5 tips for summer backyard entertaining on a budget
While you may never be on the Martha Stewart or Ina Garten level of home entertaining (after all, we don’t all have a home in East Hampton with a lush backyard), there’s no reason you can’t aspire to these mega-hostesses’ easy, breezy entertaining philosophies.
And while you’re at it, you can aspire to host for less — making Friday night dinners or Sunday brunch for the friends you call family affordable, digestible and eminently enjoyable affairs. After all, the pleasure is not so much in the pudding (though it can be!) as it is in the company. So instead of going in the red to fund an all-out backyard barbecue or intimate outdoor cocktail party — or perhaps worse, giving up on the idea of hosting altogether — check out these savvy and simple ways to save money on your summer shindig.
1. Don’t get carried away.
First things first: Decide what you’re going to make and stick to the plan. Whether you’re hosting a brunch for six of your closest friends on your back patio or a Sunday supper with your neighbors and their two kids, put together an appropriate menu based on the number of people as well as the occasion.
Food writer and photographer (and editor of Good. Food. Stories) Casey Barber, who also happens to be semi-famous in certain circles for her legendary, meticulously themed Christmas parties (pre-COVID-19), admits to fighting the urge to make too much food every time. “Over-serving my guests is the number-one way costs get out of hand,” she cautions.
Barber urges hosts not to overdo it. And if you simply must add one more thing, take a nod from Martha and put out some radishes and olive oil: cheap and delicious.
2. Let the sides take center stage.
The announcement from one of the world’s top restaurants, Eleven Madison Park, that it will no longer be serving meat or seafood in its multi-course tasting menu should tell you one thing: Meat isn’t everything. In fact, it may not be necessary at all. Barber says if you’re serving meat — and note the “if” here, for you’re obviously not obligated to include it on your menu at all — you should use it as an accent, not the main course. Less is more, and Barber suggests grilling one large steak (skirt and flank steaks are both more affordable than porterhouses or filet mignons) and slicing it up for fajitas or with a wedge salad instead of bacon for something a bit more substantial.
3. Embrace nature as your decor.
Indeed, one of the beautiful things about hosting a small summer gathering is the great outdoors. Less cleanup is an obvious win for the host (you’ll have even less work if you go for paper plates and paper utensils, of which there are now many environmentally friendly options to choose from), but another bonus? There is absolutely no need to decorate.
“I consider decorating of zero importance when we’re having a backyard get-together,” says Barber, who will typically light a few tiki torches if the party goes on past dusk and maybe some string lights under the pergola. The ambiance of the evening (with a few fireflies) is all that’s needed, points out Barber, adding that a good playlist is a nonnegotiable. It’s free, too!
Admittedly, Barber says she always goes over budget when themes are involved, so unless you are extremely crafty and resourceful, consider skipping the theme and simply embracing the joy of hanging with your friends again.
4. Be open to BYOB.
There’s something about getting invited to someone’s home that makes people want to arrive bearing a gift of some sort. Sometimes that offering is a lovely bouquet of flowers (another reason to support the zero-decorating mentality), but more often than not, it is wine or beer or a bottle of fancy booze. Assume that at least half of your guests are going to bring some form of alcohol, and be done fretting about your bar situation — even if it is a bit lacking.
It’s a good idea to stock up on sodas and mixers, all of which can be procured cheaply. Pick up an orange and a couple of limes and lemons, and make a simple big-batch drink if you can’t be content with the DIY approach. Barber’s a fan of the batch drink, which she says can actually make the party feel “a little special.” It doesn’t have to be elaborate either: Try a homemade simple syrup (an herb infusion adds a hint of sophistication) mixed with lemonade or iced tea. It’s delicious with or without vodka/gin/bourbon/tequila — your guests can pick their poison based on whatever liquor you’ve laid out or they’ve come armed with.
5. Remember: Time is money.
While it’s probably not worth the effort to price out the cost of making hummus versus buying a tub of it, something which Barber has never done, she can offer this sad truth: No one cares if the hummus is homemade.
So although it might give you bragging rights to say you made the crackers and the bread that’s now functioning as crostini with toppings that are the thing that’s getting everyone’s attention, in the end, any savings isn’t great enough to justify the time, effort and moderate appreciation. There is one exception to this rule, though, which Barber is quick to point out: “Guacamole is always better from scratch, even if it does cost more.”
(Real Simple magazine provides smart, realistic solutions to everyday challenges. Online at www.realsimple.com.)