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Hot tips for holiday entertaining on a budget

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How to Throw a Themed Holiday Party

When Vancouver screenwriter Terri Tatchell looks back at the parties she’s hosted over the years, the ones that stand out are not the ones she splashed out big bucks for. It’s a lesson that’s particularly apt for hosting during the holidays, when most people are already feeling strapped for cash.

“I think the key to entertaining is to create a unique and playful experience for your guests,” says Tatchell, co-owner of Neverland Tea Salon. “I believe it’s important to make downtime as carefree and fun as possible. Often the challenge of working within a limited budget forces you to think outside of the box and results in the most creative and memorable gatherings. 

“We all seem to be really good at that in our early 20s, but somewhere around 30 we decide grown-ups are meant to have formal dinner parties and we lose the adventure of hosting,” she says.

While fun should be priority number one, you still have to pull together food, drink, and décor. It can all be done without breaking the bank.

Borrow and buy used

If you need dishes or rarely-used items like a punch bowl, ask your friends or neighbours for a loan.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to build your collection of tea cups or small plates anyway, head to your nearest thrift store or do a quick search on online classifieds.

Diversify your décor

Fresh flower arrangements are beautiful, but they’re going to set you back. Look inside your home and out for objects sitting right in front of you that you can use to pretty the place up.

“We always look for items that we can re-use, which makes the cost per use much more economical than buying flowers,” says Kevin Mazzone, general manager of the Lazy Gourmet, a Vancouver catering company. “You could have pearls coming out of a large glass vessel or use classic nutcrackers.”

Tatchell, meanwhile, looks to nature.

“I love bringing outside indoors for unexpected décor,” she says. “I got it in my head this year that I wanted branches suspended from the ceiling of Neverland with snowflakes and tea cups hanging from them. Everyone thought I was crazy. My daughter and I combed the alleys for fallen branches after a storm and hauled them home to dry in front of the fire … Everyone who thought I was crazy loves them.”

You could also forage for pinecones, small cedar branches, or clippings of holly bushes, salal, and other year-round plants for table decorations.

Check out corner grocery stores or Ikea for plants like mini cacti or aloe vera or stalks of curly bamboo to add some greenery.

If you have kids in your life, get them busy making paper snowflakes and writing up and colouring place cards, menus, or platter labels.

Say yes

When invitees ask you if there’s anything they can bring, take them up on it, whether it’s an appetizer, salad, or dessert.

A potluck is an obvious choice when you want to divvy the labour and the costs. If you’re having a large group but are hesitant about imposing on people, put out a call to see if three or four people would be willing to bring a dish. Some people love to cook or have the time to bake, and more often than not they’re happy to contribute.

Limit beverage choices

It’s going to cost you if you want to offer umbrella drinks, martinis, beer, wine, ice wine, port, and scotch. Rather, Tatchell recommends picking one specific cocktail for the event that you can premake. Same goes an after-dinner drink (if necessary) and for tea or coffee: pick one.

Ideas for fancy food that won’t empty your wallet

You don’t have to skimp on nosh; the trick is to pick foods that satisfy in small amounts.

“When it comes to holiday entertaining on a budget, the key is picking items that you know will go a long way,” Mazzone says, pointing to the company’s baked Brie with sage, caramelized onions, and mushrooms served with crackers or slices of baguettes as an example. “It looks stunning on the buffet and can serve a lot of guests.” 

“Another way to save is to choose an item that you can make in bulk and find an interesting vessel to serve it in,” he says. “One of my favorite items on a cold day is our Carrot Ginger Soup Sip. We make the soup in large batches and then pour the warm soup into three-ounce shot glasses and pass these around for guests to enjoy.”

Chef Trevor Bird, a former Top Chef Canada contender who runs Vancouver’s Fable Restaurant, says his personal favourite is pitted medjool dates, each stuffed with goat cheese and a walnut.

“It’s so simple, and about $20 will make around 40 of these things,” he says. “Another great one is a side of fresh salmon seasoned with salt and olive oil. Put in the oven at 200 degrees—yes, super low heat—for 20 minutes, then cover with thinly sliced red onions, fresh capers, and dollops of salted Greek yogurt and lemon juice. Put a loaf of fresh bread around it and let people dig in. Thirty dollars would do around 40 people for an appetizer.”