When you are trying to reduce your food budget, being a magnanimous host can really throw a wrench into your plans. But does that mean that frugality is incompatible with the mitzvah of hachnasat orachim (welcoming guests)? Absolutely not! Here are eight ways our family still enjoys hosting without blowing our budget.
1. Plan in advance – At least for me, the surest way to overspend is to leave my menu planning to last minute. Whether I’m cooking a four-course meal or just setting out finger foods, I can seriously reduce our costs (and my workload) by making a plan several days to a few weeks in advance. The master plan for your next “event” should include food, drink, decorations, and a guest list. (For an example of how I approach the planning, check out my Planning for the Chagim series.)
2. Make a detailed shopping list – This is a natural extension from #1. As soon as I finish my master plan, I set out to make a detailed shopping list, which I divide into columns. If I know that the best price on eggs, for example, is at Costco, then I add it to my Costco list. I always have an extra column for items that I want to check in the circulars for. Again, the farther in advance I plan, the more opportunity I have to get the best deal without making myself totally nuts.
3. Shop online – If I need extra lighting, decorations or even specialty food items, I love to comparison shop online. This also applies if I need a gift for the event (say my husband’s birthday). The beauty of shopping online is two-fold for me — (1) I can fairly quickly and easily comparison shop so I know I’m getting the best prices and (2) I can avoid going into stores, where I’m much more likely to impulse shop. (For more tips on saving money when shopping online, check out this post from a while ago.)
4. Don’t use paper products – Don’t get me wrong, there are many occasions when I do use paper, particularly if we’re going to be eating outside (or if there are too many people coming to use my set of 12). BUT using my regular dishes easily saves me $5-10, so I try to use them as much as possible. After all, if I’m thinking logically (not lazily), I’d much rather have $10 to spend on quality food than on paper plates I’m just going to toss out. Not to mention that it’s better for the environment!
5. Focus on quality not quantity - I feel like serving a million different dishes is hardwired into my brain. Even when I’m consciously trying to change that tendency, I still find myself whipping up an extra side dish at the last minute because I’m worried that there won’t be enough options. I’m working hard, though, on choosing frugal, filling foods rather than a multitude of more costly and time-consuming items.
6. Serve water — Soda, juice, and alcohol are all extremely expensive. Unless you get them free or practically free with coupons and sales, I really recommend sticking to (tap) water for all your parties and meals. That said, there are parties that just sort of “call” for something more than H2O. Last year, my family hosted a Lag B’Omer bonfire in our backyard. We had a chest filled with sodas for the grownups and juice boxes for the kids. (We debated beer, but figured alcohol + fire + darkness + 50 little kids = not a good plan). We got the juice for a bargain at Aldi and used our soda stockpile from great deals at Target and CVS.
7. Invest in reusable decor — Flowers, streamers, balloons, etc. are all pretty costly as far as decorations go. Especially when you consider that you’re just going to end up throwing them out at the end of the day. A few years ago, I made up a birthday bunting, which we hang whenever someone in the family has a birthday. It’s pretty much our only bday decor, unless the kids feel like making something in arts & crafts. For adult gatherings and yom tov/Shabbat meals, I love flowers. And when I lived in Israel, and could get a dozen roses for $2.50, we had them often. Here, however, flowers are really expensive and we tend to save them for very special occasions. Instead, I cut from our garden or use perennials, like garden mums, which I can plant later.
(P.S. The balloon in the above picture was free from Toys R Us. My husband registered our kids in their birthday club, and for N’s first birthday, she got a free Thomas engine and that cute helium balloon. Oh, and the gifts are wrapped in dyed-at-home silk scarves that get used for a multitude of purposes, including totally free gift wrapping!)
8. “Do” brunch – If you’re hosting a Shabbat or Yom Tov meal, there’s obviously not much you can do with this tip, but for other occasions, you might want to consider hosting it at brunch time. The food is less costly, and you can more easily get away without serving (expensive) alcohol. Brew up a pot of coffee, whip up a few kugels (I’m partial to my peach noodle kugel), quiches or bread pudding, and chop up a fruit salad. Voila — a lovely brunch party for a third of the cost of a similar dinner affair. (By the way, brunch weddings are apparently coming into vogue, probably for this very reason. I know a lot of Israelis are jumping on the bandwagon with Friday morning weddings.)
I’m sure my readers have plenty of tips up their sleeves, so tell me: How do you keep the cost of hosting to a minimum while still having the “maximum” impact? Where do you scale back — and where do you splurge?