everything?
But, since you are the host, what you serve in the end is up to you and if you want to throw out a bottle of red and white only, then the beer drinkers will just have to accept that.
To be honest, alcohol is where I tend to splurge more than on actual food. I can control whether my food tastes good or bad. I can’t doctor up a cheap, bad bottle of wine.
There are some good cheap wines out there, Trader Joe’s offers several, but if you can, try to keep your bottle price between $8 and $12.
If you aren’t sure about a bottle of wine, check out the Vivino app. This nifty app not only lets you know the average price of the bottle (so you can shop around), but it also gives a rating on the quality of the wine.
I stick with wines averaging 3 stars and higher. The app also has a shop, so you can find wines that you like and purchase directly through the app at a reasonable price.
If you’re serving beer, get a case of something that’s light and easy to drink and generally appeals to most palates like Corona or Miller Lite.
And if you plan on serving liquor, instead of letting your guests run amok in your liquor cabinet, opt to serve a signature cocktail instead, like a Mojito or Moscow Mule.
A signature cocktail makes the evening a bit more fun, helps you budget for the cost of alcohol or the evening, and ensures that you aren’t completely depleted of booze at the end of the night.
3. The Food
Now that you’ve set the tone for the evening, it is time to move on to the most important part of hosting a dinner party. The food.
While your friends and family may not remember how you set the table, they will most definitely remember the food that is served. I mean, how many good or bad meals do you remember?
Since dinner is the most important aspect of the evening, you will want to keep everything nice and simple. Simple meals are often the most enjoyed and the less strenuous in the kitchen.
When preparing for the evening ahead, make a menu in advance and break it down by appetizers, a main course and dessert. A true dinner party will have all three options.
For the really budget conscious just offering a main course is perfectly fine. I often did that in college and saved the larger meal for special occasions.
Appetizers are a dinner host’s best friend, especially if things are running behind schedule.
When people show up at your house hungry, the first thing they look for is something to nosh on…after getting a drink of course.
An economical appetizer that everyone can enjoy (except the gluten intolerant) is warm French bread and butter or toasted foccaccia bread and herbed olive oil.
Other cheap appetizer ideas include meatballs, cheese dip and crackers, or even sliced veggies and hummus.
Trader Joe’s makes wonderful frozen items like dumplings, meatballs, and mini quiches that are delicious and work perfectly as pre-meal bites.
Keep in mind that you want appetizers to be satisfying, but not overly filling, so don’t offer too much or too many different options.
When deciding on the main course for the night, you should plan your menu around whatever sales are happening at the grocery store that week.
If chicken is buy one, get one free then serve chicken that evening. If ground beef is on sale, see how you can turn that into a filling and yummy meal.
The same goes for vegetables and any starches you plan on serving. Make those sales work in your favor.
Feel free to shop around at different grocery stores too. You may find it cheaper to get your meat at one store and your produce at another.
If you need more frugal meal ideas, check out this article here.
I’ll admit I don’t always serve dessert and that’s mainly because I’m not very good at preparing desserts.
When I host I prefer to make everything from scratch and there are only a few dessert options in my arsenal of skills.
I don’t think dessert is always needed, at least I don’t believe it has to be anything fancy. Sometimes something like a bowl of fresh seasonal fruit is the perfect end to the evening.
You may have guests that disagree and expect something sweet at the end of the night. It’s totally okay to buy premade cookies or brownies from your store’s bakery.
To jazz up a simple cookie, you can serve it with a side of vanilla ice cream. Or pick up a pie and pair it with whipped cream and decaf coffee.
Keep dessert minimal and super basic as this is usually skipped over by a lot of people.
4. Share the Work
I mentioned that I got into hosting dinner in college. And while I was able to keep meals within my budget, I was also able to share the work from time to time.
This means it’s totally okay to host something like a potluck where your guests bring food with them. Since you’re providing the space, you can skip making a dish and offer just to cover drinks.
Or if you don’t want to do a potluck, you can have friends throw a little cash your way if you regularly host dinner engagements.
I had friends who would buy all the ingredients and my only job was to make something delicious and set the table.
Don’t be afraid to speak up if the weekly, biweekly or monthly dinner parties are getting too expensive for you.
Your friends and family should be willing to help out, especially if they enjoy the meals you make and the chance to hang out on a consistent basis.
If no one is coughing up any cash, limit your dinner parties to every few months or when you know your finances can handle the strain of feeding a few extra people.
5. Bonus Tips
I want to throw a few extra tidbits out there. I think having friends or family over for a meal is fun and should remain that way.
There are no rules to what you have to serve or how. Plus, there are ways you can benefit from hosting too.
When putting together your menu keep a few of these things in mind:
- Soup is a totally acceptable dinner meal.
- Appetizers and dessert are nice bonus features but not absolutely necessary.
- If serving alcohol, it’s okay to offer water as the only other beverage. Don’t waste money on sodas or juices.
- You don’t have to host dinner, serving breakfast, brunch or lunch can be a lot cheaper and easier too!
- Since you’re grocery shopping anyway, take advantage of grocery apps so that you can get cashback:
Hopefully, after reading this, you can see that it’s definitely possible to be a perfect, but cheap host or hostess.
Being on a budget doesn’t mean your social engagements have to be any less fun. In fact, I think making dinner is often more fun than meeting friends out for dinner.
If you regularly have friends over for a meal, share your money saving hacks in the comments below.
Thanks for reading! Now go eat, drink and be merry!