How to Host a Cheap Dinner Party
With the holidays coming, a lot of us will be getting together with family and friends to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or whatever event you observe.
As we all know, the holidays usually involve a Lot. Of. Eating. Which is a good thing. A very good thing. Yuh-huh!
However…. it can get expensive AF. Now that you’re #adulting, you’re probably hosting people at your home more often than you used to, and while this is super fun, having a bunch of people over for dinner and drinks can get pricey. But, with a bit of planning and cooperation from your friends, it doesn’t have to be.
Enter… The Potluck!
A Potluck? Seriously?
When you think ‘potluck’, you might be picturing crock pots full of beans and colourless, mayo-heavy macaroni salad served up on paper plates in a church basement. With lime jello for dessert.
That’s your Grandma’s potluck, girl!
In my super popular post 7 Ways to Stick To Your Budget When Your Friends Want to Party, one of the suggestions I make as an alternative to going out for dinner or a bar night is to host a potluck at your own digs, and it’s also one of the best ways to celebrate the holidays with your friends without breaking the bank.
So let me re-frame your ‘potluck’ picture: Think a full, plated, balanced meal with fresh veggies, a filling main course, wicked apps and a killer dessert most of you won’t even have room for (but you’ll find room… ohhhh you’ll make it happen). Wine being poured with abandon as the table gets rowdier and rowdier. Laughter echoing through your house or apartment. Everyone’s happy and no one has spent much money!
Sound good? Hell yeah it does.
Potlucks have honestly become one of my favourite social activities in my adult life. I have always loved cooking and entertaining, so it was awesome when I finally had my own apartment, and now my own house, to host friends for dinner. Our house isn’t huge, but my parents gifted us a beautiful heirloom Mennonite oak table with 4 leaves so it expands to fit 12 people. That means we can all actually sit down at a table with placemats – like Real Adults – instead of lapping it in front of the TV, which is nice. We feel all classy and sh*t. And the best part is, we have no TV in our living/dining room, so there’s no screen to distract us, just tons of great conversation! <3
Needless to say, my hubs and I are usually the hosts for the simple reason that we can accommodate a lot of people (and you know, our cooking ain’t half bad, either).
So we’ve become pretty adept at planning group dinners AND at keeping our costs down, which is key. You still want to have lots of friends over, you want everyone to enjoy themselves and leave with full tummies, but you can’t be spending a hundred bucks to host your friends for a dinner. With my strategies, between meal ingredients and booze, we generally end up spending about $40 to host 8ish people and we usually have some leftovers. Your guests will likely spend about $25 each couple, or $10-15 for a single. WAY cheaper for all of you than an entire night out at a restaurant or bar!
Here’s my how-to checklist to help you plan and execute a Totally Boss potluck your friends will be talking about for weeks afterward!
How to Host a Cheap Dinner Party
1) Choose the friends you want to invite
Couples, singles, whatevs. Specify whether people are welcome to bring their kids. It really depends on the size of your place and how many bodies you can comfortably accommodate, but 8 is a good number to shoot for.
2) Send out the invites
Include a proposed date or two, as well as a clear indication that this is a POTLUCK (you don’t want everyone to think you’re hosting them for an entire dinner). I’m not talking wedding-invite-level invitations, but an email will do. If your friends know each other and have no privacy concerns, it’s easiest to include them all in the email thread together.
3) Don’t stress about trying to find a date that works for absolutely everyone
Now that we’re adults, we’re busy, and people have a lot of competing priorities. Propose a couple of dates, ask your guests to weigh in on what works for them, and choose the one that works for the most people. Otherwise you could end up going back and forth for days, and finally settling on a Saturday four months from now. It might sound like overkill, but if you’re coordinating more than a couple of people, Surveymonkey is a good tool to use!
4) Decide on your main course while you wait for replies
From past experience (and the associated stress of learning hard lessons!) I would strongly recommend a dish that is:
– essentially a one-pot meal
– inexpensive to make, even in a large batch
– appealing to a variety of tastes
– really easy to double or quadruple without any issues
– makes good leftovers for you, in case you make too much (I’ve never done that, what? I didn’t eat quinoa salad once for 4 days afterward. Nope.)
– low-maintenance once it’s cooking
My Mum gave me that last tip; it’s really difficult to entertain your guests once they arrive AND make sure you’re paying attention to a complicated dish that needs a lot of TLC as it cooks. I’ve definitely burnt a thing or two or forgotten an ingredient because I got distracted with being a good host once guests arrived. People also tend to wander into the kitchen trying to help while you fly around cooking. It’s kind of awkward for everyone because your guests feel useless and you feel like they’re just getting in the way. Keep it simple. Make something you can pop in the oven or fridge and leave it there until it’s time to eat!
So what should you serve? Here are some ideas for inexpensive and filling mains:
-lasagne (veggie, beef, or both)
-large batch pasta and sauce
-individual meat/veggie pies
-baked individual burritos
-marinaded and baked chicken, if you eat meat (a bit more expensive)
-hot lentil or bean dishes with naan bread (Indian dishes you can make ahead or in the slow-cooker are a very convenient option, and super cheap too!)
-veggie sushi rolls
-selection of cold salads – just make sure it’s something fairly hefty if it’s the main course, like quinoa, orzo, chickpeas or beans (meal salads are awesome because it allows for variety and you can make them hours in advance and keep them in the fridge).
You’ll obviously want to make enough for each of your guests, plus yourself. Make a little extra in case you underestimate appetites (I usually overestimate appetites, but I like leftovers!). Your guests will do the same with their dishes.
5) Send another email
Once you’ve got the date set and figured out your main dish, send out an email telling your guests you will make the main course, and what the main course is. If you want to suggest a culture-based theme night, that can be really fun too (e.g. Mexican, Thai, Greek, Italian, etc.). Ask others to call dibs on appetizers, sides, dessert, and munchies for late night nibbles. Letting your guests know your plans for the main course right there in the invitation allows people to weigh in if they have any food sensitivities, and helps them determine what they could bring that pairs well with your main dish.
6) Regarding the booze
Generally it would be good etiquette for each of your friends to bring a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer to share. However, as the host it’s always a good idea to have some extra booze on hand in case people don’t bring as much as you anticipated they would. Also have a non-boozy option available. Lemonade and Sprite with a few frozen raspberries tossed in makes a classy non-alc drink for any preggo or non-drinker friends.
7) Set up for the party!
If you have a legit dining table, set it out all fancy-like. Use an actual tablecloth, napkins, and set out wine and water glasses at each place setting. Fill a jug or two with ice and water and put it out on the table so your guests don’t have to ask for water refills. Add that extra flourish by making name cards for your guests’ place settings. Check out Pinterest for some wickedawesome cheap ideas for name cards! It can be fun to come up with something that reflects your cultural food theme, or the season. Same goes for your music. Set up a playlist with something classy like Bach or Vivaldi, or search Youtube for a ready-made dinner music playlist.
8) Make some space in your fridge
This is a key detail for hosting a party that often gets forgotten! You will need some room in your fridge for other guests’ dishes or booze. Fill a cooler with ice if you’re short on fridge room. Planning ahead means you aren’t trying to shuffle around your over-stuffed fridge once your guests arrive with giant platters and bowls. #winningatadulting
9) A neato tip for you:
I personally find one of the most enjoyable aspects of potluck dinners is that we all sit and chat without screens. When we have friends for dinner, we set out a basket and make everyone forfeit their cell phone when they walk in the door. I get politely aggressive about it! My group of friends established that the ‘punishment’ for picking up your phone is to take a shot of some disgusting liquor blend chosen by the other guests. But to be honest, the temporary tech detox goes over surprisingly well, and we have rarely had to enforce the punitive shot. 😉
10) Keep it safe
If you have couples coming over, they may have already worked out who’s going to drink and who’s going to drive, but it’s always a good idea to have a guest bed or couch ready for someone to crash on if they drink too much. Keep an eye on your guests and call a cab or a car chauffeur company to make sure they get home safe. Suggest your friends leave their car in your driveway or apartment parking space for the night, and they can come pick it up in the morning. You want all your friends to be alive and well to join you at your next dinner party!
Do you have any other tips for how to host a cheap dinner party? What are your favourite/most convenient meals? Chat in the comments!
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