Over the last year, I have learned much about eating “real food” on a budget. For me, the most helpful tools for eating this way without spending a fortune have been meal planning and strategically buying in bulk. And raising my monthly allotment for groceries a bit.
So, I’m finally getting to the point where I’m relatively comfortable with both the quality of food we buy and the amount we spend.
Until I start throwing parties.
Opening my home simply brings me joy; I love the planning, cooking, sprucing up with some seasonal décor, and anticipation of the event. I love the idea of making my home a haven for others and the opening of hearts and lives that happens over a meal.
I will host just about anything except a sporting event party–unless there’s a few people present with as little interest in the event as me. Or unless there are really great snacks.
But there in lies the rub: making all these extra snacks and meals on a grocery budget that doesn’t have a lot of margin.
Unwilling to sacrifice the practice of hospitality or the serving of real food, I set out to resolve my dilemma. I won’t say I’ve arrived at a perfect plan (or that one even exists), but here are some ideas that have helped me so far.
Entertaining with Real Food (Frugally)
1.) Plan Ahead
While some opportunities to host friends for meals come up spontaneously, most of the time, penciling in “hospitality nights” on the calender each month helps me strategically meal-plan and grocery shop.
For example, because good quality meat is one of our larger grocery expenses, I might plan more vegetarian dishes during the week I know I’m cooking a big dinner for company on Saturday. You could also watch for sales and make Saturday’s dinner using whatever’s less expensive that week.
2.) Be Strategic
When you having a family of 6 coming to stay for the weekend (true story and it was awesome) it’s probably not the best time to grill organic, grass-fed beef burgers for everyone. Unless you have a grocery budget that’s much larger than mine, in which case bring on the meat.
Instead, plan to make main dishes that are more veggie or legume-heavy, with meat as more of a supplement than a main feature (think casseroles, taco salad with beans and lentils as fillers, hearty soups or chili, etc.).
3.) Say Yes to Help
Accepting people’s offers to bring a dish is just generally good practice (I always say yes to help!), but it’s also especially helpful if your grocery budget is tight.
4.) Do Dessert Instead of Dinner
If it’s the end of the month and the grocery envelope is almost empty (we don’t use a physical envelope system, but the point stands) don’t offer dinner. Instead, invite people over later in the evening for dessert and coffee.
This is one also works for hosting girls’-nights-in or when there’s lots of kids in the picture and having sit-down dinner with 5 toddlers feels overwhelming (though we’ve done that too). If it’s not too late, the kids come already fed and happy. Then, you can share a dessert while the wee ones play.
5.) Do Snacks Instead of a Main Meal
When hosting a birthday party on a budget, it’s helpful to schedule during a window of time when people won’t expect a main meal—just after lunch, before dinner, or even brunch-ish time. That way, you can reasonably serve something light and snacky, which also ends up being more frugal.
For Buckaroo’s simple and stress-free first birthday party, I just served an assortment of homemade, real-food, kid-friendly snacks.
6.) Lower Your Standards
Even if you’re thoroughly convinced of the benefits of a real food diet, when cooking for large groups you may have to cut yourself a little slack.
If you can’t afford the $8 bags of non-GMO corn tortilla chips and that you need for the taco salad for 10, buy the regular chips (if you’re a Bible-reader, I’ll direct you to Mark 16:18 and suggest you claim the part about the poison ;)). Go for the conventional veggies over the organic–at least it’s produce.
I try to remind myself of the 80/20 rule: I do my best with the 80% of our food consumption that’s reasonably within my control and try not to worry about the other 20%.
7.) Don’t Let the Budget Be the Bottom Line
It’s easy to look at my budget and think: we’re eating a pretty frugal whole-foods diet as it is, how can I afford to entertain?
But honestly, with a little flexibility (I might borrow from other budget categories if I’m hosting a party one month) and creativity (see #2, 4, 5, and 6) I’ve found that I’m able to both feed others and not scare Hubs (much) with my grocery receipts.
8.) And Finally: You Can Hang Out Without Snacks
Gasp. I know, it’s not nearly as fun. But it is possible.
I’m not saying I do it much–because I like to feed other people almost as much as I enjoy food–but if there’s nothing in the pantry and Hubby suggests having friends over, don’t let lack of munchies inhibit hospitality. Offer drinks and nice conversation or a fun game and you’re set.
Hospitality is about welcoming others into our homes and lives.
While serving crème brûlée is a nice bonus, it is by no means required.
Do you have any frugal/real food hospitality tips? Please share!