What better a way to proselytize sustainability than over some food at your homestead? To quote one of our guests last night: "they have a lemon tree in their bedroom. How come we don't have a lemon tree in our bedroom?"
But, dinner parties can be so expensive... or maybe not.
So there's the way I was taught to do: lots of expensive food and one-time-use disposables, or...
I know others have ideas about this, so please feel free to sharing your knowledge but here's what I've learned:
Skill replaces expense in most cases. Beauty can replace exorbitant quantity. Think outside of the box. I came up with 49 meals to feed 8 people with store bought organic produce and range fed meat (if meat is used), pastured butter (if butter is used), and no garden stuff for $25/ meal, including juice and dessert. That's about $3/plate.
Now, if you factor in guest can chip in and the garden can too, your talking real cheap.
What'd I do? I took a page from the food service industry. Homemade bread, rice, cabbage, and lettuce are all super cheap. Veggies, like carrots, are cheaper than fruit. So is homemade pasta. Many ground meat dishes can be mixed with bread crumbs, chickpeas, and egg to get that meaty feel for less. Or mixed with beans and onions So, again skill and time versus expense.
The next important thing is presentation. If you buffet 8 skewers of kabob for 8 people, someone might take 2 and someone might get none. If you plate the food, everyone gets one and no one questions the quantity if it looks beautiful and is suppliments by other cheaper foods, like seasoned rice, bread, chickpea sauce. Which those items could be buffet style, but for plating purposes, might not be.
Bread as a first course in all you can eat quantity is another common restaurant trick to slow you down over the expensive foods.
As for drinks, a cold tea, even herbal: like hibiscus, is cheaper and also prettier than a plastic container of store bought juice. And, you can make it in pretty reusable things. If we have juice here, we usually dilute it half way since it's more sugary than sugar cereal. This can be done in a formal setting with ice.
Reusable stuff and decorations. When we started having people over and washing lots of dishes friends approached is asking why we didn't do disposable. It's easier and cheap they said. Wrong and wrong: it may be easier in that you don't have to wash them, but you still have to go buy them. They also truly cost more. A plane study paper plate costs about $0.10 here. A cheap glass plate costs about $1, new. If you host every week for 1 year without breaking your glass plate, you've saved about $4/plate. The disposables are also not as good as real plates, so you get leaks, melts, and breaks. So, if you are planning on hosting, go with regular plates, even if one may occasionally break-it's cheaper. It's not just plates that work like this, but everything. Cloth napkins last forever if you just re-dye them occasionally. Decorations on the table, napkin holders, cups. Because these don't get thrown out, you can also brag about your low waste levels at your dinner party. Often table decorations can be natural and free, but make it look fuller and slow people down from gluttony (because they are looking at pretty things, not just scarfing) to hitting just full.
I also found putting the dessert in a place visible to eaters makes them pace themselves and ask: "will I have enough room for that?" Rather than gorging. Lots of restaurants do that too. Desserts at the front counter, images on napkin holders.
So those are some tricks I've picked up to host frugally without it appearing so. I'd love to hear yours.
I use cloth napkins and table cloths to set the theme and formality of the event. They are much easier to store than a second set of formal china or holiday themed dishes. I find them at thrift stores or deeply discounted on clearance. I don't understand why people have 2 or more sets of dishes. I have service for 16 in a simple but elegant white pattern that works for any occasion.
Luckily my friends and family understand I have a very restrictive diet due to medical issues. They also know I source high quality local ingredients because of the medical issues. I tend to cook based on what is available at the time and get rave reviews for my healthy tasty cooking.
Since we have a large garden, laying hens, and honey bees I like to host a brunch when I can. I can craft awesome meals from my yard half of the year. This saves a ton of money in the summer and fall. My guests also love seeing the garden too.
For the winter I do comfort food even if it isn't formal because people love it. My most popular meal is Thanksgiving style turkey dinner any time other than November. It is a great way to use the storage veggies from the garden too.
Soups, stir fries, slow cooked meat recipes, and other comfort foods are easy to dress up with less common veggies.
I am a fan of cooking a large bean pot which usually includes stock, store bought organic beans ($4 buys plenty), veggies from the garden or storeroom, we eat vegetarian so veggies are the main ingredient, but you could easily drop some fish or a ham hock in. You can easily feed 8 people for $2 a plate. Dessert is usually baked apples or winter squash with a little brown sugar. If we still have huckleberries we make a pie.
If I make a dessert it is usually pie. I can pie filling over the summer when we more berries than we can eat. I make a crust in the food processor and using home canned filling makes it easy to put one together on short notice.
Yes! I also love growing squash for it's ability to feed a lot with (atleast here) little effort, if you get the right variety. This year on one pumpkin vine we are getting about 5 pies plus yummy snack seeds. Our fruit trees and berries aren't mature enough to have extra for freezing.
We get extra tomatoes with neglect, we got enough for some winter sauce. The thing I find about red cherry tomatoes especially neat is when we hang them with some vine in the basement we can pull out fresh tomatoes about 2 months after the killing frost.
We can get greens regularly during the months from about mid May through end of December. Not always in larger quantities, but enough to fancy up a plane dish. The more exotic greens, and even flowers, make it more elegant, though they are the ones we cultivate the least.
To that end, I will post some fancy plating I found in my binge on making food look great. Notice the plate decorations and how many are more or less weeds or could be replaced by weeds.
I love hosting but it rarely costs much, I like to do Chinese or Indian themes sometimes since I am an immigrant here I'll do English food (If I am cooking for danes) I would not consider using plastic/paper plates that would be downright nasty. The only time I would use them is if it's outside and for over 15-20 I do use paper napkins I don't see the point in storing real ones for the very occasional use they would get, we have those plastic coated fabric table cloths and real tablecloths, pick which one according to the diners and the formality.
If you are going formal, then serve a soup or small salad first, cheap and takes the edge off the hunger, pair it with bread for more effect. Little homemade dinner rolls work wonders as everyone likes fresh bread and you get compliments! Everything should be served on a plate if you are economising, as people will pick the best bits from a buffet. And certainly leaving a good looking desert on display is a good idea, or a cheese board if the budget has stretched that far.
When picking courses I often pick something with pastry as it looks good and is filling and cheap. Danes expect LOTS of meat in their meal which doesn't help the money but encasing it in a pie or a pudding spreads it out! (Mother in law will cook 3x2-3kg ducks for 8 people! and there isn't much left)
Cloth napkins can be a PTA. We settled for rags that have to be re-dyed after a while. What I wanted was plain cotton black or dark brown napkins to avoid staining but still be absorbent, but it appears there is no such thing, atleast in our price range, but a set of kitchen rags from Walmart and some dye is good enough for now.
As for table cloths on the other hand, those annoy me. I think it's the size, stainability, and burn-ability. As an alternative, since we do have a nice wooden table, I plan on cleaning up a spare piece of wood and staining or painting it nice as a wooden table runner, kind of like the one in the link below. Then I should be able to just wipe it off and store it behind a cabinet rather than worrying about spills and stains, and it taking up half a laundry load.
Here in France I find loading up the starters works well
Aperatifs with our own dried pears ( cost in shops 30€ a kilo ) and home made dried tomatoes ,followed by home made humus ( fresh coriander from the garden ) with home made walnut bread ( 5€ a loaf in the shops )
Then for main course go exotic Indian curry :-) with home made chutney impress at no great cost :-)
Living in Anjou , France,
For the many not for the few
I like to cook and have a few dinner guests over throughout the year, but not often because we are isolated. Here are some thoughts on frugality though...
When I cook I often get the nibbles because it looks and smells so good. Rather than nibble on the main course or starter course which may mean buying more of it, I obtain (buy or scavenge) some nuts. I snack on these as I am cooking away.
I live along the coast so I often use seafood because here it is pretty cheap. A lot of times my guests are from away so they relish seafood dishes, but you must ask first, because not everyone loves lobster or Atlantic Salmon. Use what you got. Lobster for many is expensive, lobster for me is cheap.
I think there is something about doing something different, so I like to do things in unique ways as it often starts conversations. I mentioned Atlantic Salmon; a person has never had perfectly cooked Salmon until they have had it cooked in the moist environment of a Dish Washer!!! Yep...temperature and humidity is perfect! Yeah, that is a conversation starter over dinner!
I carry that on to dishes. Nothing is so boring and cheap to buy as broccoli florets, but remember those Walnuts I was snacking on to keep me from nibbling? Few guests have ever thought about sassying up boring broccoli by topping it with chopped walnuts...and while you are at it, add a little zest by including lemon juice to taste. It makes them say, "It has something in it, but I cannot quite place it", and, "I never thought of topping it with walnuts." (For softer nuts include as you cook, and for more vibrant nuts, top afterwards...choice is yours). Almost every dish can have unique things added, think outside the box and make dull food unique by including them, not in the use of using exotic and expensive food in the onset.
Use smoke. I love to grill (I am a guy) and I have a forest full of different woods. Ash, cedar, apple, etc. I cut planks with my chainsaw and grill a top of these woods. Some meats are better than others, but often times it imparts a nice flavor to boring cuts of meats. Don't think you have to fell a huge tree here. Just a few gathered branches or pruning's will get you what you need for smoking food.
Mix and match for something unique. Hamburgers...who cooks hamburgers for guests? I do because I will take a lobster claw (cheaper here than hamburger) and put on top and have a lobster claw-burger. But what if you do not live near lobster bearing waters? How about a lamb chop wrapped with a piece of bacon? (Everyone loves BACON)! Think creatively.
Still some more things can be done on the cheap for dinner guests. I like to use garnish that people really want to eat. I never purposefully buy it, I always have something about the house: apple slices, orange slices, lemon slices, etc. People do eat Kale, but a lot do not, so I like to make sure they feel okay to eat the garnish.
All these different sides that are actually eaten adds up to smaller portions, and that means affordability.
Dessert is where frugality reigns. Buy it from the store and it is expensive, but making a pie, a tart, or cake topped with berries can be really inexpensive. The main expensive dish can be smaller because they can fill up on this stuff, and it is cheap. And word to the wise, dessert is where the magic happens...the camaraderie as people let their guard down for fear of dripping dipping sauce on their chin. They sit on the rocket mass heater bench, (or a couch) their feet kicked up, and really talk about life. Not into berries...show them what homemade ice cream is like!
As for drinks...anything can be fermented so forget the wine. Cheap wine is...well...cheap, but have them sip on Dandelion Wine, or Apple Jack, Apple Cider, or Currant Juice. If you do not make that stuff,see if another Permie closes by does. If your guests are not into it, the water provided will enable them to bow out with grace and simple say, "No, water is fine." Don't give them the option though, provide cups of whatever you are serving AND water, that way they can sip on that instead.
But never get stressed, "a host always stays calm when things go wrong"! So to that end, never forget that the real magic is the fellowship and camaraderie that takes place. NEVER mention those that were invited and did not make it, being thankful and loving towards those that did.
Mimic a restaurant in savings with inexpensive appetizers... Two Breads in Bread course, Home baked white rustic and corn muffins... Real Butter... Soup Course.. Homemade from this weeks left overs and veggie tops... Main course with starch portion like potatoes or rice, large serving roast root vegtables, small portion of meat (if Necessary) or bean-based dish... Side salad, and Dessert of fruit and cheese... or pie... People should be stuffed by this...
Dessert I found can be made cheaply and fancily with either champagne glasses or another small glass thing.
I make trifles. A layer of leftover cookies or sweet bread covered by a little frozen berry, a jar of homemade apple sauce, or fresh fruit. Then, some home made whip cream or whipped coconut cream. Top it off with a quick chocolate syrup (cocoa powder, powdered sugar, and oil) or some cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg (basic pumpkin pie seasoning). Maybe add in a layer of nuts or sprinkles or chocolate chips. It doesn't take a lot of anything and it looks totally exquisite.
It seems the traditional 'dinner party', where the host supplies everything, is pretty much superseded here by ones where everybody brings a course.
It shares the burden and allows the host to enjoy the atmosphere rather than worry if everything is alright. It also makes it easier where people have dietary restrictions because they can bring a suitable dish rather than the host needing to make various meals to suit.
Almost all of the family or friends get togethers have this arrangement - it's also a conversation starter and adds some anticipation to the events.
Since we're a multicultural bunch, the choices are ALWAYS good, lots of variety.
And of course, food almost always tastes better when somebody else has cooked it!
'Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.'
I don't know if it's a regional thing here or not, but from the time the children are old enough to whip cream, the rule has always been everyone contributes. Even if its just whipped cream. We had to start having set menus for family meals to limit our contributions. Everyone had that one dish or six that we just wanted to try. I think the final straw was the year that we filled two tables, a pass through and every counter in a moderately large kitchen. We don't invite the neighbors to be charitable, we need reinforcements to handle the leftovers.
Willie Smits: Village Based Permaculture Approaches in Indonesia (video)