Serve up a dining delight without starving your bank account.
What better reason than a feast to bring family and friends together? Yet, pulling off a well-heeled meal can be a challenge on a shoestring budget. Minimize your load from the grocery store and lighten your food bill with a little consumer smarts.
Have a plan
First, you need to know how many people you're expecting, what kind of eaters they are -- second-helping stuffers or pick-at-plate patrons -- when the feast will be and how it will be presented, says Jyl Steinback, author of the "Fat Free Living" cookbook series.
Before you head out to the supermarket, look around to see what ingredients are already sitting in your pantry. Melanie Barnard, author of "Short & Sweet: 150 Sophisticated Desserts in No Time at All," suggests keeping it well-stocked, "Because pantry foods tend to be the most economical and the backbone to any feast."
Bigger can be better
When you shop for your ingredients, Steinback recommends buying in bulk from wholesale retailers when possible. Then do the chopping, mincing, dicing and cutting of veggies, meat and cheese ahead of time, and freeze in sealed plastic sandwich bags. Prepare sauces, dressings and desserts in advance, too.
Another strategy for reducing food costs, says Barnard, is planning meals with items that are in season. This not only includes fruits and vegetables, but also dairy and meat. When items are in season they are cheaper and fresher.
Even though produce and foodstuffs are available year-round, they could be imported or harvested months before they're sold. To find out when items are in season, Barnard recommends checking with your local farmer's market.
Keep the recipes simple and flexible
That way, if you plan on using basil in your recipe, and you go to the store and it doesn't look good that day, you can substitute with another herb if you've chosen recipes that can accommodate last-minute changes, Barnard says.
"The hardest recipes are gussied up because you don't have good ingredients. If you have truly great ingredients, you present them the way they are. Let them stand for themselves," Barnard says.
She suggests first preparing pasta. To accompany, fresh seasonal herbs can be sauteed in olive oil, then simmered together with a bit of wine, some tuna, canned tomatoes and maybe a little chicken broth. Barnard says indulge your creativity by adding some artichokes, olives or even anchovies to this mixture. With the meal you can serve Italian bread and a salad of seasonal greens.
"That is a wonderful dish," Barnard says, and one that fits almost any budget.
For dessert, she suggests freezing fruit cocktail in heavy syrup -- the kind you can buy in a can. When you're ready for company, put the frozen fruit-syrup combo into a food processor and add some fruit juice or liqueur.
"In a few minutes you have an unbelievable fruit sorbet," she says.