8 expert tips for thrifty-yet-nifty holiday entertaining

Need to party on a budget this year? Two professional caterers tell you how to entertain in style without spending much.

By Nancy Fornasiero

Thrifty entertaining: Timing, more vegetables and adapting old recipes
Whether a cocktail party, an open house, or a lavish buffet, many Canadians are in the habit of hosting an annual event during the holiday season. But if you've tightened your belt this year, you might be wondering if you should forgo throwing your usual bash. While it may not be wise to bump up the guest list or to add a caviar station, spreading holiday cheer to each of your loved ones is still a must.

The answer isn't to scrap your fete -- it's to tweak it to fit a budget. To show you how, we’ve consulted two experienced caterers: Susan Mendelson of Vancouver's The Lazy Gourmet and Teri Cordileone of Toronto's Three's Company Catering. Their professional tips will keep your entertaining spending to a minimum -- and best of all, they show you how to do it without sacrificing style or hospitality. Your guests will be none the wiser!

1. Set a game time
Parties than run on until all hours can get expensive for the host. Teri recommends putting a specific time limit on your event: "Invite people over and give them parameters, like 'Join us for a glass of wine and some cheese from 8 to 11 pm.'"

2. Hit the produce aisle
"Vegetarian dishes are a great way to make a little money go a long way," advises Teri. Exotic flavourings and interesting presentations keep inexpensive vegetable-based dishes from appearing downscale. Susan agrees: "We love to make a hot soup, such as our Roasted Tomato and Fennel Soup, and serve it in demitasse or sake cups." She also favours nutmeg and mint-enhanced Spanakopita logs, which are quite inexpensive although they "look like an upscale hors d'oeuvre."

3. The earlier, the better
Consider moving your usual evening event up to an earlier time. As a professional caterer, Teri has observed that "at afternoon get-togethers, guests consume less food and beverages."

4. Modify your old stand-bys
Susan warns that serving less food might result in "guests leaving hungry," and yet you don't want to resort to using low-quality foods either. The compromise? Adapt your usual offerings into less costly versions. For example, Teri says, "Instead of doing a very expensive cheese tray, do a couple of Baked Bries with Pecans and Cranberries served with lots of breads and crackers." (Susan also likes this strategy and recommends a large grocery wholesaler -- such as Costco -- for the best prices on cheese.)

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