Throwing a party can be exciting, stressful, fun, and exhausting. Add in the desire to host a party in which you serve health-conscious food, and you’re also talking quite expensive, right? The notion that serving health-conscious food is cost-prohibitive is quite common, then throw in words like “organic,” “nitrate-free,” “local & artisanal,” and people can’t help but think of party-budget suicide. But as I demonstrated with my son’s 1st birthday party back in August, throwing a party in which you serve health-conscious, sustainable and organic food on a budget is possible, and I was determined to repeat my past successes with the adults-only holiday party we hosted this past weekend. In the end, I achieved my goal of serving food I could feel good about, but also pleased my guests, and staying within what I considered to be a reasonable budget of $300, including alcohol. In the end, I spent under $300 to entertain a group of almost 50 guests. While $300 may seem like a lot of cash, it averaged out to less than $6.50 per person. You can’t even buy yourself a cheap glass of Chardonnay at the local bar for that. Read on for the details of our holiday soiree.
For Your Menu, Use What You Already Have 1 of 10
Pre-party menu planning is quite common and something I've done for years before hosting a party. However, this year, I did something I've never done before, and that was plan my menu based off food I already had on hand, to get the most bang for my buck. Once a month I get a huge CSA delivery, which includes 3 large boxes of local, organic fruits and veggies. It was pure coincidence that the timing of my monthly CSA delivery happened during the week of our party, but I took it as a sign to plan around the boxes of fresh fruits and veggies.
So the eggplant and red pepper turned into a dip, I made crostinis out of the butternut squash and kale, a crudite platter with the lovely beans and carrots, a clementine salad, and pesto pasta using the spinach and pasta I already had on hand. Of course there were a few other menu items added to fill in the holes, but a vast majority of the food I served featured the CSA items I had sitting in my fridge already.
Tip: While some areas of the country aren't lucky enough to have fresh seasonal veggies available in the winter time (I live in Southern California), or would cost a fortune to buy, you can still shop your own pantry and get creative with items you already have on hand, including grains and pastas, frozen vegetables and canned soups or seafood items like tuna and salmon.
Make Your Own Dipping Sauces 2 of 10
Fancy and exotic dips and sauces cost a fortune, and considering you can make your own, often for pennies on the dollar, DIYing is the way to go. This allows you to save money and control the type of ingredients you use. Plus, you can make most dips days in advance, and they usually only taste better after sitting for a couple of days, letting the flavors all meld together. I made Gwyneth's Old Bay Ranch Dressing for the first time, and it was a huge success, plus I had the very short list of ingredients already on hand, so it really didn't cost me any additional funds.
Tip: You only need 2 dips for a party; 1 that tastes great with bread and crackers, and 1 that is great for your fresh vegetable platter. The accompanying dip to the Old Bay Ranch dip was Ina's Roasted Eggplant & Red Pepper dip, which tasted amazing on some crusty french bread.
Serve a Signature Cocktail 3 of 10
I used to think party hosts made a "signature cocktail" because they were trying to be fancy, but now I know the real reason for the pre-mixed drinks — it's a huge way to save money! Pre-mixed cocktails allow you to control the ingredients and portions, limits messes from buzz-happy guests who sloppily make their own drinks, and end up being much cheaper in the long run. For our party I made a rosemary and cranberry sangria, and the only alcohol used was 2 bottles of Pinot Grigio, and an apple cider margarita, which used triple sec and tequila. In the past I've put out a full bar, only to find drinks get wasted, and, therefore, money wasted.
Tip: Besides your signature cocktail(s), serve a small selection of beer and wine, but don't purchase a huge amount. With holiday parties especially, guests often bring bottles of wine or nice alcohol as a hostess gift. If you're looking to enjoy the gifts and save money, you can just open up those bottles if you run out.
Prep Your Space 4 of 10
When hosting a party, I recently began setting the serving area a day in advance, not only to save some time the day of the party, but to also make sure I wasn't preparing too many or too few dishes. As it turned out with this party, I got a bit too ambitious with my menu planning and discovered I didn't even have enough space to place all the appetizers I planned on making, nor did I have enough serving platters. So I scaled back, increased quantities of the items on the menu, and saved some time and money for myself in the process.
Tip: Try to plan out your party space and serving area at least 24 hours in advance so you have enough time to edit the menu if need be.
Go Vegetarian for the Night 5 of 10
Meat is pricey, especially if you plan to go the organic/humane route. So get creative, and come up with vegetarian menu items that can still be filling and satisfying but will save you money in the long run. I made these amazing little quinoa bites that not only looked impressive but filled up my guests because quinoa is such a great source of protein. They were also easy to reheat and tasted great when dipped in the Old Bay Ranch Dressing.
Tip: Choose at least 1-2 menu items that can be hearty enough to take the place of a meat item. This will usually mean some sort of a grain or rice dish, or a carbohydrate.
Have Filling Munchies on Hand 6 of 10
Raw nuts, fancy olives fresh from the olive bar, dried fruits that can be purchased in the bulk aisle, and finger fruits that are in-season and/or on sale are wonderful ways to fill up the table and round out the offering in an affordable way. They're also incredibly easy to toss out and refill during a party as need be.
Tip: Grocery stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods have an extensive bulk-foods aisle that allow you to customize your "filler" snack items, and are often much cheaper than their packaged counterparts since the producer is saving money on packaging.
Offer Nontraditional Veggies 7 of 10
If you observe the usual veggie tray offering at any grocery store or party, it usually always contains the standard 4 vegetables, consisting of carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes and broccoli. But don't be afraid to buck tradition and serve either what you have on hand, what is in season or on sale at the store. My vegetable platter included zucchini, yellow wax beans, some asparagus and small carrots, stems included. Not your normal crudites fair, but still pretty and delicious and saved me money by not having to buy another single vegetable.
Tip: Blanch veggies if needed, and slice and peel first thing in the morning, and place in a storage bag with a small bit of water, inside the fridge. This will keep the veggies super fresh and crisp, and leave you a little more prepared. Slicing and dicing as guests are coming is one of the most frazzling things you can do as the host.
Crostinis Are The Perfect Party Appetizer 8 of 10
My menu included 3 different types of crostins; roasted butternut squash & parmesan, fig jam & apple slices, and kale & ricotta. Crostinis are great party appetizers because they are relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare as long as you keep the ingredients simple (the main ingredient for them all is the baguette!). They are also something you can get help with as guests come strolling in. Some friends and guests seem to enjoy helping the host in the kitchen, so I assign the simple task of spreading on the fig jam, or placing the little slice of parmesan on top of each dollop of squash.
Tip: Slice the baguette, and spread a bit of olive oil on each piece of bread ahead of time. When guests arrive, you can pop them in the oven, then layer on your toppings just as the party gets started.
Some Splurges Are Definitely Worthy 9 of 10
Because I had done so well in my menu planning and budgeting, the morning of the party I decided to splurge on a few cheeses from my favorite local cheese shop. As I tasted the delectable brie and the regional coconut flavored gouda, I was quite thankful I had skimped and saved on other areas, so I could splurge on one of my favorite indulgences.
Tip: Whether your indulgence is a fancy dessert or a lovely pot of meatballs, stick to your budget in certain areas so you can feel a little less guilty splurging in other areas.
Drinks As Desserts 10 of 10
To save myself some time in the kitchen and some money on fancy desserts, I ordered 2 small cakes from a local bakery which were very affordable, and I then set up a "dessert drink station" to supplement. I made my own hot chocolate mix, which cost less than $6 even using organic powdered milk, and bought some amazing local egg nog directly from the dairy, which saved me over $2 a bottle. By making the drink station fun and interactive, guests got involved and interested in making their own drinks. Overall, it was a really special touch I'm glad I pulled together.