Whether you’re hosting a cocktail party for 75 or an intimate dinner for 12, you want to spend your holiday entertaining budget on the things your guests will enjoy and remember.
We talked with local event planners to help us figure out where to skimp (hint: expensive wine) and where to spend the big bucks (you’ll never regret hiring wait staff). Follow these guidelines for a holiday affair to remember that won’t break the bank.
1. Signature Cocktail: Setting up a full bar is pricy. Opt instead for a signature cocktail, which feels more festive for a fraction of the cost. Renny Pedersen, founder of Chicago’s Bliss Weddings and Events recommends Rosemary Pear Sparklers (1 part pear vodka, 1 teaspoon rosemary syrup, top with dry Prosecco or sparkling wine). Serve in chilled coupe glasses garnished with fresh sprigs of rosemary for a pretty presentation.
2. Affordable Wine: Expensive wine eats up more of your party budget than it’s worth. “The difference between an $8 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle is minimal and your guests won’t notice,” says Megan Estrada of North Shore Weddings and Events. Just make sure the wines you choose are light and drinkable with a variety of foods.
3. Filling Foods: Estrada says foods that combine starches and protein in each bite are more filling, which means you don’t have to serve as many pieces per person. Some of her favorites include Brie and apricot tartlets, mini beef empanadas, and bacon-wrapped dates with cheese.
4. Passed Appetizers: People eat less from a passed tray than from a buffet, says Chicago event planner Stacy Saltzman (sostacy.com). So, pass your most expensive hors d’oeuvres instead of leaving them out for guests to graze.
5. Action Stations: Supplement passed appetizers with bountiful buffets of less expensive foods. Pedersen recommends creating a budget-friendly bruschetta station with slices of toasted French bread and an array of interesting toppings like blue cheese, honey, olive tapenade, goat cheese and apricot chutney.
6. Comfort Food: During the chilly holiday season, people want warm, rustic comfort food. “That’s why all the yummy meatballs served on cocktail sticks always get eaten up first,” Pedersen says. So take the cash you were going to spend on an elaborate seafood display and splurge on another element of the party.
7. Get Help: Saltzman says hiring wait staff, bartenders and parking attendants is the best splurge you can make at your holiday party. If you have a piano, also consider hiring someone to play live music. “Regardless of the size of your party, hiring outside assistance is worth every penny so you can be a guest,” she says.
8. DIY Flowers: Professional floral arrangements can add hundreds to your holiday party budget. Pedersen says you can buy flowers in bulk at Costco or Home Depot for close to the price the pros pay at wholesale flower markets. Arrange store-bought flowers in vases and other vessels (antique teapots, colorful glass bottles) that you have at home.
9. Printed Materials: Estrada says it’s worth devoting some effort and money to printed materials for your party—beginning with beautiful invitations. “I like to put up themed signs throughout the event, directing guests or labeling food,” she says. “Even a nice sign on the bathroom is helpful and makes people feel like the party is cohesive.”
10. Personal Touches: Fine wine and gourmet nibbles are wonderful, but what your guests will really remember is feeling welcome in your home. “Perhaps you have an ornament made for each guest with their family name and the year on it and hang it on your Christmas tree, or hand out slippers to brunch guests to make them feel at home,” Pedersen suggests.
11. Plan Ahead: If you host a holiday party every year, Saltzman says to stock up for the next year the day after this year’s holiday, when things like cocktail napkins and decorations will be on sale.
All photos courtesy of Bliss Events