8 Tips for the Frugal Hostess (or Host)

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.

birthday bunting

The night before my daughter's 1st birthday

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?


  1. Oh my, Mara, you’ve been so busy! So many exciting things going on at KOAB.

    I definitely have problems with #5 myself – my mom and gradmothers always have fifteen dishes on the table so I feel like my five are sad and lonely. But the truth is, I never have time to make more, so the tendency to make tons of different dishes is sort of self-limiting. My own frugal tips are to keep parties small (not leaving anyone out of course, but I like having a small crowd) and to fold up decorations carefully. We bought some party decorations for my son’s first birthday and they’ve lasted and kept looking cute. Although I would love to add a banner like yours to them! You are going to tell us how you made it, right?

    • Thanks for your sweet comment. I hadn’t even thought about a tutorial, but I totally will do that! Thanks for asking. I also made each of the kids birthday crowns out of felt (ala Amanda Soule, but obviously nowhere even close to her level of crafty perfection –> for anyone who doesn’t know soulemama, prepare to lose about, oh, 4 hours of your day once you click on that link. She is INCREDIBLE.) Anyway, I put on my calendar a reminder to do a little tutorial – ha ha, as if I could tutor anyone in craftiness — on both the bunting and the crowns. If I can do it, anyone can!!!

  2. I love your birthday banner. You are inspiring me to make something like that. I also wish my kitchen were so neat :>)

    We host frequently. Our strengths are that we make things from simple ingredients. For instance I never buy salad dressing. We simply dress our salads with olive oil and vinegar, a little salt and pepper. We also do not buy bbq sauce. We make it from molasses, ketchup, and the oodles of half used mustard in the refrigerator door. BBq never tastes the same at our house twice AND the refrigerator gets cleaned out. This is perfect to do as part of Passover cleaning. I just cannot bring myself to buy all those highly priced little bottles of specialty sauces.

    Cooking is really chemistry in the kitchen. So we keep that in mind and don’t feel completely stressed to run out and buy an ingredient simply because a recipe calls for it. As much as I try to make my detailed list and get my shopping done I always find I am missing something when I am cooking late on Thursday night (or worse Friday afternoon). It is not until I realize I am out of eggs that I go into melt-down mode.

    Another secret: I pick up a pineapple at Costco every single week. I keep a bag of frozen mixed berries stocked in the freezer. We always have fresh fruit in house (2 oranges are my preference). With that, I can whip up a gluten free dessert in a moment. So if the dessert gets made – great, and if not we can always rely on my standard fruit salad. Which leftovers make a great breakfast on Sunday morning with a little plain yogurt.

    Our other big savings is that we usually only buy whole birds and cut them up ourselves. We save so much per pound having that skill. We also limit our meat eating to pretty much Shabbat only. Otherwise we eat lots of legumes and fresh veggies (they can be pricey still.

    • I wish my kitchen was that neat right now, too 😉 We love our bunting. It really didn’t take too much effort and then it makes me smile every time there’s a birthday in the house 🙂

  3. PS…For any of you who like to cook with pumpkin as we do, it is time to “rescue” pumpkins. I will try to head out to the stores on Sunday morning to see if anyone is selling them for inexpensively or if like last year, they are giving them away. In the past, I have waited until Halloween past and the stores had already gotten rid of all of them. I quarter them and either roast or boil them still with the outer shell in place, and then put the flesh away in ziploc bags for the winter. We enjoy soups, bread, cakes all winter long.

    • Good tip on checking sooner rather than later. We’ve got three from the kids trip to the Deanna Rose pumpkin patch last week. I’m letting them play with them a bit longer before I roast ’em!

  4. What great tips.

  5. Hi! I’m here from Frugal Friday and I love your tips!
    I know I’m going to be unpopular here, but I’m going to blatantly disagree with one of your ideas. Definitely up the amount of dishes. When I have guests, I usually make at least 7 different dishes, but more likely 10 or more. Why’s that?
    I go to a family member for dinner occasionally. She does as you said and serves simple- just between one and three dishes. Usually rice, a salad, and chicken. She spends much more on her small meal than I spend on my 3 or 4 course meal.
    How’s that?
    Well, when we have a formal dinner (either with or without guests), I first serve homemade bread. Along with this bread, I serve a few homemade salads and dips, like tahini sauce, fenugreek dip, beet salad, cabbage salad, carrot salad, cucumber salad, and black bean dip, Then for the next course I serve a chicken soup (sometimes) made out of chicken scraps I got for free and vegetables (sometimes even vegetable scraps) and dumplings, or maybe homemade croutons.
    By the time we get to the main course, everyone has filled up on the cheap side dishes and people are usually so stuffed that they just take a small piece of chicken just to taste… That’s how I’m able to get away with a large crowd and just a little spent on food.
    Yes, its more time consuming to make all those foods, but it is definitely the more frugal option than to just serve rice and chicken.

    • Oh, and if you don’t have enough energy to make all that every week, most of the aforementioned salads are freezable, so you can make only one a week and keep them for later.

    • Thanks for commenting, Penniless! That’s how Israelis cook — a very extensive (and yummilicious) salad course! I totally agree that you more food doesn’t have to mean more spent, especially when you are conscious of your choices. It does take more creativity and more time, which is always something I have to balance as well. (For the record, I don’t think I’ve ever served guests just chicken, rice and a vegetable. Certainly not for Shabbat or yom tov!)

      • Good to know, Mara.
        The thing about adding a salads course to any meal is that these salads don’t need to take a lot of work. Maximum it takes me an extra 7 minutes to make 3-4 salads. Purple cabbage salad? Shred the cabbage, add mayo, sugar and lemon juice and you’re set. Tahini salad? Mix tahini with some water, lemon juice, salt, and garlic powder. Vegetable salad? 2 minutes to chop it up. Cucumber salad? A minute to slice up a few cukes and an onion, then add vinegar, sugar, salt, and water. That’s it. Even the busiest of people can add something like that to their meal and save more money.

  6. These really are fabulous ideas. I might just have to make a birthday banner like that. I have a box, where I put the decor back after every celebration, this way I don’t have to go buy new stuff. My boys love balloons, so I always have a bag of balloons in my box from the dollar store.

    I would like to invite you to the Fantastic Frugal Fridays blog party . It is a great place to link up your frugal posts of all kinds, and connect with new frugal friends.

  7. Chavelamomela says

    Mara, these tips are great.

    Regarding #5, where you can’t help having more dishes…I have certain staples I always have around my house, because they always make easy & quick side-dishes, and are relatively inexpensive:
    -Canned Cranberry Sauce (Preferably whole-berry, but jellied works too) – stock up on sales!
    -Pecans or Walnuts (costco sized bag)
    -An Apple
    -Canned Pineapple Chunks (or slices, cut into chunks – also stock up on sale
    You can also add mandarins, if you want, and it makes a quick & easy cranberry relish, that goes well with just about everything!

    Another staple salad I serve is my bean, avocado & tomato salad:
    1-3 (depending on crowd) cans of beans -red, pink kidneys, black or white beans, etc
    1-2 avocados
    cherry/grape tomatoes (cut into pieces)
    Dress with Olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt & pepper. It’s delicious, fresh, and inexpensive – and beans are a great protein!

    One of my favorite friday-night meals is at a friend who serves tons of salads, and then a huge pot of chicken soup for dinner (w. whole chicken parts). There is as much soup, salads, challah to go around, no -one goes hungry, and you didn’t have to cook another “main.” I do this sometimes when I’m in the mood, it’s a cold winter night, and soup is always welcome.

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