22 Cheap + Healthy Party Hosting Hacks: Aesthetically, of Course
Updated: May 2, 2020
The year was 2019 (bear with me, I want to read this in 30 years and think 'yes, great pop corn station idea'). It was June 4th. I was 9 months pregnant, and planning a surprise party for the love of my life - on a Tuesday (his birthday is on the 5th of June and I figured he would never guess if I threw it before the actual date). As my primary concern was the colour of the ribbons which would adorn our kitchen and the time restraint between dropping him off at work and his return (I had to cook chickens, for Pete's sake!), it escaped my mind that purchasing cases upon cases of beer was a tad excessive for a week night. Nevertheless, with the help of our friend Stephanie (I was not so keen on being an overly pregnant woman seen purchasing ample amounts of alcohol- also, where would I store it without him realising my wonderful plan!?), it came on time and well, let's say we had a fun month. And by we, I mean he did, as I was preparing to give birth- which, they say, you shouldn't pair with beer?
It was actually an incredibly stressful time for me as I had just received the news that my baby and I had a condition called fetal macrosomia, which basically meant that by week 37 of my pregnancy, Ella was already in the 94% percentile on growth charts and could have issues with her heartbeat if she ran out of space- a very big baby for a very small mama (not ideal). I ended up faking my labour a couple of times just so I could go to triage and hear her heartbeat that week (no harm done, the place was empty- but that's neither here nor there, I 100% would've done it regardless I was in panic mode 24/7). So needless to say, I was very happy to take a deep dive into decorating and planning for his birthday to change my mind a bit (to be fair I adore this activity regardless, but this time I went into this project in a rather hardcore manner, with unswerving passion and dedication). I had lists upon lists: guests and their significant others, what are his friends' phone numbers!? How many are vegan (2, it turns out), what can I purchase with our next grocery order that can go under the radar? etc. Extend these forever and you have an image of my brain at the time.
I will present you with my party planning hacks in their own categories. Let's start with food, because inviting a bunch of people over with the sole purpose of making them stare at decorations never happens.
1. Pop corn vs chips (I got both for the occasion but here's why I would only pick the former): as they take up more space when popped, you can fill up pretty cups while using less product and the possibilities for a cute presentation are close to endless (also, the cute paper bags/cups help you prepare portions ahead of time instead of letting people fill up their own plates and throw out half of their content later). I purchased these bags at a small party store near my house, but you could definitely make them or use reusable cups within your home.
2. The magic of lists: please, my entire existence revolves around lists. They tell me to brush my hair and which tiny item I need to fill up the pantry. To organise a surprise party, help yourself and make grocery lists with different times to purchase items so they can be stored around the house secretly up to a week in advance. What can be purchased and not arouse suspicion, and where? Honestly, lists and scheduling every hour of your day is where it's at people! Lists are also great for other party-prepping tasks such as cleaning the bathroom, changing the hand towels, making space in the entry's closet, emptying out all the bins before the guests arrive (I remember watching him get ready with anguish that morning hoping he didn't have to shave - those extra 5 minutes spent cleaning the sink were NOT welcomed in my shipshape block schedule).
So, write down everything you need for the big day and where to purchase it. Then, fix yourself a time/day to go get these items- ahem, and hide them (it can be on your lunch break, after dropping off a kid at dance class, on your way to spin class- definitely can't relate to the latter- whatever fits your lifestyle and schedule!). Certain items such as chick pea cans, extra lemons and garlic (sounds like homemade hummus is on the way!) can easily be stored in your fridge and pantry without looking extra, but the pop corn bags, paper straws and extra beer cans will need to find a home in your sock drawers.
3. Plan your serving space: Okay, this may seem a tad excessive, but it will take you 5 minutes and a piece of paper- and you can do it at any point in the week prior to your surprise party. I still have the notebook in which I sketched out our kitchen island, counter tops space and table area to note where everything would be served. I drew circles in which I wrote 'chips', 'pitchers', 'gazpacho trays' etc. It sounds like a bit much, but humour me and do it. 20 second in, you will have yourself a perfectly planned out serving space, and when it's crunch time, you'll be glad to have a cheat sheet on what goes where. Always help the future you. She or he will thank you.
4. Don't host around a specific meal time: I would typically suggest choosing a time where you specifically don't have to serve a full meal (2-3 pm is your best friend), there are brunch parties and dinner parties for that occasion. This is a party for a loved one for a few cheers and cake slices- make it easy on yourself and don't invite people over around lunch or dinner time! Serving appetisers and snacks vs a full meal cuts your costs by half- at the very least.
5. Not an option? The next best thing: as I wanted to surprise him after work, I had to ensure there was plenty of food for everyone (after a long boring day at the office, people do tend to get very hungry and thirsty), so I went for 2 large chicken roasts with sides. You can prepare these yourself and let them cook while you are decorating, and they pair with just about anything you choose to cook on the side. If you purchase them in advance and hide them in the freezer (again, this entire situation is about me living with my boyfriend while I was planning this, you might not have to hide anything at all and in this case good for you!), you can get a good deal on them and have them thawed and ready to go for the special day. And yes, prepare them yourselves, paying for the pricey, pre-cooked ones is outrageous and down-right insulting. Another fun fact, you get to take them apart at 2 am when people are slowly leaving and you can fill up containers for your fridge and have meal helpers for the rest of the week: sandwiches, tacos, flat breads, pastas, stir fry, ramen, the list goes on an on.
6. Buffet-style. You might think that letting people fill up their plates creates a lot of waste, but you have no idea the amount of food you waste when making them on their behalf: people take the plate you have prepared for them, politely smile and then don't eat any of the ingredients they would not have picked for themselves (I speak from experience as a guest to many Jewish holiday dinners, I will not eat gefilte fish. I will, however, pronounce Hebrew words so well that you'll invite me to speak at your temple- mark my word! Just no ground deboned fish mixture, no amount of wine can drown that taste). Let people help themselves, that way they will eat exactly what they wish to eat and the rest can go in your fridge as leftovers for the week! The amount of pesto pasta this girl ate for 9 days straight. Woh.
7. Starch to fresh produce ratio: Speaking of sides, starch and canned goods should always be at a 3-1 ratio with fresh ingredients. Not only does it allow you to prepare them earlier, it also ends up being cheaper. For example, an orzo salad with black olives, chickpeas, peppers and carrots (1 thinly chopped pepper is enough for the entire bowl, same goes for the one shredded carrot- but to be fair carrots are cheap by the bag so go nuts, throw in 2 or even 3!- let's live on the edge) will cost you one pack of pasta, a couple of cans and a few herb choices (which I just picked from our garden!). If you go for a fresh kale salad instead, you have to account for a lot more vegetables and fresh leafy produce. Also, if you really want to watch your final bill, avoid Greek salads or other recipes demanding a lot of cheese- the price of those little suckers add up at an alarming rate! Same goes for grilled chicken - and don't bend over backwards to serve a fattoush salad, carving out pomegranates is so time-consuming and it leaves your kitchen looking like a crime scene.
8. Water vs pop: instead of spending a bunch on cold beverages (let's be honest, people will most likely take 3 sips of their Sprite, turn around to grab their beer and forget all about their cup- enjoy emptying all the abandoned cups down the drain btw- total waste of drinks and cups), spruce up water with herbs and citrus! By adding squeezed limes and lemons (as well as adding wedges in your jugs), mint/basil leaves and cucumber slices, your pitchers look fancy and taste much better than water from the tap. I always do so and nobody's ever asked for coke (to be fair I always have the liquor chasers in the fridge in case, as a wine person I have to think of others, but I don't leave it out to serve as a refreshment- it's to drown your rum, Sir).
9. Split the food prep in 2 days : if you're serving starch-based salads and ingredients such as beans and vegetables, you can prepare those in advance and give yourself a bit of wiggle room for decoration emergencies (gosh I talk like a mom). As long as you keep the dressings aside, many fresh ingredients can be chopped and stored the day before. You can definitely cut up all the veggies/fruits and roll the meat slices on the eve and pretend your are now into meal prepping-which you should be (I did so and hid them in containers in the back of the fridge and by the time I brought him his morning coffee he was getting dressed and we were out the door- in this case, ignorance was very much bliss). Other components are better served straight out of the oven such as chicken; I purchased both that very morning after dropping René off as it would have risen suspicion (I could not buy them frozen for timing reasons, but of course, it would have been great in terms of price reduction. Considering it was a surprise party, certain financial elements took a hit for convenience and efficiency reasons). If you purchase the pre-cut veggie platters at the market I swear there is a special place in financial hell for you! Be cheap, be creative. Frugal is the new sexy.
10. Homemade hummus and other dips: says it in the name, but do it yourself! In order to serve a large group of people, the price of purchasing guacamole or hummus, garlic mayonnaise and other dips in bulk vs preparing them yourself will never compare. You can make all of these yourself and, bonus point, you can prepare them in advance and keep them refrigerated. So no reason to go broke over sponsoring people's chips moment. You can buy chickpeas, chop up some garlic, roast a few vegetables and use a blender. Place the dips among the vegetables you oh-so-gracefully chopped for them and watch out for double-dippers. Just kidding, unless you're a total stranger.
11. Listen to people's dietary restrictions and go from there: vegans, vegetarians, allergies? Picture the platters in your head and see who would eat what. Being a good host is also being considerate of people dropping by; they are coming to celebrate your significant other, the least you can do is serve them a drink and show them what was specifically prepared for them. Here are the platters I served that day and why (photos at the bottom of this article).
Cheese platter- I went to a specific grocery store where I knew I could find cheese and nuts on sale and picked their 'pick of the week'- paired with wine, just about any cheese is worth trying out. I usually sprinkle the boards with nuts and cranberries (it escaped my pregnancy brain that day- I forgive her) and purchased cheap marmalade to throw next to them- this step is utterly unnecessary as about 1-2 in 10 people go for it, but you won't feel bad discarding the $1 fig jam, and you can keep the others such as raspberry and orange for your morning toasts. Win, win, sort of win. Also, you've guessed it, I picked a few brands of crackers on special that week. Lastly, I always get a dairy-free option and point it out to guests (I was out of cute tags to stick into the blocks- and yes, I did feel a tad miserable about that).
Gazpacho- one of my ultimate favourite party tricks! It is dirt cheap to make, tastes so fresh and healthy (because it truly is) and looks oh-so-fancy in its little cup on its silver platter. I will post my favourite summer gazpacho recipe soon! Just know that it demands an itty bitty amount of work and can be kept in the fridge for hours (the longer the better as the flavours intensify). Both vegan and vegetarian.
Crudités/ vegetable platter: anybody and their dogs can eat that. I cut them all the night before and I paired them with my homemade paprika and red pepper hummus. Given more time, I would have prepared a spinach dip, a garlic mayo and guacamole! I love making dips, there's such a joy in this art. Okay next.
Vegan potato salad: The recipe for this salad is in my 'Cod Damn' fish and salad pairing article! All you need to know is that it is vegan, full of flavour and so easy to prepare! Crowd pleasure and a must- because both vegans and meat eaters can agree that starch is where it's at. Also, in the summer I have an unlimited supply of fresh herbs in the garden (merci papa!!!) so this salad is always on the table.
Pesto-Bocconcini pasta salad: this idea is extremely cost-effective, simply consisting of a bunch of cherry tomatoes, a pack of bocconcini pearls, salt, pepper, and a jar of pesto sauce poured over a bunch of cooked pasta. Cheap, quick, and makes for a delicious batch of leftovers! Simply add fresh tomatoes and mix. My very pregnant self was perfectly okay with this being my lunch for 4 days straight.
Orzo-anything salad: I don't know what it is about orzo (it's delicious), but people tend to navigate towards it (because it's delicious) at salad bars. So I just mixed a couple of different peppers (red and green), a homemade balsamic vinaigrette and black olives -fun fact about me, black olives have had the effect of a pregnancy craving on me my whole entire life. I will find excuses to empty a can over anything I eat, or I'll simply eat out of it with my fingers. Actually, I use a spoon as of lately because I may have cut my fingers on the metal edge in the past, whilst reaching for the olives too fast and far too ferociously. LET THAT SINK IN.
Charcuterie tray with melon: it's a pretty simple and well-known concept with rolled meat slices all around the melon bowl, which I served with tooth picks on the side. The important part here is that the cantaloupe was completely separated from the meat, so anyone could happily dig in.
What I would love to add next time around:
Pierogie bar: as I prepare a lot of pierogie (varenyky, tak, ya znayu!) batches for the freezer, I would love to add those to a platter! All you need to do is throw them in boiling water to cook for a couple of minutes and then sear them a tad with olive oil in a skillet. Then, caramelise some onions on the side and have some sour cream ready to go. Lastly, add a few spoons so people can help themselves to this divine and fancy Ukrainian cuisine experience.
A cotton candy machine: with adorable paper cones in pastel tones! But René was turning 35 so perhaps for Ella's first birthday? Hmm, definitely know your audience...but if you rent them out? Let's be friends!
Roasted vegetables and couscous platters: as my oven was full with the chickens, I didn't quite have the time and space to roast different batches of food, but I would've loved a good veggie roast! Greek-style potatoes, carrots, zucchinis, you name it! Everything served on a bed of couscous and sautéed shallots, because why not.
12. Timeless themes: help yourself in the long run and keep a constant aesthetic or at least make sure the colour themes can complement one-another (fun facts about minimalism, you can always go back to the same stash and re-ruse and balance out until you're completely out- these happy birthday napkins, which I bought on special and in bulk at Michael's, have seen more than one of my ageing friends' special day). Some of these cups and straws were leftovers from my baby shower- I also have an article coming up on how I prepared it from A to Z, while super hormonal and fattening by the minute.
13. Reusable ribbons: I actually have a secret stash of reusable ribbons and wrapping paper, bows and decorations in my closet (behind one of the IKEA PAX systems, nestled along the wall, a bunch of old PR packages boxes/ribbons sent my way which I have folded and hid there for future gift-giving wrapping material). So, to create this garland of long ribbons which went all around the kitchen, door and dining area, you best believe I saved all of those for gift boxes later on (I still have some to this day). It's also incredibly easy to tie a bunch of ribbon strands to a gardening rope and the results are adorable. So get yourself a good podcast going and get tying.
14. Paper straws: although soggier for smoothies, they tend to look cuter, be cheaper to purchase, and not as bad for the environment. I mean look at this silver twirl! From the dollar store, of all things. I still have a bunch which I will be able to use for all kinds of events, I can even cut them in half for little baby juices (Okay I'm going to stop here as I'm getting very excited).
15. Dollar-store platters : every house should be equipped with cheap platters which a host can whip out and serve fabulous meals on. They are easy to store and take up so little space that you will forget all about them, until you truly need them. Then you'll be utterly grateful. Yes, I did make them sound like a fairy godmother. They just add a 'party' aesthetic and bring the room together with a united colour block! And no, this is not real silver. Emphasis on the dollar-store parts from earlier. For the presentation, I like to balance out with wooden boards of different sizes and tones.
16. Mason jars will change your pitchers's game: recycling is so sexy. Keep your pasta sauce jars and start a collection, which you can use to serve cocktails and water in, or even make your own candles with. My collection was not poppin' quite yet so I opted for IKEA reusable glass jugs with cork lids instead.
17. Cake toppers: I have an entire article coming out on my utter obsession with DIY cake toppers. There is no need to ever purchase simple decorations when a few ribbons and BBQ skewers will do the trick.
18. Replace flowers with herbs: If you were planning on purchasing floral bouquets and arrangements to adorn your kitchen island, think again! Hanging bunches of herbs from ropes tied to branches (upside down, come on you've seen Pinterest!) or purchasing eucalyptus and other photogenic herbs as centrepieces can not only save you so much money but also bring a nice scent and a zen energy to the room. Also who doesn't love a trip to the farmer's market!? My example for this specific day was to decorate the donut pyramid with rosemary branches for a touch of green- and that smell. As previously (or just always, at all time) mentioned, I am lucky to receive a portable garden each summer prepared with love by my father, which means that I never run out of fresh herbs (trust me, I use so many leaves daily and they never stop growing, it's like magic). So yes, herbs from the garden in abundance are not only free, they are also so much better than store-bought-plastic-box-crappy-herbs.
Still going floral: However, if you truly want to stick to a floral theme, I often use flowers from the dollar store and I highly recommend doing the same! I purchase them either in garlands which I then bend into a crown for the cake or the bottom of a pyramid, or cut them off the fake and thick plastic stems and rearrange them around pastries.
19. Donut pyramids vs cupcakes: cheaper, and adorable. Spruce up with herbs or flowers of your choice and don't feel guilty when you throw half of them away because people were too full to care. The bin cost you a couple of bucks and the squirrels will have a party- they really did, there was nothing left in the trash and it was awesome. Kripsy Kreme if you're feeling fancy (18-22 dollar depending on your choice of boxes) or Walmart store brand for TWO DOLLARS if it's strictly for decorating purposes anyways (however to be fair I find them tasty and perfect).
20. Make the cake, they always end up in the garbage anyways: we all know for a fact that by the time people turn off the lights, light the candles and start singing, their bellies are full of multiple plates of whichever wonderful meal you will prepare, they are slightly tipsy and just want to sing and take videos. So no need to purchase cakes. Buy the mix, buy the icing for a couple of bucks (this is a one-afternoon-to-plan-everything surprise party so yes, Betty Crocker is most welcome thank you very much) and enjoy!
21. Sharing is caring: have a few Tupperware containers on hand and make lunches out of the leftovers for a few people when they leave (the adult version of a surprise party gift-bag- Bailey's for their coffee the next day is also a nice touch). You most likely cannot finish everything before the freshness of the ingredients becomes questionable, so give food away like you're Oprah. A tip? Don't expect them back. And don't hunt them down. Walk yourself back to the dollar-store. There there.
22. Breathe. Just give yourself a pat on the shoulders and a sweet congrats, wither things turn our great or if there are a few hiccups throughout the event: you planned something sweet for a loved one, and that is worth more than any possible gift out there! Your kindness and attention to loved ones throughout your life will be your best legacy. So do your best and brush off the mistakes when the time runs out- if you have to yell 'surprise' while pouring pop corn all over the counter or with icing all over your fingers, so be it! Also, yum!
Food photos: please excuse the horrible lighting as the sun was setting and I was running out of time- oh and I was 9 months pregnant, do you know how hard it is to get your belly out of the shot at that point?
*Took the shot before mixing all the ingredients together, I find parsley to be poetic and photogenic*