There are few things I love to do more in the summer than entertain. The weather is great, the fruit and vegetables in season are incredible, and people are in an all-around better mood to spend a long night drinking and eating. Due to the frequency with which I actually want to entertain (every week...), I can't spend hundreds on a dinner party, like some of my idols do, and prefer to budget shop for an incredible meal.
This past Friday, my fiancé Rob and I invited over three friends to celebrate the start of their new school year (they're all graduate students) and the end of an incredibly busy summer for me! That morning, Rob and I scrolled through Instagram, our favorite source for food inspiration, to pull out recipes that could be easily made after work that day. Given our party size, budget, and theme of the night we decided on an appetizer, salad, pasta, and dessert, all of which included fresh seasonal ingredients:
Here is how the entire entertaining process went, from shopping (with prices) to setting the table:
In order to make our menu, we had to buy everything but oil, vinegar, spices, and basic baking ingredients. Clearly, we've gotten too comfortable letting our fridge be empty. Here is the breakdown of our $60 trip to Sprouts (our local market):
- Burrata ($6.99)
- Baguette ($1.89)
- 8 oz. fresh figs ($4)
- Basil ($1.99)
- Dijon mustard ($3.99)
- Red onion (0.65 cents)
- Garlic ($1)
- 2 pints cherry tomatoes ($2.99)
- 1 can cannellini beans (0.89 cents)
- Parsley ($1)
- Parmesan wedge ($4.80)
- 2 medium zucchinis ($1.20)
- 1 box vegetable stock ($3.29)
- Mascarpone ($6.69)
- 1.5 pounds of pasta ($2.58)
- Almonds ($2.50)
- 8 Nectarines ($2.64)
- Pint of blackberries ($5)
- 3 lemons ($1)
Total= $55.09 + tax = $60.59
Our guests were set to arrive at 8, so starting to cook at 6:15 was a bit of a late start. The key was to have two sets of hands in the kitchen, playing to each of our strengths. Personally, I'm great with flavor, design, and decor, whereas Rob excels at precision and the more difficult techniques (I just don't have the patience). I created the vinaigrette for the side, assembled the salad, and let the two components sit separately until the moment guests arrived, in order to avoid a soggy salad. Following this, I prepped the ingredients for the pasta as Rob worked intensely on the crumble, which was arguably the most technical element of this meal. As Rob got to cooking the pasta, I assembled the cheese and fig plate, cutting and arranging the dish in an appealing, yet casual way and dousing the top in olive oil and ripped basil.
As it was nearing 8, I began to set the table. I often set the table the night before in order to save time when I am inevitably running late, but clearly this was not my most organized week. For our party, I really wanted to play up the summer theme and have a light and inviting dining area. Our barn wood table was covered with an Italian tablecloth (similar here), and I set out woven placemats, vintage napkins (similar here) with industrial cutlery on top, Polish wine glasses (similar here), and my favorite Ikea plates. Made from pretty humble decor, the table came together to feel more magical than I could've imagined. Once we had dinner, our various dishes were served on colorful plates and ceramic cookware and candles were all over the table.
Our guests arrived at 8, ready to eat and with wine in hand. Whenever we host, we ask our friends to provide some of the drinks in order to keep costs lower for us. We played various Spotify stations on our Alexa (our favorite was All Out '2000s solely for the middle school memories) and dove straight into the figs, served with a warm baguette on the side. Dinner followed, and after a few hours of talking, we finally pulled the crumble out of the oven for the perfect, rich end to our dinner party.
Dinner parties should be fun, and they definitely should not break the bank for the host. As much as I love going out to dinner in L.A., hosting at our house has become the perfect way to spend time with friends, try new cuisine, and keep the party going all night long, all while saving money! Here are my 5 favorite tips for keeping entertaining costs low at every dinner party:
1. Seek out basic recipes where you already have a lot of the ingredients: I always try to have a pantry stocked with essential spices, oils, and grains. By seeking out recipes that are "one-pot" or "5 steps," you're guaranteed to have to shop for fewer items, plus you'll spend less time cooking before the party. Typically, I find my recipes by scrolling on Instagram or searching ingredients I already have on Pinterest.
2. Invest where you need to and budget shop for the rest: You should always invest in the flavors that are the highlight of your dish. In the case of my pasta, it was more important to have high-quality mascarpone than almonds for topping. Not every ingredient needs to be top-quality, so assessing where you can save can make all the difference.
3. Avoid meat at big parties: A lot of our friends are vegetarian which obviously dictates what our meal will look like. Once I started to cook meals without meat, I saw how much money I was saving, not to mention the fact that no one really noticed its absence. Now, carnivorous dinner parties are exclusively for special occasions that I can save up for.
4. Have guests bring the drinks (and whatever else they want): As I mentioned earlier, our friends always supply the drinks to our parties. We keep a few things on hand on our bar cart, but most of what we have is brought the night of. At first, I felt guilty asking friends to bring something, but not having to buy alcohol meant I could invest in higher quality ingredients for more elaborate recipes.
5. Don't stress about it being "perfect": Whether you've included too many carbs (typically the cheapest dishes) or made way too many appetizers, there is always room for improvement at a dinner party. Avoid trying to make it perfect because this usually means you'll end up over-buying and over-planning. Stick to your set menu and learn from your dinner party mistakes after the fact rather than spending money to "fix it."