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How to Host a Holiday Party on a Budget

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How to Host a Holiday Party on a Budget


To food editor Shilpa Uskokovic, when it comes to home cooking, cheap is the greatest compliment. Each month in What a Steal she’s sharing a highly craveable recipe—and showing us how to save some $$$ along the way.

So, you invited a bunch of friends over for a holiday dinner party. Then you realized a prime rib for eight costs nearly as much as your weekly paycheck. You love these friends, sure. Just not enough to go into credit card debt for them. But with a little care, some strategic choices, and a BYO wine mandate—we’re budgeting, folks!—you can turn humble ingredients into an elegant, flavorful feast. Take it from me. After years of working in Michelin-starred restaurants and living on a cook’s salary, fancy-frugal has become my brand. My strategy? Go heavy on the vegetables, invest in a few key ingredients (like good butter), root through your pantry, and reimagine low-ticket items like potatoes and ground beef with bold and glamorous presentations. Let’s do this.

Beet > Beef

Punched up with enough heat and acid and seasoned like traditional tartare, earthy beets can taste deliciously meaty. Not to mention that they’re about a tenth of the cost per pound of the kind of top-quality beef you need when serving meat raw. Serve with potato chips for the perfect crunchy-soft bite.

Bowl of beet tartar served with a side of potato chips.

Seasoned like traditional tartare and punched up with extra acidity, earthy beets can taste (and look!) deliciously meaty.

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Don’t Overlook the Snack Aisle

Repeat after me: Your house is not a restaurant and you don’t have to make everything from scratch. Sometimes it’s as simple as crushing sheets of seaweed into a slab of butter, cutting up a bunch of vegetables, and look—a fancy snack! Other easy and economical store-bought appetizers: fat olives, glossy tinned fish, or salted nuts.

A plate of multicolor radishes sliced and quartered served with seaweed butter

Dead simple and highly visual, this is a fun spin on the classic radish-and-butter pairing.

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Give Your Sides Main Character Energy

A 5-lb. sack of potatoes feeds at least eight and costs less than a latte. And who doesn’t love them mashed? Some classics aren’t meant to be messed with (well, aside from blessing them with the sour-cream-and-onion treatment).

A bowl of Sour Cream and Onion Mashed Potatoes with a pat of butter in the middle.

Like your beloved bag of sour cream and onion chips, but make it mashed potatoes.

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Channel Your Inner Homesteader

Pickling has long been a practical and affordable way of preserving inexpensive, in-season veggies. And while you may no longer need to put up dozens of jars to last you through a rough winter, a small batch of punchy pickles can be a thrifty, tasty, and colorful addition to your dinner table.

Small bowl of bright colored pickled vegetables including carrots onions and fennel.

A small batch of fridge pickles made with regular old carrot, onion, and fennel will bring out your inner homesteader.

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Cheap Wine Is Fine—If You Know What to Do With It

Sure, “estate grown” sounds chic, but once you’ve got a happy buzz going, does it really matter how you got there? An inexpensive bottle (looking at you, Trader Joe’s) can be just as memorable—desirable even—once it’s spiked with a splash of sweet soda and some choice spices to tame any sharp edges and excess acidity. If someone is being a snob, just tell them the Spanish call this drink Kalimotxo.

Two glasses of Spiced Red Wine and Coke next to a pitcher of iced red wine

This easy cocktail is budget booze’s highest calling. Cheap wine gets a makeover thanks to lemon, lots of ginger, and the caramelly complexity of cola.

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Get on That Grind

Do you think of ground beef as mundane weeknight-only fare? Feel like only a big honking roast spells holiday dinner? This elevated take on meatloaf (yes, meatloaf!) is here to change your mind. Recast as a sculptural showpiece and stuffed with a creamy spinach filling, low-budget protein can be as impressive as steak, confirming once again that size (and price) doesn’t matter.

Two slices of CreamedSpinachStuffed Meatloaf set on top of mashed potatoes on a plate

Bursting with creamed spinach and cheese, and dressed with a glossy coat of ketchup, this is meatloaf 2.0.

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Burn Some Sugar. Call It Dessert

That $2 box of sugar in your pantry is worth its weight in gold. Few other ingredients can transform quite like it. Caramelized to a deep amber, it becomes a simple sweet-smoky sauce you can splash over juicy seasonal citrus and serve with a scoop of ice cream. The result tastes (and looks) restaurant quality for a fraction of the price.

Two glass cups of Citrus Caramel Sundaes With Toasted Almonds

Tangy, floral citrus soaks up dark, smoky caramel for a sweet, sticky sundae unlike any other.

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