Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Parties at Home

Hooray! We are throwing our "not-so-annual" holiday party, and quite a few friends are signed up to come. Every couple of years or so, we feel up to the challenge and throw open the doors. This year, a party seems especially needed: The economy is in the tank, everyone's worried where the bottom is, and at least some of us wondering if our children will re-live the 1970s recession that branded our psyche. I always felt a little bonded with my Depression-era Grandfather in my basic fear that good economic times can't last. But, really, I don't need to re-live his past. He tells a story of dreaming that one day he would save a rich man's daughter from being hit by a street car. His hope was not to get the girl, but that the rich father would offer him a job as a reward. He also tells a story about being paid to house-sit empty houses for the bank, which seems a little too eerie nowadays.

In that spirit, our parties are very home-made and I try to keep an eye on the budget. I can never justify spending money to cater or even pre-order anything at the grocery store. It's more work, but I think the food and atmosphere are more homey and much better. There are ways to have your party and to save time and money, too. Some modest tips:

Roast a turkey or buy a pre-cooked ham. I actually bought a frozen turkey (half-price) right after Thanksgiving. I'll roast it the day of the party to have lots of food. A spiral ham is also a great choice. Guests can serve themselves and the leftover ham bone can go into a soup or beans.

Make soup or chili. It's very economical to make a pot of soup or chili; you can make it special with a few exotic ingredients or just a funny name. One year I made my Famous Christmas Chili. Obviously, cheap and easy, but it went over great, perhaps due to that witty name. You can serve it in coffee mugs to save buying bowls and also to cut down on spills.

Chips, bread, crackers, cut veggies: All of these are great filler for simple dips, salsas, cheese, etc. Any leftover veggies can be used for soup later.

Potluck. Ask friends to bring food or drinks. If you want more control, ask people to bring specific items (get a couple of ringers if you know Beth makes a mean beef stew) or use email/evites to have people sign up for certain dishes. Or try a theme: "sweet and savory," asking guests to bring one or the other, or pick a country and ask for regional dishes. It 's a lot of fun to try different dishes, and it definitely saves work and money for the host.

Specialty Cocktail or BYOB. For several recent parties, we've created a "speciality cocktail." It's usually an ordinary-type drink, but we make a batch of it and give it a funny name. It's very festive. I have smallish wine glasses that I serve these in. You save money because you are not stocking a full bar, just the special drinks served in modest portions. I'm thinking about doing a mulled wine and a mulled cider this year, so that my preteens can have a special drink that's not alcoholic. If it's clearly BYOB, people will bring their own and you don't have to guess and waste $$ on unwanted liquor.

Use the real thing. If you have enough real plates and glasses, use them! You'd be surprised how much money you end up spending on disposables. Sure, you'll have to run the dishwasher an extra time or two, but it really does seem special and nice to use real glasses and plates. Try to use small plates to make the food stretch.

Focus on friends and food. The point is to get together with friends; don't stress it. Searching for holiday budget tips today, I was surprised to find most of the tips were how to save money on decorations and goody bags. Please. Do away with all that stuff. Straighten your house, make sure there are a few places to sit or put down a drink, but don't go crazy with decorating. Everyone's going to be standing in the kitchen anyway, just wanting to talk and catch up. That's the gift you are giving yourself and your friends at a holiday get-together. Enjoy it!

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