Carly, aprés dinner, kicking ass at Trivial Pursuit. Photo: Penny
Of course you can, I suppose. However, how nice of a dinner can you host for under $100? And for how many people? I decided to find out.
David and I have people over a lot. It’s often the only time we can see friends and I love to cook. Unfortunately, as anyone who entertains is aware, the cost can add up, and fast. Buying food is just the beginning; soon you find yourself in need of a roasting pan for that turkey you want to make, or you don’t have enough glassware for all of your guests. And then, of course, there’s the alcohol.
When I mentioned that I wanted to have some friends over the week after Christmas, David moaned, “but I thought you were on a budget!?” I explained that I really wanted to try and host for under 100 bucks. “How about 50?” he responded.
I did get a lot of recommendations to have a potluck, but I was very focused on creating a sophisticated and somewhat gourmet meal on a budget. Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn covered the NYT piece, and I was very intrigued that Joanna Goddard (the fiancée of the man who wrote the article) weighed in, commenting:
“I just want to point out: the $30/person was for wine, decor and a three-course dinner for a 5-hour party. and of course you can have a less expensive party–a party with beer is totally fun and fine! this story, however, was more about having a party that feels super swanky, totally over-the-top in a fun way–almost like a wedding–for less money than usual.”
Now, I am not competitive by nature, but I was convinced that I could do a multi-course dinner for 8 that felt “swanky” for far less than $250. Yes, that number included 6 bottles of Charles Shaw and decorations. However, $150 of the budget went toward decorations, something I think most of us could skip, or at least modify.
Photo: New York Times
In the end, we had 6 people over for a dinner (8 including David and I). Did we keep within the $100 budget? Read on to find out.
Before planning the meal, I decided to lay out some ground-rules:
- The evening must cost under $100.
- Alcohol would be included.
- The meal would be simple but not exceedingly casual.
- Appetizers and dessert would be served.
We decided on an early supper gathering on the eve of New Years Eve. One of my closest friends has a new baby and she and her husband needed to get out on the early side to put her down. As it turns out, that friend canceled so we called in for some last-minute fill ins, David’s parents, who live close by.
- I did not include ingredients such as dried herbs and spices and small amounts of oil. Most people have these items in their pantries and I am to lazy to break it down into cost-per-use.
- I did not include any decorations. Nor did I buy anything new. I have enough flatware, stemware and miscellaneous items to entertain a small army. But I have included some tips on how to serve/decorate on the cheap.
- Don’t ignore less popular (and far less expensive) cuts of meat. I don’t each much red meat, but I have read countless articles extolling the many virtues of slow-cooking budget cuts of meat. If you are a big red meat eater, this is a great option to keep in mind. Check out: braising, roasting.
- Flavor, flavor, flavor. When you begin to explore other cuisines, such as Indian or Vietnamese, your taste-buds are overwhelmed with new and exciting flavors. Make something spicy, use garlic liberally, try lemongrass or Thai basil. International markets are a great and economical resource.
- Substitute olive oil when you can. Butter and vegetable oil are just fine for the majority of dishes. Reserve the more expensive olive oil for dishes where its flavor will shine.
- Buy from bulk bins. Need crystallized ginger? An odd spice you’ve never heard of? Cashews? Seek out a market nearby that sells items in bulk, so you can purchase just the amount needed for your recipe.
- Grow your own vegetables or hit the farmer’s market.
- Don’t get too hung up on mismatched flatware, glassware and silverware. Run with it! Use Anthropolgie catalogs as inspiration for funky decorating.
- When all else fails, keep it simple and classic. A nice shrimp cocktail, homemade bread, roasted chicken; you can’t go wrong.
While planning the party menu, I focused on seasonal produce and really thought carefully about which proteins I wanted to serve. Meat, as we established, is often the most expensive element of a meal. As I am not much of a red meat eater, opting for pork, poultry or fish, I decided on the latter two.
Then, David threw a rather large wrench into my plan. The week before the dinner, he came home with a $25 hunk of beef.
“Prime rib was on sale! I thought we could make it for our dinner next week,” he said while tossing it in the freezer. Whatever his reservations were a few days prior, he had obviously gotten over them. Now he had purchased an item that would take up a full quarter of my budget. And I don’t even especially care for prime rib, nor had I ever cooked it.
No bother, I would adapt.
I had to work during the day, so David was left to prepare, clean and do the last minute shopping. He also made the dessert, a coffee/orange scented mousse that was lactose-free (two of the guests were lactose intolerant).
When I arrived home, I hit our backyard to pull some greens from our mess of a garden and find some cool stuff to create a centerpiece for the table. I found a tree with some purple-colored berries and pulled some pretty dried maple leaves off the ground. I also found some fallen tree branches. I have a small vase with floral foam that I reuse. I stuck the berries into the foam and added the leaves around the edge. I positioned the vase at the center of the table and scattered the leaves along either side. I placed the tree branches (twigs, more like) on top of the leaves and threw out a few votives.
David was busy preparing the meat so I made the mashed potatoes, prepared the salad and blanched the green beans. I set out the appetizer, got the music going and decanted the red wine.
If anything can elevate a $3 bottle of wine, it’s a decanter. Photo: Penny
Our DJ for the evening. Photo: Penny
When the meat came out, I put in the mashed potatoes that I had prepared earlier and transferred to a dutch oven. I started the green beans while David worked on the sauce to accompany the prime rib.
We decided to plate each dish and serve the salad after dinner.
The photo is straight out of I Like You, Middle-America kitsch. Photo: Penny
The final plate. Photo: Penny
After dinner we cleaned up and prepared the dessert.
Enjoying dessert: Photo: Penny
Final Cost Breakdown
Prime Rib – $25.00
Salami – $5.99
Lettuce – Garden
Walnuts – $1.50
Garlic – $3.00
Potatoes – $4.98
Apples – $0.50
Parsley – $0.50
Onions – $0.50
Green Onions – $0.48
Baguette – $2.29
Unsalted Butter – $0.68
Whipping Cream – $2.09
Orange – $0.30
Green Beans – $2.30
Carrot – $0.22
Silken Tofu – $2.98
Lemon – $0.50
Beef Broth – $0.49
Powdered Sugar – $0.99
Brie – $3.49
Parmesan – $1.99
Wine (4 Bottles) – $11.97
Organic Baking Cocoa – $0.99
Chocolate Chips – $0.50
Whole Milk – $0.99
Total – $75.22
I would say that we used about $10 (absolute MAX) on items such as oil, mustard, dill, salt and pepper, etc. Items that we did not buy but had in the house. That still leaves us $15 under $100!
We received two addition bottles of wine from guests.
- “Borrow” is not a dirty word. Need a hand mixer? Matching plates? For God’s sake, borrow them from someone! A friend, family member, neighbor….anyone. People are usually very cool about lending things out.
- Plan ahead. If you know you’ll be making a soup for a starter, roast a chicken the week before so you can make homemade stock to freeze. Keep your eyes peeled for sales. The week before our dinner, I checked out sales at the grocery store and scored a huge bag of frozen shrimp for $10, nearly 50% off. Perfect for shrimp cocktail!
- Keep it seasonal. Fish and produce in season will taste better AND be cheaper.
- Don’t get hung up on your menu. Be flexible. When you hit the store, ask your fishmonger or butcher what is fresh. Better to buy some good looking salmon than settle for gross, frozen scallops because you are hell-bent on making a particular recipe.
- Don’t worry too much about appetizers or starters. Keep these simple. Your guests will be more interested in getting a drink in their hands and catching up, and they won’t fill up before dinner.
- Substitute if necessary. Want to try a recipe but it calls for 2 tablespoons of brandy (that you don’t have)? You can usually find SOME kind of substitute for an ingredient. Do a search online and explore a bit before committing to a recipe. You can start here.
- Vegetarians among your guests? Don’t worry about creating a dish just for them. Provide a hearty side (a risotto or pasta with plenty of vegetables, for example) that can be eaten as a main or side dish. Just remember to substitute chicken stock with vegetable stock.
- Use nature as an inspiration. You don’t need to buy anything for your table centerpiece. Go out and collect leaves to scatter across the center of the table. Find some cool fallen tree branches and add to a tall vase. Look for a rosemary bush, or an orange tree – anything that looks beautiful. In the past I have created arrangements using large chard and kale leaves. Bonus: You can eat them after the party!
- Dim the lights and throw out some votive candles. If you don’t have candle holders, use leaves, flat rocks, small glasses….anything you have around.