Recessionista Party Tips

Love entertaining, even during these tough economic times? You can throw a fabulous, fun bash on even the skimpiest budget. Think of it as a creative challenge that your guests will help you meet. Community, do-it-yourself and interactivity are in; showy, excessive and hands-off are out.

Here are some cost-saving ideas when setting out the welcome mat.

Costs Down, Spirits up
Serve a signature cocktail, punch or sangria in a classic punch bowl or pitcher, recommends Lauren Purcell, co-author of Cocktail Parties, Straight Up! “Create something really festive for guests and serve that along with wine and beer,” she says. “There’s no need for the expense of a full bar.”          

Spirits can vary from rum to vodka to sparkling wine, combined with various fruit juices and soda. Or consider making this crowd-pleasing sangria with low-priced wine and seasonal fruit instead of citrus slices. Begin with 1.5 liters of red wine and a bottle of sweeter wine like a Riesling or rose. Slice grapes and cut up honeydew, apples and pears; add the fruit along with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. Refrigerate for a minimum of 24 hours. For an extra kick before serving, muddle grapes in tumblers with ice (serves six). Cheers!

Team Effort
“Guests have a better time when they’re cooking together and engaged, which also saves hosts money and labor,” says cooking teacher Phyllis Vaccarelli of Let’s Get Cookin’, a cooking school and cookware shop in Westlake Village, Calif. Create a taco bar, and have your guests gather round to make their own tacos -- use economical pork loin as the main ingredient and spread out toppings and salsas ranging in heat from mild to incendiary.          

Billy Vasquez, aka the 99 Cent Chef, finds that pita pizzas are a surefire hit. He stacks pita bread near the toaster oven, and guests top their own with tomato sauce, shredded cheese (any type is delicious), sliced pepperoni and other additions like olives or bottled marinated veggies.

Daytime Dazzle
“Consider an afternoon luncheon or brunch for an upscale feeling without an upscale budget,” suggests caterer and chef Meg Taylor of Large Marge Sustainables, a Los Angeles-based eco-conscious catering company.

In the afternoon, guests’ expectations are more modest: A buffet rather than a seated, plated dinner is appropriate. The menu can revolve around elegant salads or a vegetarian entree -- such as homemade pasta with fresh chickpeas, fava beans and shitake mushrooms -- which helps keep costs in check. For another midday suggestion, try a chilled melon soup -- using cantaloupe or watermelon, for example -- or Taylor’s version of the classic Waldorf salad (canned salmon, pecans, thin slices of fennel, peaches and grapes).

Simple but Magical Decor
Small candles -- lots of them -- are an easy and inexpensive alternative to decorating your party space with pricey flower arrangements. “Cheap tea lights can turn the dimmest room into a fairyland,” notes Purcell.           

For a centerpiece, consider potted plants or bowls of brightly colored produce like lemons. A glass pitcher of iced lemonade with basil or mint sprigs doubles as instant decoration. Flea markets and thrift shops are good sources for bargain-priced and unique tablecloths, linens, punch bowls and ice buckets.

Get Your Groove on Digitally
For most occasions, the computer is now the house band. The Internet is filled with freebies, such as the PartyKC Web site, which lets you create a mix of party songs, or Pandora and Grooveshark, which allow users to program their own playlists. Pandora even instantly recommends other tunes in the genre you’ve chosen.

Manners Matter
As the etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute recommend, even on a budget, remember to be a gracious host. Welcome each guest, introduce them around and pay attention to them throughout the party. Good manners don’t cost a thing and are what makes a party really hum.