I like to entertain. If I have to choose 3 things to do the rest of my life, it would be something where I am surrounded with people who has to be fed or entertained. Or both. Oh and wine and G&Ts will have to feature as well…. Anyway, my point – I love having people over, making them feel at home and allowing them to relax. And I think I am kind of good at it. Our parties always start early, and go on way later than other people’s. We don’t invite you over for a meal, usually it stretches over 2 meals or at least a meal and a very substantial snack. The upside – lots of smiling friends and family, meeting new people and remembering why they love the old ones. The downside – serious drain on our budget. Even if we approach it as a “bring-and-braai” it still costs a few bucks to have a nice salad and side dish, ice, good coffee with actual milk (no plastic milk in our house), and all those extras that inevitably end up being provided for by the hosts. But because we love entertaining so much, we have learned a few tips over the years to make it kinder on your pocket while getting lots of compliments for our efforts.
Here are my top tips, followed by a few meal suggestions and other ideas:
- Be a smart shopper, always
I like buying bulk. I also love a special. Not for things I never use – a special cannot entice me to buy something I would in other circumstances not even consider, but definitely for things we use often. Let’s say tuna is on special, so buy the tuna. They keep forever, and you can do a lot with tuna. Same goes for things like dried beans and legumes (perfect for a cheap chilli con carne), fresh pumpkin cut up and frozen in batches (soup anyone?) or even things like bacon, sausages, mince, etc. If it will keep, I will buy it in bulk. Not always for entertaining, but for use in our house (you know to feed our own family) as well. Having a well-stocked pantry also makes it possible to whip up a meal when someone unexpectedly shows up over dinner time, meaning you don’t have to phone Mr Delivery.
- Plan your menu – no impulse buying!
Have a few tried-and-tested meal plans, or menus, and work around them. For example, in the winter we work on the soup-stew-potjie-chowder meal plan. If you get invited over during the winter, we will most probably have a variation on either a soup, a stew, or a potjie. Of course the options are endless, but they all have a few things in common – vegetables, stock, rice or some type of grain, tomato paste/puree, and stewing meat. So when I do my smart shopping for winter time, I make sure I have these things in the pantry which allows me to make food for whoever whenever, without wondering what to make or what to buy or even if I have something in the house or not. For the warmer months we work on a salad-braai-flatbread/wrap-roast meal plan. Same applies as in the winter.
- Never waste anything
I mean as in never ever ever. I don’t throw things away without first considering what it can be used for. When it comes to food, I am even more pedantic. Peels, skins and off cuts go to the stock bag in the freezer, bones and skin (especially chicken skin) also goes to the stock bag. Anything I cook in bulk is frozen for use later, either as a side or meal on its own or as an ingredient in the next meal, e.g. tonight’s pasta leftovers is frozen for use in vegetable soup, the mince is frozen for use in wraps for a lunch, and the grated cheese frozen for the next pizza night. Tomatoes that are not fresh and plump anymore are dried in the oven for sundried tomatoes, cucumbers are pickled for use as gherkins, leftover baked pumpkin is pureed and frozen for use in stews and soups. You get my drift – we don’t waste anything. This means you end up feeding a crowd virtually for free.
- Dress up your offering
Just like accessories can make or break an outfit, these little touches can elevate your party to the next level. Nothing crazy, just small things that add that little wow factor. Invest in things like cloth serviettes (cheaper and kinder to the environment – also read planning a waste free party), small chalkboards for writing on the name of the dish, a beautiful oil lamp or candles to keep away flies and other insects, one or two pretty tablecloths (preferably the no-need-to-iron kind) and glass bottles or jars for serving sauces, condiments, toothpicks, etc. This way you can buy in bulk, “decant’ or pour out and serve in your own containers.
Also, invest in a few beautiful serving bowls, platters, dishes and carving plates. They don’t have to be new, they don’t even have to match (most of mine I have inherited or bought at second hand shops. Some have chips in them, but I feel that makes them more authentic), they must just be pretty and useful. Get a few big serving spoons, salad servers and tongs, and you are good to go. Now you can serve hot dogs that will look fancy!
The following photos (thank you Monique Brits Creative Photography) shows exactly this – its plain chicken curry, but looks so appetising served in a nice bowl with a beautiful spoon!
- Equipment matters
If you are really serious about entertaining, and planning on doing it often, I would suggest investing in a few key equipment pieces.
- A pressure cooker or instant pot. Perfect for turning tough cheaper cuts into silky soft pulled beef/pork/chicken in a quarter of the time usually needed. Also perfect for making soups, stews, stock and broths. I use my instant pot almost daily.
- A slow cooker. The instant pot can function as a slow cooker, so I would suggest one or the other (I have all 3 and sometimes use them at the same time for one menu!). Perfect for things that you would like to keep warm, slow cook or schedule to only start cooking a little later.
- A hot tray or something that you can place on the table to keep the food warm. Perfect if all of your guests are not going to eat at the same time, or if you plan something like a food bar where they are encouraged to eat over a period of time.
- An urn to keep water hot – save electricity by eliminating the need to boil a kettle of water every time someone wants a cup of tea or coffee. It can be a small one, even a picnic flask can do the trick for a small crowd!
- A plunger or French press for coffee – beats instant coffee, easier to make and taste infinitely better! Also much better for the environment than pods… preaching to myself here.
- Pitchers or jugs for water or home-made ice tea. Freeze herbs and edible flowers in ice, add together with fresh fruit and herbs to water or tea and viola! Instant glamour at almost no cost. Fruit that isn’t as fresh as it should be can also be frozen and added to your water.
Some cheap or low cost meals that will keep everybody well fed and happy:
- Pancakes, flapjacks, hot cakes, waffles – basically anything that you make using a batter of flour, eggs, milk, baking powder and salt.
Serve with scrambled eggs, bacon, boerewors, and grilled tomato. For sweet, try cinnamon sugar already mixed in a shaker, fresh fruit like bananas and pan-fried apples, whisked cream, syrup. Nothing expensive, all delicious.
Your take on bolognaise, penne with pesto and feta, tagliatelle with a tuna cream sauce, basically anything can go into a pasta dish. You can finish it off in the oven a la forno, or serve the pasta separate from the bowls of steaming sauce. If you make the pasta yourself you save even more, and rolling it out with your hands looks far more difficult than what it really is. Pair with a green salad and fresh bread and yum! Parmesan not obligatory.
- As already mentioned, chilli
You can make it vegetarian with only beans and tomato, or add pulled beef/pork, mince, chicken pieces. Your creativity is the limit! Serve it on rice, samp, wraps, flatbread, with a quick salsa and sour cream.
We love love love butternut soup. I roast the butternut in the oven until caramelised and soft, then puree with stock, a little cream, and lots of garlic. Serve with fresh bread. Just that. Delicious.
A traditional South African favourite, potjie is a real crowd pleaser. When made badly, it resembles a watery stew. When made right, it becomes the best stew that you will ever have – thick, full of flavour, soft vegetables, and tender meat. We do potjie A LOT. Husband likes making it, especially when he can play around with different flavours and meats, taking inspiration from whatever is seasonal or sounds good to him. For our girls’ birthday party a few weeks ago, we did a butternut and chicken curry pot and a pulled brisket with tomato and beans pot. They were total hits!
Go for anything that you can make or bake in a sheet pan. Sheet cake topped with caramel, blondies topped with peppermint crisp chocolate chunks, triffle using left over cake, whipped cream, fresh fruit and jelly (if you are so inclined). You can do panna cotta, bake pavlova and serve with fresh cream and fruit, or something simple like a baked pudding served with home-made custard.
We did the girls’ birthday party a few weeks back. Because their birthdays are 4 days apart, we decided to do a combined party, each with their own themed cake but all the eats and drinks a combined offering. A1 chose pink Minnie Mouse and A2 had a unicorn theme. The eats we did as follows:
Unicorn cupcakes, home-made marshmallows, popcorn with pretzels, sweets, popping candy, and dried strawberries, yogurt and berry popsicles, watermelon ice tea, strawberry lemonade, and a crudité platter “planted” in hummus, cream cheese and basil pesto. For the meal we had the 2 potjies with pot bread, white rice, and a green salad.
The party cost me roughly R500 for 30 people, excluding the costs of the cakes. The cakes I baked and decorated myself, again cashing in on savings.
The point of this looooong post is that you can definitely feed a crowd for cheap, without it seeming cheap. Follow the tips and tricks, and let me know which creations you have found to be both a crowd and wallet pleaser.