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Planning your party meal

Ask yourself three questions before planning your party meal and everyone, including you, will enjoy the party.

The difference between taking the time to really plan your party meal and flying by the seat of your pants, is that the first way will typically result in an amazing dinner and a great time with family and friends. The second way, not so much. You're bound to feel the stress, frustration and quite possibly end up serving a less than splendid meal. Failing to plan wisely will inevitably lead you to spending way beyond your budget, in both money and time. In order to avoid this undesirable outcome, there are three points you must focus on; your time, your guests, and your skills.

How much time do I have?

It's quite likely that the first time the phrase 'time is money' was uttered was during preparations for a party, let it be a celebration or holiday gathering. Being aware of how much time you have to prepare the meal is of the utmost importance. If you don't get a good idea of how much time you can spend on the feast, you could end up having to skip parts of the menu. Or you could end up spending extra money to change your menu to speed things up to fit the time you have. So, be completely honest with yourself when you figure out how much time you have. No, you do not possess super powers. It's better to get that straight right now so you aren't trying to magically bend and stretch time later.

Yes, you have to realistically figure out how much time you have. But, there's more. You also have to know how much time the food takes to go from store to table. If you have ten hours you can spend to prepare your party feast, and the menu takes twenty hours to shop, cook, and serve, something's got to give. If you think you can squeeze twenty hours worth of food preparation into ten hours, then you are a magician and don't need any help from me! However, if you're not a magician and you're still going to try this trick at home, it's quite likely you will find yourself rushing around spending valuable time trying to gather ingredients to substitute for menu items you wanted to have but ran out of time to prepare. This could put a huge burden on your time, your money, and your sanity. Don't make the mistake of under-estimating how much time it takes to prepare for your feast and celebration.

What do my guests want and need?

You would think this is a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how something so simple can make such a big difference in the way your feast turns out. For instance, do your guests like to snack, mingle, chat, and then snack some more? If so, why not focus on that approach rather than a huge sit-down meal? After all that nibbling and mingling, if you lead your guests to a big seven course dinner, you may be putting a halt to the fun and putting your huge meal away untouched. However, if your guests are the kind who like to come in, sit down, and dig into a big meal, then by all means skip all the appetizers and get your meal on the table. This keeps you from wasting money preparing a bunch of snacks when it's the meal everyone is looking forward to anyway.

Knowing your guests also means knowing their likes and dislikes. This doesn't mean you have to cater all your dishes to individual tastes, but try to reach a general consensus so you don't feel like you're running a restaurant, or spending money like a restaurant. Skip the rosemary potatoes if your guests are lukewarm with their responses when asked. And, yes, I did say ask. It's quite appropriate when you issue an invitation to a dinner to ask your guests if they have any preferences, dietary needs, or even allergies. Go ahead and be specific and tell them what you plan to have on the menu and if anything could cause a problem. It's all part of being a good host.

Where do my skills fit in?

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to cook an over-the-top meal and dumping it into the trash just because you reached way beyond your skills. Avoid creating culinary disasters by knowing your abilities. You don't want to spend a lot of money, or time, on a party meal that is a vision of loveliness in the foodie magazine but has no basis in reality in your kitchen. A party meal is no time to experiment. Find trusted recipes and use them. If you want to try something new, stay within your range of skills and try them out beforehand if possible. If you're the least bit nervous, stick with what you know. Your guests will always appreciate your tried-and-true dishes.

By being aware of your time, knowing your guests, and being true to your skill set, not only will you have a great party meal, you will also keep your budget intact. And that all leads to a fun, relaxing celebration for everyone, including you!

Guest list size matters for your party budget

No matter what kind of party you're planning, one of the most common ways to blow your budget and spoil a party is to either over-estimate or under-estimate your guest list. Let's take a look at what happens when you don't figure your numbers correctly.

Too much of a good thing

We have all been there, right? We plan for thirty people to show up, and the last thing we want to do is run out of food. So, we cook for forty just to make sure nobody is wanting. Then twenty people show up. There's a big difference between cooking for forty and cooking for twenty. Now, you have food to spare. What do you do with it? Most likely you will send it home with your guests because you never have that much room in your refrigerator to store leftovers. Even if you do have the room to store the leftovers, you'll never eat it up before it goes bad.

This is the problem when we over-estimate our guest list. Over-estimating your list means that you will inevitably go through more stress and financial burden. You'll not only be frustrated and worn out preparing for more people than necessary, but eventually you'll see your hard earned money either walking out the door in containers or going out with the trash.

Less is better doesn't work

On the other hand, under-estimating your guest list is almost as bad, if not worse. Under-estimating your guest list means that you don't cook enough. Say you invite thirty, but assume that only fifteen will come, but they all show up. Now, what do you do? Assuming that a lot fewer people will show up is a dangerous assumption to make, especially when it comes to food. Even though you don't have to worry about throwing out or giving away extra food, the reverse is just as bad. You have guests now eager for something to snack on and your appetizers are woefully meager. And that lovely turkey you have that will feed fifteen beautifully just looks pitiful.

You can only boil up so many more potatoes to help stretch a meal. So, you do what any good host does; you send someone out to the deli. The cost and stress of running out for more food can really upset your day. Instead of cooking for the thirty people you invited, now you're buying pre-made appetizers and dinner items for fifteen more people. It didn't have to be that way if you had just cooked for your invited guest list to begin with.

Verify your guest list

Since both over-estimating and under-estimating lead to serious consequences to your budget and stress level, it is best to avoid both of these situations. One of the easiest ways to make sure this doesn't happen is to do what all good hosts do - verify your guest list.

The simplest way to verify a guest list is to put an RSVP on your invitation. Some people may feel silly or uncomfortable about this if you're hosting a more casual party or a holiday gathering for the family. But, don't give that a thought. Any party, big or small, fancy or casual, benefits by an RSVP on the invitation. Your guests will appreciate the thoughtful regard you have given to them. After all, an RSVP just ensures that you, their host, will have plenty of food and drink when everyone arrives, and isn't that what being a good host is all about?

If your guests are slow in responding to the invitation, then take it upon yourself to pick up the phone and give them a call to confirm that they are coming to your event. You can use this opportunity to double check on the time, diet concerns, or if there is anything else either you or they need to know.

Whether you're planning a small gathering or a large one, get your guest list in order, verify it, then stick to your numbers. If you have twenty people RSVP with a 'Yes' then cook for twenty people. You don't want more and you don't want less, because doing either one is a waste of money and can be a real party pain!

Change the rules and say goodbye to costly traditions

Holiday traditions become traditions for a reason – we love them.  But sometimes our budget doesn't love them quite so much.  When you get trapped into doing certain things and having certain foods during holiday gatherings, spending beyond your budget is a distinct possibility. How can you get away from paying more than you want to for these traditional foods and holiday entertainment year after year?  It may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but when you see the savings, you'll be glad you learned to break away.

Traditions may have to fall

It is very often difficult to break with tradition, especially during the holidays.  However, if you're hosting a holiday gathering and you have a budget to consider, you may have to step on some toes. I won't say it's going to be easy. The struggle may be internal, in your own mind.  Or, the struggle may be external, family members telling you that you “simply can't” skip Grandma's special six-hour-twelve-layer-dessert that cost as much to make as Junior's orthodontist bill.

Personal feelings can play a big part in these traditions. If you break the news to the family that you can't see your way clear to make something or do something, and you're met with shrieks and tears, then suggest that someone go ahead and take on that particular tradition.  You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but be honest.  Then, if someone wants to take up the mantle, by all means, let them. Everyone wins, tradition is intact if someone feels it should be, and you are off the hook for the expense. And remember, not everyone in the family is in love with the tradition that you've been trying to figure out how to eliminate from your plans.  Do a fact-check in your family and find out before you spend the money and time on something nobody really wants.

Brainstorming new traditions

If you and your family agree that a tradition must be lovingly set adrift, it is time to begin anew. This is where everything starts getting interesting, and fun. It's time to get everyone on board and start brainstorming. So the question is put to the family; If we're going to let go of the huge meal and all the other expense surrounding a holiday, what do we replace it with?

A fun idea to break away from tradition is to set a theme for your holiday dinner.  Have everyone bring one dish that they feel is consistent with that theme. For instance, make your dinner about the immigration of people from all over the world.  Feature dishes and decor from any region you think would be interesting. Choose areas of the world that are unknown to you, or celebrate your own heritage, or share a dish you enjoyed from your travels. Have fun with the variety that a themed event can provide. But, don't stop there.  How would you like to host a beach party for Christmas?  Or a picnic for Thanksgiving?  Or a traveling meal, going between a few houses instead of one person responsible for the entire meal? The brainstorming session is all about throwing ideas on the table for everyone to consider.  Let your thoughts run wild and have fun with this new experience.

You don't have to do it again

Now that you are excited about brainstorming new ideas, it's time to remind everyone that even THIS new tradition doesn't have to be a tradition.  Next year you may forget the theme and just have hot sandwiches and movies.  The following year maybe you will host a Christmas breakfast instead of dinner.  Nothing is written in stone – even traditions.   

The idea is that if you have the privilege of hosting a holiday gathering for your family and friends, then you have the say about exactly what sort of event it will be.  Are you going to tote out Grandma's celery seed biscuits again, and throw them all out again, or are you going to get creative?

You don't have to stick to traditions when they don't workout for your budget.  And when you try new traditions, you don't have to do it again. Don't let traditions dictate your budget.  Find a way to break free and enjoy what's really important – spending time with people you love and having some fun!