Welcome to Your Home Outdoors, our summertime series on tips and tricks that'll help you live your best life outside―no matter the size of your space! So pull up a chair, grab a glass of something icy-cold, and join us.
For those of us who enjoy entertaining, throwing a dinner party is the kind of simple pleasure that reminds us why we’re glad to be alive. The creative pleasure of menu planning and the crossing-things-off-a-list gratification of grocery shopping, the contentment in prepping and cooking, and the beauty in table-setting all come together in the joy of the party. Few everyday things in life are as deeply satisfying as seeing friends around your table, eating and talking and laughing...and few everyday things are quite as expensive.
There’s the labor of course: those hours spent figuring out what you’re going to cook and going to the grocery store and then that other store that has better bread and then that third store that sells the beer you like; the time washing and peeling and chopping, sautéing and roasting and baking; the mad dash to throw all your dirty clothes in a hamper and make presentable piles out of household clutter; the endless dishwashing at the end of the night.
There’s also the actual money of it all. When you host a dinner party, you act as a restaurant for the evening...a restaurant where everything is free. As Eater brilliantly showed us in 2015, even the most well-oiled restaurants are hardly raking it in, and people are actually paying for those meals. You, on the other hand, have invited 10 people over to your home where you are going to feed them and entertain them on your own dime. In return you get the warm fuzzies of hosting, and hopefully you don’t go into debt.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average weekly food budget for an adult American woman is $58.93 and $66.67 for an adult man—which works out to $2.08 per meal for women and $3.17 per meal for men. (For context, the price of a single ride on the New York City subway is $2.75 and the average price of an apple at my local Brooklyn supermarket is $1.03—nearly half the amount of money allocated for a woman’s meal and one-third of a man’s.) Based on this standard, hosting 10 people at home for $50 almost doubles weekly food spending.
Eating on a budget—and therefore entertaining on a budget—is not impossible, though it is a challenge. In 2017, the U.S. Farm Bureau reported that the average cost of Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people was $49.12, or $4.91 per person. What was on the menu? Turkey, bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, buttered rolls, cranberries, frozen peas, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. What was not on the menu? Green salad, Brussels sprouts, green beans—that is, fresh vegetables.
The truth is, with rising food costs, it can be a challenge to eat balanced and bright meals on a budget. The USDA states that “a consumer on a 2,000-calorie diet could satisfy Federal fruit and vegetable recommendations for $2.10 to $2.60 per day,” mostly by substituting canned fruits and frozen vegetables for fresh—in other words, wholesomeness is not out of reach, even if the meals we create look slightly different from what we may have hoped for.
Part of the issue here is the food we can eat versus the food we want to eat. Millions of Americans eat on less than $50 per week, and people still find ways to feed themselves and others on leaner budgets. But the fact that there are options shouldn’t diminish the importance of looking at what those options are and how they taste and how they make us feel.
I can throw a dinner party for $50. And I can make food that I want to make: food that tastes good, reflects the flavors and cooking styles I love, and feels seasonal and fun.
For guidance, I turned to my dear friend Jennie Lupo, a professional chef who now works as the catering manager at Smile To Go in New York. I asked if she thought I could pull this off, and she responded as cool as ever: “For 10 people, it's no sweat,” she said. “Buy whole ingredients, think bold flavors.”
No sweat...and considering that temperatures have been hovering in the high-80s for weeks, I also want to plan a menu that’s not going to make anyone literally sweat—in the cooking or the eating.
So with spreadsheets in hand (what, you don’t plan your dinner parties with spreadsheets?), I set out to create a summer dinner party for 10 on $50. Here’s the menu:
Roasted vegetable salsa, $5.83
Black bean dip, $8.98
“Don't overthink the appetizers,” Jennie says. “Keep it simple, with a twist. When roasting veggies for salsa don't be afraid to add an unexpected flavor, like Szechuan pepper or a curry spice blend. Think big bang for your buck, your guests will be intrigued and impressed.” In terms of amounts, “The general rule for dips is 3 ounces per person, approximately 2 pounds for 10 guests,” Jennie informed me.
Homemade tortilla chips (with store-bought tortillas), $1.80
Crudités (carrots and cucumber), $1.66
“For crudité and crackers you want to estimate 1 to 2 ounces per guests; for 10 guests, this would be approximately 1 1/2 pounds of each,” says Jennie. “One thing to always keep in mind is that guests are always more likely to go for crudité platters that look colorful. Look for veggies like watermelon radishes, rainbow carrots, and bright bell peppers.”
Spiced popcorn, $1.44
“Popcorn. Is. Always. A. Hit.” (Emphasis Jennie’s.) “Nostalgic, easy to eat, and cheap to spruce up with endless combinations: Rosemary and Parmigiano. Nutritional yeast and butter. Smoked paprika and lime. Literally any instant ramen seasoning packet. Let your imagination run wild, your guests will appreciate it. Estimate that each guest will eat approximately 1 cup.”
Cabbage-jalapeño slaw, $4.46
For sides, “Estimate 3 ounces or 1/2 cup per person, which is 5 cups for 10 guests,” says Jennie. “Generally, you can consider that people will eat less grain/potato/pasta based dishes, so estimate 2 ounces or 1/3 cup per person, which is roughly 3 cups for 10 guests.”
Oven-fried chicken thighs, $16.25
“It is always wise to choose cheaper yet still delicious cuts of meat,” says Jennie. “Chicken thighs will give you huge flavor for less money, perfect for a summer party. With all the other delicious food being offered, you should estimate one chicken thigh, approximately 1 1/2 pounds with the bone, per person.”
Coffee granita, $2.41
“Dessert is always the trickiest part of the meal to estimate for a group,” says Jennie. “On the one hand, you will be hard-pressed to find a person that will say no to a frosty treat, however how much they will consume is very difficult to estimate. To be safe, it is best to estimate 1 cup of ice cream/frozen treat per person.”
BYOB, friends! $0.00
“The best formula is to assume each guest will drink approximately 2 alcoholic beverages the first hour and 1 for every hour after that,” Jennie told me. “For 10 guests I would estimate, on the higher end, 5 bottles of wine, or 2 to 3 bottles of booze (depending on how hard you think your crowd is going to go), or 3 to 4 six-packs of beer.”
When I asked about Jell-O shots, she said the three words that are a direct route to my heart: “Jell-O shots forever.” Which is all to say that 1. Jell-O shots are truly the most fun, and 2. Drinking is expensive. If everyone in attendance brings something to drink and one person brings a big bag of ice, and Jennie brings her famous Jell-O shots, we’ll be covered and I won’t go over budget.
The math for a party like this is tricky, in that some things I’ll need to buy (a tin of vegetable base for the bean dip or a small jar of honey for the chipotle sauce on the potatoes) I won’t use all of. Call them investment groceries. To maximize these ingredients, it’s a good idea to find ways to use them throughout the meal, without making everything taste the same. If you’re buying a jar of tahini for hummus, for example, think about making roasted broccoli with tahini as well. This menu uses a number of ingredients across dishes: there’s coffee in the bean dip and the dessert; there’s cumin in the salsa, the bean dip, the popcorn, and the slaw; there’s garlic in the salsa, the bean dip, and the chipotle sauce for the potatoes.
But not everything can be used entirely, which means that in order to make a meal that costs $50, I’m going to have to spend more than that (assuming I’m buying every ingredient—I do, in fact, already have spices on my shelf and oil in my pantry). Based on my math and shopping at my local Brooklyn supermarket, the cost of this meal comes out to $50.24—but the amount I have to spend at the store is much higher, coming in at $82.52. And that’s not accounting for what might be on sale at your supermarket or what’s more expensive in your neighborhood or region.
I’ve been so wrapped up in making sure I don’t go over budget, I almost forgot Jennie’s most sage advice: “It's your job as the host to create an environment that is comfortable, fun, and lacking pretense.” Oh, right. I can’t host well if I’m constantly telling everyone how much their chips cost (about 1 1/2 cents each). I have to make an effort to appear to be a normal person, and I do want this to be a fun time, since that’s the whole point of entertaining.
Food52’s Art Director Alexis Anthony chimed in with her tips for setting the scene. “Repurpose dish towels as napkins,” she wisely advised. “Roll them around silverware, tie with twine, insert a sprig of something hearty like rosemary.”
For tabletop decor, she recommends foraging. “For free florals, look for inspiration in your garden. Fill small groupings of bud vases with pretty leaves, vine clippings, hearty herbs, branches or flowers you find in your garden. Some things commonly found in the garden that work well are ferns, coleus, sweet potato vines, rosemary, and ivy.”
“If I only had one place to spend money in the garden,” she said, “I would spend it on string lights. A strand of string lights can turn any ho-hum garden into a magical paradise.”
A magical paradise sounds good: a world where the string lights distract from the cheap outdoor furniture, and eating and entertaining on a tight budget doesn’t require a week’s worth of planning. But I’ve got my plan, I’m going to the grocery store tomorrow, and I know that however this turns out—whether I go over budget and make up for it in rice for the rest of the week, or whether everything comes together perfectly—it will be great, and we’ll all get the warm fuzzies that come from being together outside around a table.
What are your tricks for entertaining on a budget? Let us know in the comments!