Saturday Throwback: Classy Parties on the Cheap

Every Saturday (well, most Saturdays), we post a piece from the CHG archives. Today's comes from May 2008.

The Boyfriend and I are expecting a few friends for a Mothers Day barbecue this weekend. Normally, when our buds gather in any significant number, it’s not a problem. Cheap beer, two dozen Nathan’s Famous, and a token pack of veggie burgers are enough to keep the circle pretty sated. This time, however, our MOMS are among the invited. They’ve never met, and my Ma only rarely visits the outer boroughs (“Why would I want to go back to a place our family spent three generations trying to leave?”), so it’s morphed from Modest Backyard Hootenanny to Actual Adult Gathering.

As such, we’ve had to strategize. And I’m not talking, “Let’s see, we need 18 forks. Maybe.” I’m talking, “This document lists the recipe for every dish we’re making, along with ingredients, scheduled oven-time, and appropriate serving plate.” It’s a tad obsessive, and I’m pretty sure the architects of most major World War II campaigns would be like, “Chick crazy,” but it saves me cash and provides a little variety beyond the rote one-two punch of potato and macaroni salad. (Which both contain mayo and should thusly be killed.)

To help others impress their own friends and family members, here are a few tricks I picked up while planning/researching my own small-to-mid-sized bashes. Really, it’s a whole strategy, and hopefully, it’ll keep costs down, provide some healthy alternatives, and save an aneurysm or two.

Alas, I am far (oh, so very far) from an expert on this stuff, so I’d love to hear recommendations from readers. Together, we can create the ultimate party: a 50-person Lobster Thermidore and champagne celebration for under $1.50, total.

Consider a potluck and/or BYOB. This simple, age-old idea provides tons of variety for all kinds of diets, prevents the hostess from having a nervous breakdown, and ensures that a larger gathering won’t put the mortgage payments in danger. While it may not be suitable for some occasions, I did potluck it for a smaller baby shower last year, and it seemed to work well. If you decide against it …

Send out invites/Evites early. Three to four weeks before the par-tay is a good timeframe to shoot for, since it allows you to plan a menu, schedule preparations, and start stockpiling sales items early. Plus, you can always follow it up with a “Hey! It would be awesome if everybody could RSVP!” email two weeks prior to the event. Which leads us to …

Get an approximate headcount. This will give you a rough idea of how many folks you have to feed and supply with utensils, as well as the dietary restrictions (vegetarians, pregnant people, lacto-ovo-graino-arians, etc.) you might need to account for. From this, you can start devising your plan of attack.

Figure out the food numbers. Based on the number of guests, how much food should you serve? This is my guideline:
  • 2 meats per carnivore. (We know a lot of vegetarians.)
  • 3-5 large side dishes. (No meat added, for said 'tarians.)
  • a few bags of basic snacks
  • a few bottles of seltzer and/or soda
  • a few homemade dips and salsas
  • a crudite platter
  • hors d’oeuvres: cheese, crackers, fruit, etc.
  • 2-3 alcoholic drinks per person (bottle of wine = 4-5 drinks)
  • cookies and dessert-type offerings for later
Other folks have very, very different systems, and those can be found in places like this. Or this. Or even this.

Read Frugal Menu Ideas for a Fussy Crowd. This was one of the first Wednesday articles here on CHG, and I’m reviving it just for today. Inside, there are quite a few ideas for feeding a large, picky crew inexpensively. Suggestions are totally welcomed.

Create a menu as soon as possible. Based on in-season produce, affordable staples, and what you have lying around the house, make up a list of dishes you’d want to eat at a good gathering. Think about incorporating a few make-ahead sides (to save yourself some stress on Shindig Day) and try to base at least half around fruits, vegetables, or grains, which are usually cheaper and healthier. To wow folks with your cooking skillz, you might even play with classics like green, fruit, and pasta salads by adding creative flourishes or funky, inexpensive dressings. They can make simple foods (and thus, the barbecue) that much more memorable. (Oh, and store-bought dishes are fine, but this is a food blog, see. I gotta represent for the cooks.)

Based on your menu, make up a grocery list. This one’s pretty simple: what do you need that you don’t already have on-hand? Don't forget to account for decorations or staples like condiments, ice, and charcoal.

Start looking for sales. Depending on how far in advance you’ve planned, there’s a good possibility you can snag nearly everything on sale. Start checking local circulars as soon as you have your grocery list, and jump on good discounts. If your party is happening on a holiday, odds are lots of related products will be offered at a markdown, anyway. (Be careful of buying produce too far ahead, though. Some of that stuff rots, but quick.)

Buy decent alcohol en masse. While deeply beloved for all kinds of reasons, classy gatherings may not be the place for Schlitz and Alabama Slammers. On the other hand, $40 bottles of Veuve Cliquot are out of the question for most people (read: everyone) I know. There’s a nice compromise here, though, which is buying a nice stock of middle-of-the-road alcohol at a beer distributor, discount store (a la Trader Joe’s), or wholesale depot. Some supermarkets offer decent sales, as well, so be on the lookout. Oo! And don’t discount a BYOB policy, either. Contingent on the fanciness level of the party, I don’t think it’s uncouth to ask folks to bring a bottle of wine if they’ll be quaffing.

Make a schedule. You see this in magazines all the time. Starting a few days ahead of the get-together, create a step-by-step calendar of STD. (Uh, meaning “Stuff to Do.”) (On second thought, not such a good acronym.) It might look something like:
  • WEDNESDAY: final grocery shopping
  • THURSDAY: clean, make dips, make iPod mix
  • FRIDAY: make cookies and pasta salad, start defrosting meat
  • SATURDAY: cut crudite veggies, make salad and dressings, decorate, set tables
  • SUNDAY A.M.: make fruit salad, chill beverages, marinate chicken
  • SUNDAY P.M.: relax, have double-shot of expensive tequila
Assembling this should accomplish two things: 1) keep you from buying expensive, last-minute fillers and 2) ease your mind about when/where/how things will get done. For reference, there are some other neato schedule examples here and here.

Consider eschewing paper plates and plastic forks. This may be absolutely ludicrous for larger bashes, but for a home-hosted barbecue for ten, it could work. Simply, using your china will save cash, not to mention the environment.

Clean. While it has zero to do with food, if there’s one thing Ma has instilled in me since birth (besides a deep and terrible love of puns), it’s this: people will not give a flying doo-doo about the quality of your turkey burgers if they’re forced to eat in a hovel. Does that sound terribly old-fashioned? You bet. But I’ve done my time at frat parties, and there comes an age where pee stains and dust no longer count as decoration.

Don’t go crazy. It’s easy to drive yourself insane preparing for a nice-n-mature party, but just remember: these things are supposed to be fun. If you’re already clenching your jaw pondering the preparation, try reducing the previous tips to these three: plan ahead, look for bargains, and clean a little. See? Easy peasy.

And that’s it. Readers? You got anything to say? Bring!