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.)
Page 1 of 2 -- Keep your holiday party fun but practical with four more thrifty hosting tips on page 2If you'd normally serve a whole salmon, Teri suggests "doing up some canapés with smoked salmon as a garnish" instead.
As for party nibbles, Susan’s tip is to "serve peanuts and add your own spices, or make them candied in the oven." Nobody will notice that the pricey mixed nuts were swapped out for inexpensive peanuts. She also recommends an alternative to the high-priced, winter fruit plate: "Just pick up a box of mandarin oranges in bulk. People love them; they're so festive!"
5. Skip the open bar
"You don't have to have an extravagant fully stocked bar," stresses Susan. "Have wine and beer and one or two signature drinks. Try a cold sangria (limit the fruit, or use some canned fruit to reduce the cost), or a hot mulled wine or cider." Teri concurs with this advice and adds that you should also "offer some great tasting bubbly waters that look great in a wine glass."
6. Minimize seafood and red meat dishes
"Seafood dishes are expensive so we stay away from those when planning a tight budget party," says Teri. Beef and specialty meats like prosciutto can also be costly. For her lower-cost menus, Teri tends to use "lots of dressed-up chicken dishes;" yet, she's quick to point out that they are so delicious that they're often asked for on other occasions where budget isn't an issue. Susan also believes that a great menu can be created without focusing on high-end items. "People just love food! Nobody will judge you if you use less expensive ingredients. It’s how they’re used that counts."
7. Plan, plan, plan
Susan feels the most important thing you can do to stay on budget is to be prepared in advance. "Plan ahead as much as possible and freeze what you can. If you're panicked at the last moment, you'll spend more money on whatever is available." With a plan in place ahead of time, you'll also be more likely to find ingredients on sale.
8. Keep it relaxed
Remember that these people are your friends, and they'll be delighted with your hospitality no matter how it's served up. As Teri points out: "Friends understand the reality of the season and given the economic situation, I don't think anyone really expects the lavish parties of old. Keep the get-togethers casual, prepare one or two fabulous things, and enjoy your guests!"
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