I love hanging out with my friends, but I used to avoid throwing parties at my house mostly because I couldn't justify the expense. You have to buy food, booze and make your house look festive. And it all adds up pretty quickly. (Bah! Humbug!) But I can't expect to be invited anywhere if I can't (or don't) return the favor! So how can I have my fun and throw a party that doesn't bust my budget? I'm going to challenge myself to throw a party for only $25. Can it be done? With a little ingenuity, the answer is yes. Here's how:
1. Dilute the Booze
OK, so the most expensive part of throwing a party is buying alcohol. It can add up pretty quickly. Instead of serving your guests the cheapest wine or beer available, consider making a mixed drink. Preferably one that calls for just a little bit of booze mixed with other ingredients (not a martini, for example). A spiced wine punch with plenty of fruit or hot apple cider with a splash of apple-flavored liqueur is a good option that is festive but relatively cheap to make. You'll stretch your dollar farther by serving plenty to drink while using only a minimal amount of booze. And if drinking isn't that important to you or your guests, skip it altogether. Make a festive nonalcoholic drink and call it a day.
Recipes to Try: Eggnog and More Healthy Winter Drink Recipes
2. Use Natural Decorations
You may think that every party needs a trip to Pottery Barn to make your house look festive, but really all you need to do is step out your front door. Take a few clipping from a pine tree for your centerpiece and grab a pinecone or two. Throw in a few candles you have stashed away and you'll have a lovely, festive decoration (that will smell good too!). Not into Mother Nature? There's no shame in asking friends with great taste to borrow a few things they may not be using. (Just remember to invite them to the party.)
3. Stick to Budget Ingredients
You can throw a great party with fabulous food without breaking the bank. You just have to know what foods really stretch your dollar and, conversely, what foods cost the most. Foods you may want to limit if you're sticking to a budget: cheese, meat and nuts. These all tend to be rather expensive per pound, even if you're buying in bulk. For the cost of 8 ounces of Roquefort cheese to be served as an appetizer for 6 people, say (with bread, of course), you could make an entree (like a quiche) and maybe even a simple dessert. So choose where you spend wisely. What should you spend your money on? Beans, fruit, vegetables and whole grains like brown rice tend to be less expensive. Want some ideas to get you going? For the whole grains, think salads, with a sprinkle of fruit or vegetables to liven them up. Dice up a mango and serve it with a squeeze of lime on a colorful tortilla chip as an appetizer. Slice and roast some vegetables and serve them with baguette on the side or puree canned beans to use as a dip for tortillas and vegetables.
4. Serve Appetizers Instead of a Big Meal
Instead of sitting down to a formal meal, consider just throwing together a few appetizers instead. That way you won't have to shell out a bunch of money on a main dish. And when you're picking your appetizers, keep them simple. I like to limit mine to about 5 ingredients or less. It's an easy way to keep your spending in check and it lightens the load on the host when it comes time to prep.
Recipes to Try: 5-Ingredient Appetizers
Here's a menu of three tasty appetizers plus a delicious winter drink, all for around $23.00.
Makes: 16 pieces
Active time: 10 minutes | Total: 10 minutes
Skewering mozzarella balls and cherry tomatoes makes them easy to nosh at a party.
16 small fresh mozzarella balls
16 fresh basil leaves
16 cherry tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Coarse salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
Thread mozzarella, basil and tomatoes on small skewers. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Per piece: 46 calories; 3 g fat (2 g sat, 0 g mono); 8 mg cholesterol; 1 g carbohydrate; 3 g protein; 0 g fiber; 217 mg sodium; 34 mg potassium.
Scandinavian Pickled Herring Bites
Makes: 40 pieces
Active time: 30 minutes | Total: 30 minutes | To make ahead: Refrigerate for up to 4 hours.
This Scandinavian-style appetizer is a good way to try pickled herring if you've never had it. The potent flavor of the herring is balanced by a dollop of sour cream and the potato slice it's served on.
6 new or baby red potatoes (about 12 ounces)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 8-ounce container pickled herring fillets (see Note), drained
3 tablespoons reduced-fat sour cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
Fresh dill for garnish
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Place a steamer basket in a large saucepan, add 1 inch of water and bring to a boil. Put potatoes in the basket and steam until barely tender when pierced with a skewer, 15 to 20 minutes, depending on size. Slice each potato into 1/4-inch-thick slices (discard the ends). Sprinkle the potato slices with salt.
2. Cut herring fillets into pieces small enough to fit on a potato slice. Place one piece of herring on each potato slice, dollop each with about 1/8 teaspoon sour cream and sprinkle with red onion. Garnish with dill and a grinding of pepper.
Per piece: 18 calories; 1 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 1 mg cholesterol; 2 g carbohydrate; 0 g added sugars; 1 g protein; 0 g fiber; 38 mg sodium; 5 mg potassium.
Note: Pickled herring are herring that have been cured in salt, rinsed and then packed in a vinegar-based marinade that can be flavored with wine, mustard, sherry or cream--any flavor will work in the recipe. Look for it in jars or tubs in the seafood department at most supermarkets.
Polenta Wedges with Tomato Tapenade
Makes: 48 pieces
Active time: 30 minutes | Total: 30 minutes | To make ahead: Cover and refrigerate the tapenade for up to 3 days.
Crispy pieces of polenta topped with a tangy sun-dried tomato tapenade makes a pretty and tasty appetizer.
1 16- to 18-ounce tube prepared polenta, ends trimmed and cut into 12 slices
Canola or olive oil cooking spray
2/3 cup soft sun-dried tomatoes (see Tip)
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lightly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 teaspoons rinsed capers
1 small clove garlic, chopped
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat broiler. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.
2. Place polenta slices on the prepared baking sheet and coat with cooking spray. Broil in upper third of oven until starting to brown, 8 to 12 minutes. Turn and broil until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes more.
3. Meanwhile, pulse sun-dried tomatoes, oil, parsley, capers, garlic and pepper in a food processor (a mini food processor works well), scraping down the sides as needed, until coarsely chopped.
4. Transfer the polenta slices to a clean cutting board and cut each into quarters. Top each wedge of polenta with about 1/4 teaspoon of the tapenade.
Per piece: 15 calories; 0 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 2 g carbohydrate; 0 g added sugars; 0 g protein; 0 g fiber; 68 mg sodium; 61 mg potassium.
Tip: For this recipe, look for soft sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil). If you can only find tomatoes that are very dry (and hard), soak in boiling water for about 20 minutes, then drain and chop them before using.
Makes: 10 servings, 1/2 cup each
Active time: 20 minutes | Total: 30 minutes | To make ahead: Let cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Reheat on the stovetop over low heat or in the microwave on Medium.
This warm mixture is a distinctive twist on the classic hot buttered rum.
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, plus 10 for garnish
1/4 cup fresh sage leaves
4 cups water
10 dashes bitters
12 ounces dark rum (1 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons butter
1. Using a muddler or large wooden spoon, mash sugar and herbs together in a large saucepan until the herbs are bruised and fragrant.
2. Add water and bitters; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Stir in rum and cook for 1 minute. Add butter and cook, stirring, until it melts.
3. Strain the mixture into a pitcher. Let stand for about 10 minutes to mellow the flavors. Serve in cordial glasses or other small heat-safe glasses, garnishing each drink with a mint leaf.
Per serving: 178 calories; 2 g fat (1 g sat, 1 g mono); 6 mg cholesterol; 20 g carbohydrate; 0 g protein; 0 g fiber; 4 mg sodium; 3 mg potassium.
More EatingWell Recipes to Try: Recipes for Easy Entertaining
What are your tips for saving money as a holiday host?
By Hilary Meyer
EatingWell Associate Food Editor Hilary Meyer spends much of her time in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, testing and developing healthy recipes. She is a graduate of New England Culinary Institute.
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