After the holidays it's easy to feel a bit tuckered out on the entertaining front. Maybe you're paying down your credit cards, maybe you're still sweeping up pine needles from the corner where the tree sat, or maybe you're just enjoying a little peace and quiet at home while you can. All of that being said, jumping into a winter dinner party can be a nice way to reconnect with friends — and it doesn't have to be a pricey endeavor.
Here are three ways I've learned to host a nice dinner with friends, and still stay within my budget.
1. Choose a Vegetarian Main Course.
Now I may be biased as I was a vegetarian for many, many years and — in truth — I am kind of lousy at cooking meat. But despite that, I can tell you that more often than not, cooking vegetarian is cheaper. This doesn't mean you're relegated to tofu curry dinner parties for the rest of your life, nor does it mean you should go all vegetarian (unless you have a crowd that would dictate as much); I'll usually supplement the main vegetarian dish with a bunch of cheese and salami and olives.
It's really about saving a little where you can and realizing that guests often don't even miss the meat. Plus it's a chance to show off the delights of vegetables in new ways. I'm a big fan of hearty soup dinner parties, or making a big pan of lasagna or enchiladas and a big seasonal salad.
2. Say, "Yes, You Can Bring Something!"
Obviously turning a gathering into a potluck meal would make a dinner party cheaper, but that's not quite what I'm getting at here. Whenever friends ask what they can bring, I generally just respond by telling them to bring themselves or perhaps something they'd like to drink. I often feel like giving them something specific to bring can be a bit of a bother, and no one genuinely wants to anyway — they're often just being polite.
But more and more, I've started responding by asking friends to bring something specific that would help me out a great deal and that they're also excited about. Cheese-loving friend? Ask her to bring a cheese she's been excited about to serve during cocktail hour. Friend who lives by a great new bakery? A loaf of bread or ciabatta is almost always a great supplement. We have a friend who is really into home-brewing, so he always brings along some beers to try.
People are often happy to share and help when it comes to something they're particularly excited about. Tap into that.
3. Think Seasonally.
In many ways, this has become a bit of a cliché these days, but there's a reason so many of my favorite cookbooks and restaurants focus on seasonal menus and recipes: food tastes better when it's in season, and it's often cheaper. Farmers markets can be a good bet as can seasonal specials at your favorite grocery store. Right now kale and cabbage are cheaper here in Seattle than they are in June — and they taste better too.