Lazy days of summer? Hardly. All that nice weather means there are plenty of barbecues, picnics, and other parties to attend and host.
That busy social calendar, in turn, can mean elevated food costs. An American Express survey from 2011 found that 64% of consumers planned a blowout summer celebration, spending $422 on food and drink for 17 guests. Three-quarters of hosts say they plan to ask guests to chip in by bringing a dish, too.
But you don’t need to limit your menu to crudités or bring chips-n-dip to every event to stick to a budget. With a little creativity and a few recipe tweaks, you can whip up summer favorites for less. Here are a few tricks to save, followed by a handful of budget party recipes:
Grow your own herbs.
Spending a few bucks on small pots of herbs for the garden is cheaper than paying $3 for a bunch of fresh basil to make Caprese salad, or $2 for mint for Juleps. “You might get up to 10 times as much in yield from a plant, and still pay roughly the same price,” says Kendal Perez, deals expert for FreeShipping.org. Perez’s cheap go-to: caprese salad, using homegrown basil, cheap tomatoes from the farmer’s market, and mozzarella bought in bulk from a warehouse club.
Pull together cheap cocktails.
Use what you’ve got, rather than buying more booze. Chances are, you have the makings for an inexpensive sangria or punch. Even flat soda from a previous party works, says a spokeswoman for DIY site The Poor Porker. To make a “Pepper-Razz” cocktail, muddle six raspberries in a shaker, add two ounces white rum, and four ounces flat Dr. Pepper soda. Add ice and shake. Strain into a martini glass and serve with a fresh raspberry garnish.
Stock up early.
“Pick up essentials such as barbecue sauce, ice cream, and hot dogs in May, which is typically when sales are best,” says Steven Zussino, the president of Grocery Alerts (www.groceryalerts.ca). It’s also a good time to pick up charcoal for the grill. You’ll save 15% to 20% compared with other summer offers.
They’re inexpensive and give a boost of flavor to of meat and veggies. You can get by with cheaper, tougher cuts — the marinade will tenderize them — instead of pricier steaks. Chef Brack May at Cowbell in New Orleans (www.cowbell-nola.com/), marinates skirt steak in a little olive oil, fresh lime juice, and pureed roasted jalapenos.
Add in salad.
You can get creative with in-season produce. Chef May pairs that skirt steak with a salad made from a quarter of a watermelon (chopped), four cups of tomatoes, a half-cup julienned red onion, a half-cup chopped cilantro, and two Serrano chilis. Combine with a quarter-cup each of lime juice and olive oil, two tablespoons chopped basil, two tablespoons honey, and a pinch of cumin.
Or get creative and incorporate cheap nutritional powerhouses, like beans and potatoes. “Sub in rice for pasta in all your favorite pasta salads,” says Janet Groene, of “Camp and RV Cook” (www.campandrvcook.blogspot.com). It’s cheaper and more nutritious.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.