Some of us are born [home] entertainers. We thrive off of bringing people into where we live and feeding them. We love every detail of it--the ceremony of inviting people (or creating the Facebook event), planning the menu, cleaning and organizing in a way we never would if we weren't having company, welcoming people in the door... and all the rest of it.
Of course, being this breed of hospitable can be, well... expensive. And it's not that we mind investing (time and $$) in an opportunity to bring people we like and love together, but the thing is--even if you are an enthusiastically frequent born home entertainer, you actually can do you without breaking the bank. Just takes a little budget-conscious strategy. Obviously, summer is an especially prime time to gather around food (i.e. gather around the grill) to share some comradery, so here's how to do it keeping cost-effectiveness in mind:
1. Make smart meat choices.
A cookout isn't really the place to show off pricier cuts of meat--one, because even if you are trying to "fancy up" what is universally accepted as a casual dinning occasion, the entree protein is the least practical food to try to emit a high-brow vibe with (save that for the sides) and two, because oftentimes, less expensive cuts are actually better suited to grilling. Go for items like spareribs, chicken thighs and wings, flank steak, pork shoulder, and pork tenderloin if you're trying to serve up impressive hunks of meat to feed a crowd. Properly prepped and cooked, the flavor of these cuts on the grill will outshine anything pretentious.
2. Keep with the classics.
Especially when it comes to side dishes. Barbecue staples are inherently inexpensive--potatoes, cabbage, beans, and corn are all fairly low-cost items even in bulk. But there are plenty of simple ways to gussy up your potato salad, slaw, baked beans, and grilled corn to add a touch of culinary sophistication. This can be as simple as making your own aioli to dress your potato and broccoli salads with, investing in a couple of bunches soft fresh herbs--like cilantro and parsley--to scatter among various dishes, switching up the typical flavor profile on a dish, tossing in a bit of crumbled bacon or pancetta here and there, serving veggies with a flavored compound butter, or adding just one or two additional bright fresh elements to the mix--seriously, a handful of chopped scallion can do wonders.
And when it comes to mains, there is absolutely no shame in going old school with foods made for buns. In fact, I'm a huge fan of seeing the cookout classics done exceptionally well or creatively. There is something (many somethings, really) to be said for the burger with a flavor-bomb secret ingredient or hot dogs dressed in cool styles. The whole "trashy meets classy" thing has actually proven to be a super chic (and incredibly fun) trend in foodstuffs--embrace it.
3. Share the responsibility.
Find someone who's cooking and entertaining spirit matches or compliments yours, and propose co-hosting your next group gathering. This has become my go-to strategy for a number of reasons:
A. Not only can you split the cost of groceries with this person, but you split the labor. B. Having another brain working on the menu or best ways to serve items can be incredibly helpful. C. Tasks like pre- or post-party clean up and peeling potatoes feel less cumbersome with company. D. Combining guest lists with someone else makes for a more varied group of attendees, allowing everyone to meet new people. E. Pulling off a party with a friend is just plain fun.
I now host pretty much all of my dinner parties with the same best friend and we have mastered the art of duo entertaining. I swear, doing this eradicates close to all hosting-related stress--both monetary and otherwise.
4. Ditch the disposables.
OK, so you may not want to bring your dinner plates outside (understandable), but skip buying myriads of plastic eating-ware every time you have a cookout or porch party, especially when you already have 4 open packages hidden in the back of the pantry that you forgot about. My advice would be to invest once in some cheap, shatter-proof, reusable plastic tumblers and plates that you use for all of your casual entertaining. Go with clear or a neutral color if you can find it.
One of my all-time favorite hostess moves I've ever made was buying 12 cheapo stemless wine glasses on sale at Target for $1 a pop before a party--hell no, they're not fancy, but they are glass, they look pretty on my bar cart, and I'm not heartbroken whenever someone comes over and breaks one. I have definitely gotten my $12 worth of wear out of those. I also collect mismatched plates in different shapes and sizes, but all in the same color (white), that I like to use for entertaining. It's not like a special set of dishes, it's an evolving one that I'm progressively adding to and losing from, so it's not some huge tragedy if I'm down a plate by the end of the barbeque. I'll replace it eventually with another white plate that cost me anywhere from 50 cents to a couple bucks. But putting out those real plates over a stack of Chinet feels like something a little extra special. You can build a collection (of various colors and patterns if you have a stronger sense for aesthetics than I do) easily enough from the sale shelves at home stores, garage sales, and thrift shops.
In terms of utensils, I say use your everyday silverware--it's easy enough to wash. Or again, pick up an inexpensive reusable set that you only use when a large group of people comes over to eat hotdogs. If you're into kabobs, go ahead and buy some metal skewers in lieu of disposable wooden ones too. It's a little bit of an investment on the front end that will save you money in the long run if you entertain frequently.
5. Embrace the B.Y.O.
Just because you're hosting doesn't mean you have to provide everything. Most of your attendees are going to want to contribute in some way--so let them. There are a number of ways you can go about this. You can go full-on potluck by telling people what main dish your making and asking everyone to bring a side, dessert, or beverage (or inversely tell them you've got the sides and such covered, they just need to bring whatever meat they want to throw on the grill). If you enjoy making the food and commanding the bulk of the menu, make a list of items you'd be cool with having others contribute--like lots of ice, cut up raw vegetables for dip, cookies, whatever--and ask guests to help out. Or what I often do is take care of the food and 1 batch of a boozy beverage (I typically do an easy big-batch signature cocktail or punch, but you could go with a cooler full of beer) that makes enough for everyone to essentially have one drink on me, then ask all guests to bring reinforcement on the beverage front.
Find the balance that works for you and how you like to host, but the point is--don't shy away from having everyone contribute.
6. Don't go overboard.
Yes, you want to have enough food, but don't make an excess just for the sake of excess. It's definitely tough to gauge how much food you'll need given uncertainty on who is actually going to show up and how much they will actually eat, but when shopping, aim to buy ingredients enough to have just a bit more than what you'll anticipate needing... and rest assured, that even that will likely end up being comfortably more than what you'll really use.
Once you've got everything prepared, if you see that you clearly have a ton of something, don't put the entire quantity out at the start of the party. You can always refill the serving dish as necessary, but you're less apt to want to pack up and save leftovers that have been sitting out for hours.