Saturday, April 4, 2009

Prosperity: Dinner Parties on a Dime

Don and I entertain quite a bit and we love it. Since we moved to California almost two years ago, we have become the gathering place for friends and play host to large group activities once or twice a week. Whenever possible, we love to include dinner in the evening's events since we love to cook and food brings people together. Plus, if people do not have to worry about cooking dinner or grabbing food before they head over then it gives us more time to spend together. Since we are on a restricted budget now, we have to put a little more thought into planning affordable dinners that can feed 7 or 8 people a couple times a week. Thus, I have incorporated some new strategies that have allowed us to continue the Early Household Dinner parties with great tasting food and satisfied guests without breaking the bank.

The first major change we made was to start doing dinners potluck style. We are currently not in a position to be providing eight course meals to multiple guests and they are completely understanding of this. However, by all of us contributing something small we all end up with a fantastic full dinner menu that everyone only had to pitch in a little for. Additionally, we get to try new things and be exposed to other peoples' specialties which may not be something we normally would have picked out. It's a very rewarding experience all the way around.

When hosting a potluck style dinner party, there are a few things to keep in mind. If you are hosting, unless someone has come forward and expressed a very strong interest in providing their special homemade recipe which also happens to travel well, you really should be providing the main course. The main course usually takes the most prep work and as the host, it really is a matter of convenience and practicality to be able to prepare and serve the main course straight from kitchen to table.

In terms of guest dishes keep an open mind. Don't set expectations or obligations for what your guests should bring. Give them the opportunity to use their own imagination and find something that excites them. Also, make it known that homemade is not a requirement and store bought is perfectly acceptable. Afterall, it's their company that you are looking forward to, not the food, and intimidation in the cooking arena or time constraints should not be an eliminating factor for their participation in the evening.

On the flip side of the coin, while you do not want to set expectations for your guests, they might have some of you. If they ask you what they should bring, be willing to offer ideas or suggestions. I found this one out the hard way when I was going through an especially stressful time with work and personal issues. I needed to back off of the dinner planning but did not want to give up our group dinner time. I let people know that I would still be providing a main dish and other people could bring "sides" and left the door wide open. For some people, no matter how many times they asked me what they should bring and I responded,"whatever you want," they would repeatedly seek further advice from me. At first, to be truthful, I was a bit annoyed by this as what I was seeking at the time was respite from any responsibility beyond my own part and just wished other people would use their own imagination without having to rely on me. However, eventually I realized that the complete lack of guidelines created a stressful situation for some people who really just wanted to make sure that they were bringing something useful that would be an appropriate contribution to the menu.

Now when people ask me what to bring my standard answer is that we would love anything that they feel like making but if they are looking for ideas I offer broad category suggestions such as salad, bread, drinks or dessert. That way they have some comfort in having a little bit of direction, but can still use their own imagination in terms of the particular item or recipe they choose. I also try to give people advance notice of what I intend to make for the main course in case they want to try to plan something that goes well with it. Often this is done through group emails so that others can have a chance to respond and let the group know what they are bringing too.

As far as keeping the food costs down for your dinner party, making it a potluck is certainly a major step toward savings, but if you are providing the main course, it's usually the most expensive item on the menu. Additionally, it typically consists of protein which again is high on the pricing scale. By choosing cheaper cuts of meat such as flank steak, roasts, or whole chickens you can often get a better price per pound value and there are lots of exciting recipes out there that can dress these up into fancy dinner party worthy dishes. Also, buying meat in bulk or while it's on sale can give you a lot better value. Last week we made a 3.5 pound smoked Tri-Tip on the Barbecue that was on Sale at Fresh & Easy for 2.99 a pound and managed to feed 8 people for about $10! The weak before that, we made a recipe for grilled marinated chicken breasts which were on sale that week at Fresh and Easy and fed 7 people for $6. Both recipes by the way were fabulous and the guests raved about the dishes. Also soups, pasta, and chili are great ideas for main courses because they use less meat per person and can go a long way toward feeding a crowd for a small amount of cash.

Also, when purchasing protein for your dinner party, make sure you have enough for a full serving for everyone but don't be expected to gorge your guests. Just because you are providing the main dish, doesn't mean that it is the only dish. Remember that there will be at least as many courses as guests attending and they can just as easily dish up on extra salad, bread and dessert as they can the main dish if you are only able to afford the 8 ounce steaks instead of the 16. If you are worried about your guests being satisfied, instead of buying double the protein, grab an extra appetizer that can be munched on before or after the meal such as chips and salsa or cheese and crackers.

Another big way to save is to skip the drinks. Know your company, but in general your guests are happy to drink plain water and do not expect you to provide beer, wine, milk, soda and other items that might stretch your grocery budget. Just be sure you provide a nice filtered source for them and preferably a chance to chill it ahead of time. Additionally, if you don't feel ok with just providing water to drink, you can always suggest this as a potluck item for someone else to bring. One of the members of our dinner party alternates back and forth between beer and wine for his weekly contribution to the menu.

Finally, and this is a tough one, there is the issue of disposable verses fancy dishes. Disposable dishes will obviously cost you extra, but let's be honest. They're not that expensive and sometimes they may seem worth it for the convenience. Additionally, there is the cost in electricity and water to wash all of the reusable dishes so is there really that big of a savings in the end? With as much as Don and I entertain, I admit that we have turned toward disposable on many occassions. In particular, we have found that with guests over every other night of the week, it was simply impossible to keep up with all the glass wear that we were going through. So after going through several packs of Costco disposable cups, I finally came up with an alternative solution that would cost us less and save us from accumulating up to 20 dirty cups to wash on a daily basis. I went through our cupboards and boxed up all of the additional glasses that I couldn't fit in a single load in the dishwasher and put them in the garage. Now if somebody needs a glass and there are no clean ones in the cupboard, all they have to do is wash one. Problem solved!

Additionally, as we are almost out of paper plates, and not desiring to use our little discretionary funds on unnecessary convenience items at the moment, I have also come up with a new more budget conscious strategy for this one as well. I have begun setting out our smaller 8" plates for our dinner guests rather than the 11" ones. You can fit more in the dishwasher so clean up is easier and people can always go back for seconds if they don't get enough the first time around.

Going back again to the major tenant of this blog, living a prosperous life is not about the money you have, it's about how you use it to get the most out of life. These ideas listed above are a great opportunities to enjoy friends and family and amazing food. By applying some simple strategies, it costs us a fraction of what it used to cost us and yet has not undermined in anyway the quality of the gatherings. In fact it has enhanced them, by bringing a greater sense of community and collaberation to the event. Cheers!

Oh, and one last thing. Always be prepared for uninvited guests to crash your dinner party! :)

No comments: