The first-timer’s guide to throwing frugal dinner parties

If you’ve decided to stay in and have friends over for dinner, start your planning right with a budget that accounts for food, beverages and decor to entertain your crowd in style.

The cost of food and drinks will likely be your biggest expense, so be a smart shopper and plan ahead. One way to trim costs is to explore dinner party alternatives that encourage guests to pitch in to help curb some of those expenses. Here are some ways to throw a frugal dinner party that feels anything but cheap.

[See: 10 Ways to Shop Smarter at the Grocery Store.]

Send personalized invitations. Few people send handwritten invitations anymore and most of us are more than happy with a Facebook event invite — or even a simple text message. Consider sending digital greeting cards to your guests for a personal touch. You can make use of Minted.com’s stylish online invitations (free until Dec. 31, 2016) that provide a cinematic guest RSVP experience. For simpler treatments, there are scores of websites like Punchbowl that help you send custom e-vites with creative themes.

Host a potluck. This is one of the easiest ways to keep food and beverage costs to a minimum — plus a potluck encourages everyone to try something new. If you want to throw a themed party, make sure everyone has a copy of your ideal menu and confirms that they are bringing something from the list. If you’re keeping things open with the menu, just make sure you have enough people bringing appetizers, main course dishes, sides and desserts for a balanced spread. Many people will be more than happy to bring a dish to pass since they can show off their cooking skills and try something new at the dinner table.

[See: 12 Ways to Save Money on Food.]

Try slow cooker meals. When you’re catering to a larger crowd, consider making a few batches of your slow cooker favorites to reduce prep time and cut costs. Slow cooker meals are easier to prepare than many traditional entrees and are ideal for people who don’t have the enthusiasm or patience to cook, but still want to host. You can make several large batches ahead of time and serve them on an attractive plate or in a bowl at dinner time.

Choose recipes that will leave you with lots of leftover. If you decide to cook the entire meal from scratch, consider making enough for all of your guests — and then some. Your dinner party preparation then becomes your meal planning and bulk cooking for the following week. This can help you save on the cost of groceries that week and give you an excuse to try something new and fun. Just make sure you have the confidence to make something you have never prepared. A test run may be necessary, so you don’t end up blowing your food budget on a poorly prepared meal. Once you have the recipe under your belt, making a larger batch will seem familiar and easy.

Don’t forget the grill. Grilling meats and veggies can be a great way to save time in the kitchen and also cut the cost of food. You can buy ingredients in bulk at a warehouse club and marinate everything in advance. The cooking part could be an element of the party — you might have guests grill up their own custom skewers or put together a plate of items they want cooked. This can be a great way to spark conversation among guests and get people socializing as you (and they) prepare the meal.

[See: 12 Ways to Be a More Mindful Spender.]

Host a fondue party. Whether it’s a beer and cheese concoction or a classic chocolate fondue, you can entertain your guests without paying a premium for a full-course meal by hosting a fondue party. Fondue parties are a fun way to get guests talking. You could have everybody pitch in by bringing one item, such as a loaf of French bread, different types of cheeses, bars of chocolate, strawberries and other fruits and items for dipping. If you plan on taking care of the menu yourself, head to the warehouse club for bulk buys or check out your grocery store’s weekly circular to pick up those key items on the cheap.

Make it a game or movie night. It can be tricky to figure out which types of board games or movies your guests will appreciate after a delicious meal. Have your guests bring a game or movie of their choice, so you don’t spend extra money on entertainment and activities. You can have everybody vote for the evening’s activity, so it’s a group decision — and also save on the cost of a movie rental or new board game purchase.

More from U.S. News

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The First-Timer’s Guide to Throwing Frugal Dinner Parties originally appeared on usnews.com

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