Prioritizing expenses is an effective way to manage your dinner party costs. It is important to establish the parameters of your budget before inviting guests for 3 reasons:
To determine the number of guests to invite
To keep party planning decisions consistent with your budget
To set your guests’ expectation level to one that you will surpass
Food, alcohol and decorations are indispensable ingredients and with experience you will get a feel for how much each type of party will cost for a given number of guests. Until then, it may be easier just to point in one of three directions:
Spare no expense
In all cases, there is no reason to be wasteful and spend unnecessarily. Costs can be controlled by the food and drinks you serve.
For a dinner party, food is typically the greatest expense. To control food costs, plan the timing and use of ingredients for your hors d'oeuvres and meal. For example, use a more elaborate chicken entrée to make an impression, instead of lobster or crab.
Use expensive ingredients in smaller courses, such as filet mignon in an appetizer instead of a filet mignon entrée. This also gives you the opportunity to make a strong “first” impression.
Finally, use a heavy appetizer, pasta course, and bread to pave the way for smaller portioned entrees.
A self-serve hors d'oeuvre, such as a cheese ball with crackers, during the cocktail hour allows guests to eat more heavily than if bites are passed. And adding a pasta course before will reduce the size of the main dish.
Control food costs by using:
Less expensive ingredients and make more complicated dishes instead
Expensive food items in smaller courses and quantities
Less expensive proteins, such as chicken instead of lobster
Heavy hors d'oeuvres, a pasta course, and bread with smaller portioned main courses
Alcohol, or lack thereof, can ruin a party; however you can easily control your expenditure by what you serve. Plan to serve, at least, 2 drinks per person
during the cocktail hour, 2 drinks or glasses of wine during dinner, and
1 after dinner drink.
Wine will significantly add to the cost of a dinner party. If you are serving wine with dinner, you should plan on pouring ½ bottle per person. Serving cocktails and not offering wine at dinner is perfectly acceptable and less expensive.
You can further control costs by the type of cocktails you serve. Most guests will accept your offer of a “specialty” drink of the evening, which allows you to pre-select what most guests will drink.
Name the drink after your guest of honor, if you have one, and choose a cocktail that suits your budget. Not only does this insert an interesting twist or “surprise”, your specialty drinks will soon become famous as one of your party signatures.
Because of the small size of a dinner party and depending on the complexity of your “specialty” drink, you can mix these as you go or prepare a pitcher ahead of time.
In addition, you should have vodka and one other type of liquor on hand for guests that want something other than your “specialty” drink. And, as always, have non-alcoholic options available.
If you plan on offering an open bar, it is okay to use mid-grade liquors for mixed drinks. Few people can honestly tell the difference when using Svedka Vodka, Jim Beam Bourbon, Seagram’s Blended Whisky, Cruzan Rum, Gilbey’s Gin, or Sauza Tequila instead of premium brand liquors when mixed with juices or sodas.
However, you should always use premium brands for cocktails served without juices or soda such as martinis, Manhattans, scotch on the rocks, bourbon & water, etc. If cost is not an issue, nothing beats the style and elegance of your guests sipping martinis.
After dinner cordials are a very nice after-dinner activity, but are not required. Only serving coffee or offering only one or two cordials after dinner, such as Bailey’s or Kahlua, is another cost-cutting option.
Control alcohol costs by:
• Omitting wine with dinner • Serving mixed drinks instead of martinis • Offering a “specialty” drink of the evening • Using mid-grade liquors for drinks mixed with juices or sodas • Offering few or no cordials after dinner
Food and alcohol can be unique and extraordinary, but well-planned and cohesive decorations throughout will distinguish your dinner party and make your event memorable. Although decorations comprise the smallest part of your overall dinner party budget, they will deliver the biggest impression with the least cost and effort.
Control costs by choosing a theme that may require a little more in decorations, but allow you to reduce food and alcohol expenses. For example, a black & white or elegant dinner party will dictate higher food and alcohol costs than a South of the Border party featuring pre-mixed margaritas and unique Mexican dishes.
You can create an elegant dinner party on any budget, but the “wow” factor can be turned up by lowering expectations via the invitation before the guests arrive. If you want to impress with elegance on a budget, choose a black & white or single color theme, but do not announce it beforehand.
The graphics and wording of a mailed or emailed invitation will go a long way to setting the bar for what your guests will expect. The farther out the invitations are sent the higher the expectations of your guests will be. Finally, a recommendation to dress for dinner will demand a higher standard (and cost) for you by your guests.
Conversely, reducing the lead time and inviting guests by telephone for a “casual dinner with a few friends” will significantly reduce the expectation level. In addition, you can keep things informal, and have greater control in developing the mix of guests, by extending your invitations with a phone call.
Further control costs by creating a casual backdrop for your event:
• Choose a more casual theme to lower food and alcohol costs • Lower expectations with less formal invitations or a phone call • Do not invite too far in advance to create an informal tone • Do not specify a dress code to keep things casual
Obviously, the number of guests that you can seat together is the maximum number of people you can invite to your dinner party. If you wish to invite guests beyond your seating capacity, a buffet-style dinner party is your best option.
In addition, to the size of your dining table, the number of place settings you own, and the parameters of your budget, will also dictate the number of guests that you should invite. Well-executed dinner parties take detailed planning and experience…start off small and work up to larger groups.
A seasoned professional can handle up to 10 people for a 4-course dinner party where the food is plated before serving. However, it still requires some light assistance in clearing and serving plates, as well as a strategically planned menu.
More than 10 guests would likely require more assistance. Alternatively, you may choose to serve food in the less elegant “family-style”, where food platters are placed on the table and passed.
If it is your first dinner party, start off with a party of 4 or, for the ambitious, a party of 6 very close, and forgiving, friends and work your way up from there.
The single most critical factor in the success of your dinner party is who you invite.
It is important to have at least one strong conversationalist for every 4 people, preferably someone with a positive outlook that generally discusses ideas over people and events.
Remember that everyone you invite will reflect directly on you, so it is best to have some idea of how each guest will behave. One rogue guest can easily embarrass you and make your other guests uncomfortable in the intimate setting of a dinner party.
• At least one strong conversationalist for every four people • Some overlap of qualities, backgrounds, and/or interests • Everyone you invite reflects directly on you • Know how your guests will likely behave before inviting them
At this point, determine whether the presence of a particular key guest or the date of the dinner party is your first priority.
For example, if you are hosting a birthday party, obviously the guest of honor will influence the date of the party. Conversely, if you are looking to have a gathering of friends next Saturday evening, the date of the party is more important than any single attendee.
Dinner party invitations can be extended from 2 days to 2 weeks in advance. Be sure to allow enough time for planning and preparation in accordance with your experience and ability. To ensure that the most popular guests can attend, extend your invitations early. When choosing a date also consider:
• Date of holiday, event, birthday, etc., if applicable • Preparation time needed • Day of the week • Holiday and event conflicts • Guest of honor availability • Other key invitees’ availability
Even the best planned dinner parties require most of the preparation to be done the day before and the day of the event. In choosing a date and time, consider how much preparation time you will have available beforehand.
During the week leading up to your dinner party you will be able to:
• Map the party flow • Plan the menu • Decorate • Shop for non-perishables and supplies • Shop for liquor and wine • Select your music • Clean • Set up your bar
The day before your party you will need to:
• Shop for perishables • Prep food • Set the table • Arrange flowers
The day of the party you will need to:
• Finish meal preparation • Get yourself ready • Buy ice & forgotten items • Cut food and drink garnishes • Last-minute straightening • Kitchen clean up • Mix a pitcher of specialty drinks • Set up garnishes & ice at the bar
Saturdays work well because you have the whole day to prepare and people are much more relaxed. Also, some of the day before tasks above can be done on the day of the party.
With practice, you will soon get a feel for how much time you need to host any kind of party; this is great experience for being able to throw an impromptu gathering for any number of guests.
Grab a calendar and pick a primary and alternate date and check for any major holiday conflicts. Depending upon the friends you want to invite, you may also want to check for other possible conflicts, such as major sporting events, school vacations, gay events, out-of-town work conferences, or other parties.
If you have a guest of honor, confirm that the primary and/or alternate date works for them. You may also wish to make sure any other key invitees are available on that day, such as a close friend and strategic guests that add life to a party.
Dinner parties traditionally last 3 or more hours, beginning sometime between 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM. If your party is on Saturday, 7:30 PM is a good start time. If the party is on a “school night” (Sunday-Thursday), you may want to start earlier to allow your guests time to get home to bed.
On the weekend, depending upon your crowd, you may want to plan dinner to end early enough for guests to attend after-dinner parties, especially during the holiday season.
Allow about an hour for cocktails prior to serving dinner. Unless you or some of your guests are on a schedule, feel free to extend the cocktail hour as needed. The hungrier they are the better your food will taste.
Unless you have planned some additional surprises for the cocktail hour after the hors d'oeuvres, it is important to keep the party fresh with a change of scenery.
Obviously, if you have planned for the group to go out afterwards or to another event, you will need to schedule your dinner accordingly.
Be sure to note after dinner plans, if any, and if they are optional on the invitation, For example, if you have rented a limousine to take the group to another party or are going out to a club following dinner.
Before inviting guests or choosing a party theme, decide if you are planning to accommodate any pre- or post-dinner party plans.
Your guests will need to know if this is an event the whole group is doing together or an option available to them. In either case, also inform your guests of:
Dinner and event schedule times
A plan for transportation
You do not necessarily need to arrange transportation for your guests, but you must let them know how you plan for everyone to reach the event and get back to their car or home at the end of the evening.