How To Have A Dinner Party Without Blowing Your Budget

You’ve invited your friends around for dinner, because you’re a grown up that way.

Despite your previous cooking experience (limited) you’ve decided to cook something fancy. Your grocery bill is in the triple digits with produce not in season; your kitchen is covered in some unidentifiable sauce and you spend the bulk of your dinner party in the kitchen, sautéing things.

That’s what we call a rookie error. The good news is dinner parties don’t have to be an expensive disaster. They can be a great way to save money on eating out, while learning a few new recipes along the way. The Cusp spoke with two experts to find out how to plan a fabulous dinner party on a budget.

“Dinner Parties are just an excuse for a few friends to come together for a nice home-cooked meal. If you have the right people there, it really doesn’t matter what the food is like. Your guests remember that they had a great time, not that your Duck a l’Orange was dry,” says Alexandria Blaelock, author of Stress Free Dinner Parties.

So how do you give your guests a good time and a tasty meal without breaking the bank?

Have a plan

First up, decide on what sort of food you want to cook.

“This is a great place to start, because a happy and inspired cook makes a delicious meal,” says Linda Ellis, founder of catering company Lunch Lady Lou.

You can start with a cuisine or a theme (think Mexican, Thai, Chinese) and work out your menu from there.

“Find your meat/protein dish and the rest will flow from there. Think about
something on arrival (everyone loves a good cheese plate, dip and cracker) but it’s not the only way to feed people on arrival,” says Linda.

An entrée isn’t always necessary if you’ve provided decent arrival snacks, so you could skip that and focus on a main and dessert.

Know your kitchen basics

There’s nothing worse than having six of your nearest and dearest over only to discover you grossly underestimated how much chicken you need.

“Approximately 150 grams of raw meat is plenty (per person)…so that’s approximately one kilo of meat for a group of six. Add a little bit extra just in case and depending what cut of meat you buy, you’re looking at around $25 – $30 for meat for six people with some leftovers,” says Linda.

“To help with your planning, a good thing to do is to imagine everything on a plate. Realistically, one plate of food is plenty! We seem to think our guests will be bottomless pits when they visit our house for dinner – but they rarely are and this can only lead to food comas, food babies and no post dinner dance floor,” she says.

You don’t need to be a culinary expert with all the latest gadgets to create a delicious meal, but a few basics will help.

Investing in a slow cooker opens up a whole world of possibilities when cooking cheap cuts of meat and a good blender can help with dressings, dips or even soups.

It’s also worth investing in a good chef’s knife.

“A good knife makes food preparation easier, and chef’s knives are suitable for all kinds of kitchen cutting. Get one that has a good weight in your hand, and don’t be afraid to go to a restaurant supply shop and ask for help,” Alexandria says.

Grocery shop wisely

Grocery shopping can hit your wallet hard, but not with a bit of prior planning.

Alexandria recommends staying away from the big chain supermarkets entirely.

“Fresh seasonal produce from a Farmer’s Market is the best anytime because you’re buying direct from the producer and eliminating the warehouse and supermarket logistics. It doesn’t always look as pretty, but it always tastes better,” she says.

Only buy produce that’s in season and consider cheaper cuts of meat you can throw into a slow cooker. Linda suggests ox tail, chuck or blade steak, lamb legs and chicken legs or thighs.

Don’t be afraid of making things from scratch.

“Salad dressings, dips and crackers are all expensive (and not so healthy) to buy, but super simple to make. Dips can be made so simply by roasting a few veggies and blending with some extra virgin olive oil, a quarter of a cup nuts or seeds, half a squeezed lemon, some garlic, salt and pepper,” says Linda.

Keep it simple

The lobster thermidor may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but simple foods can be just as impressive and enable you to actually mingle with your guests rather than being stuck in a kitchen.

“Most people think of grand meals like Titanic first class, but the ship had third class too, and they had soup with roast beef and plum pudding,” Alexandria says.

Sticking to tried and true recipes is a good idea and will keep your stress levels low.

“The best dinner party meals are a mix of things you can put together at the last minute (e.g., a small salad), things that cook for a long time (e.g. roasts or casseroles), and things you prepare ahead” she says.

“Don’t underestimate the power of a simple roast chicken,” says Linda. “Your guests are there to hang with you, cooking simple food will give you the flexibility to hang with them too, instead of being tied to the stove for most of the night.”

The most important thing is to make sure you enjoy yourself and don’t worry about impressing people.

“A dinner party is just an excuse to cook a meal for your friends. It doesn’t have to be fancy, or difficult, or even Master Chef,” Alexandria says.

“It can be as simple as fairy bread and milkshakes. The main thing is to spend quality time with people you love.”

Elizabeth Pratt is a journalist and blogger based in Sydney. When she’s not working, you’ll find her relaxing in her yellow arm chair and dreaming about her next trip overseas.

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