Take It Outside

Jenna Rath was afraid she’d blow the budget for her husband’s, Wally, 40th birthday bash. The size of her house dictated that the party had to be outside. But a cold front threatened, making a rented tent with heaters a last-minute must. The tent she could afford was big but not big enough to fit everyone for dinner. Scanning her yard for clues, the Portland, Ore., native spotted the hardly used outdoor fire pit her brother had given her. Four hay bales and a few logs later, Rath had hit on a budget-friendly solution: a campfire set up a few yards away from the tent with seating for eight. The fire “place” was the hit of the evening.

Maximizing your outdoor space -- using items you already have on hand -- can make throwing warm-weather parties much less work than indoor entertaining. Tidy up the lawn, throw a few twinkly lights from the holiday bin and voila. No vacuuming, no dusting necessary!

With all parties, the No. 1 priority is making guests feel relaxed and comfortable, says Genevieve Ferraro, owner of The Jewel Box Home, which helps owners of smaller homes decorate and entertain. “No matter how small your garden or budget, applying a few rules to your outdoor decor will put friends at ease and let you have a good time too,” says Ferraro.

Here’s how to turn your outdoor space into a party palace.

Make room for the festivities Define your space so partygoers don’t wonder where they’re “allowed” to go. Patios and porches make it easy to understand where the party perimeter lies, while open lawns may suggest too much space and make mingling more challenging. Here’s where those twinkling lights come in handy. Arranged on shrubs or potted trees, lights visually rein in space and give a shape to your party space. Set up the buffet table and bar so that they too suggest edges of the “room.” Do the same with card tables, folding chairs or whatever seating you have available.

Give them an eyeful If you’re serving food, chances are good that the focal point of your party will be the table. So make it spectacular. A vase bursting with flowers or greenery from your garden coupled with a bountiful array of colorful dishes will earn you a round of oohs and ahhs from your guests. A couple of two- and three-tier serving racks will help balance the table and allow you to put out more food than will individual platters at the same level.

Dress it up in white When entertaining indoors, you think about whether your napkins clash with your tablecloth and dishes, and whether they all clash with the colors in your house. Outdoor party space deserves the same consideration. Ferraro likes using all white linens, in part because almost everyone has them, but also because they work in any environment. “White tablecloths and napkins -- paper or cloth -- are like clean canvases,” she says. Anchor white cloths on card tables with a single flower in a small vase and a votive candle. Ferraro carries the white theme to her serving pieces, which are inexpensive to buy and indispensable throughout the year. She complements white pottery with glass vases and bowls and stainless steel cutlery.

Lose the smoke machine Assuming it’s on wheels, move your barbecue or grill away from guests and decorations, particularly if children are present. You wouldn’t want your outdoor decor to be lost in a haze of smoke!

Grill for Less This Memorial Day

The backyard picnic table, an icy cold something to drink, smoke rising from the grill. Grilling is one of this season's greatest pleasures, and there are plenty of reasons to indulge (besides the food). Plus, less kitchen cleanup and less heat in the house also means you save on dish liquid, water and air conditioning bills. And if you shop well, you can expand your culinary repertoire without blowing your budget. Here, some things to think about before you head to market and fire up the grill.

1. Go veggie
Corn, asparagus, summer squash, zucchini and peppers: They’re all great on the grill. All you need is salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil. “No need for the pricier extra virgin when you grill, as you’re unlikely to taste the difference over the charcoal flavor,” says Ann Taylor Pittman, food editor at Cooking Light magazine. Buying locally grown produce saves you money too, especially if you shop at farm stands. And if you load up on veggies at dinner, you can buy less meat or fish.

2. Kebab it. 
Grilling kebabs is not only a healthier way to cook meat (less time and less heat mean fewer potentially dangerous cancer-causing compounds), but you’ll also get more servings for your buck. Skewered between vegetables and mushrooms, the meat is just a part of the meal, not the main attraction, so you don’t need to have as much of it. Plus, people often take less when food is already cut up into smaller portions.

3. Slice and dice it.
Think of your beef, chicken or pork not as a main dish but as an ingredient in other dishes -- so that less serves more. After you grill, slice your meat into thin pieces and toss over salads or pastas.

4. Choose cheaper cuts.
Grilling brings out the best in some of the less expensive meats. Pittman recommends chuck-eye steak: “It’s cut from the chuck-eye roast and tastes similar to rib eye but costs less.” Flank steak is another good alternative, because “it absorbs moisture quickly so you can marinate it in 10 minutes, and it stays tender on the grill,” explains Pittman.

5. Ditch the meat altogether.
Vegetarian burgers are healthier, less expensive and taste good with or without the fixings. Boca and Morningstar brands both recently won kudos in a Good Housekeeping taste test. Portobello mushrooms also provide some non-meaty bulk inside the bun.

6. Get spud-happy.
Potatoes are easy on the budget, grill wonderfully and are very filling. For health bonus points, go for the nutrient-rich sweet potato instead of classic Idaho.

7. Fill the grill.
For maximum fuel efficiency, put every square inch of the grill to good use. Cook two types of meat at once and save one for the next day. Slice the meat cold and serve over salad, or reheat it in the microwave, which uses very little energy.

8. Top it with leftovers.
Grilled pizza is the perfect base for food from the fridge that you might otherwise toss out. You can buy dough from the freezer section of your grocery store or at your local pizzeria. Roll it out and then plop it directly on the grill. “Pizza’s great for using up all your leftover veggies -- that half bell pepper or handful of arugula -- or even little pieces of meat,” says Pittman.

9. Heat up dessert.
Skip the premium ice cream or the artisanal gelato. Get whatever brand of vanilla ice cream is on sale and top it with warm slices of grilled peaches or plums. 

6 Ways to Save: Big Celebrations

Wedding brunch for 80? Family reunion for 150? It’s the perfect season to celebrate life’s special events. And because keeping costs down is on top of everyone’s party to-do list, we asked the most fun-loving frugalistas we could find to share their secrets. 

It turns out a big budget isn’t nearly as important as big ideas. “Creativity and personal touches definitely outweigh the money you’d spend to do something chic and memorable,” says Erika Lenkert, author of The Last-Minute Party Girl: Fashionable, Fearless, and Foolishly Simple Entertaining. “The more personal it is, the more impact is leaves.”

Creative thinking really pays off in these six places:

1. Location, location, location 
The right venue can elevate a party from mundane to magic, but hotels and banquet halls are pricey and predictable. Instead, look for character: historical societies, funky VFW halls -- even churches and libraries often have portions of the building, including garden spaces, available to rent for reasonable rates. 

To celebrate her father’s 80th  birthday, Julie Rains of Winston-Salem, N.C., and her family rented a banquet room in a park in Charlotte, N.C. With linen tablecloths and a glass wall overlooking the park, the $250 room “just made the event," says Rains. "It was so pretty!” she adds.

2. One-of-a-kind invites
For her wedding invitations, Lenkert and her husband posed for 30 strips of dime-store photo booth pictures, cut them out with craft scissors and attached them to card stock. They did all the printing on her computer. 

“I tried to match funny pictures with people who’d get a kick out of it and romantic ones with others, and I included antique postcards for the RSVP, which I also personalized," says Lenkert. People were blown away. "One even gave me back that same photo as a wedding gift -- she loved it so much she had it mounted and framed,” she says.

Savings on invites can be significant. When Janis Brett Elspas’ two triplet daughters chose a roaring ’20s theme for their bat mitzvah, the Los Angeles mom designed invitations with recycled paper textured like alligator, then accented it with a rhinestone buckle and velvet ribbon to make it look like a 1920s purse. “It cost us about $4 each -- we saw the same type pre-made for $18 to $20 elsewhere,” she says.

3. Unforgettable food
Feeding people well doesn’t have to break the bank. Sheila Lukins, a Silver Palate legend and author of Ten: All the Foods We Love and 10 Perfect Recipes for Each, swears by big pots of ethnic foods, “like a curry or couscous." Because they’re usually served over rice or pasta, they’re inexpensive, she says. "And because they’re a little exotic, they’re very impressive.”

Another favorite, discovered on a recent trip to France: “A small-plate buffet, based on dishes like roasted peppers with homemade pickled onions and paella rice with shrimp and chorizo. There’s something so beautiful and inviting about all these brightly colored vegetable dishes laid out on the table -- almost like a patchwork quilt,” says Lukins. Small plates, whether it's tapas, antipasti or hors d’oeuvres, allow you serve up plenty of flavor but not too much food.

4. That’s entertainment! 
Hiring a band usually means paying the going rate for what is -- and let’s be honest here -- three parts bad oldies, two parts Macarena and one part noise. 

Try thinking smaller. For elegance, get a single harp player from a local college; for fiesta ambiance, see if the guitar player from your local Mexican restaurant ever moonlights, or book a juggler who’ll wander through your garden party. “I am hiring my girls' former gym teacher to come and teach the Charleston,” says Elspas. And for music? A pre-loaded iPod. “It’s a lot cheaper than live musicians or a DJ.”

5. Signature spirits
To save on booze, “I love to come up with a signature cocktail for the evening and put a twist on it, like Thai margaritas,” says Lenkert. “Since you mix it in batches, you don’t need to buy high-end liquor -- just serve it in really pretty glasses.”

6. Strong and simple decorations
Keep décor simple by focusing on a few colors and things you can stock up on for cheap, such as mason jars to fill with wild flowers. And be wary of themes: “Buying red, white and blue paper products for a Fourth of July family reunion, for example, is much more expensive than buying red cups, blue plates and maybe just themed napkins,” says Jenn Fowler, a mom in Syracuse, N.Y., who blogs at FrugalUpstate. Not only will it create a more unified look, you’ll get more use out of every item. “I’ve got big star platters in both red and blue, which are great in the summer, but the red ones are perfect for Christmas too,” adds Fowler.

Spring Breakā€¦in a Day

After a dreary winter, the obvious recovery plan involves tropical breezes, sandy flip-flops and colorful drinks with paper umbrellas, right? Well, yes, maybe in a perfect world. But sand and surf can cost a lot of time and money. When a week or even a weekend away just isn’t in the cards, carving out a few hours in your schedule to recharge with a change of scenery -- or activity -- can have the same uplifting effect.

What to do? That depends, says Karol Ward, author of Find Your Inner Voice (New Page Books 2009). “The ultimate goal of your minivacation should be to feel calmer, more energized, more clearheaded and happy,” says the New York City-based psychotherapist. Consider whether one of these breaks from the everyday inspires you.

A-maze-ing walks Sure, you can take a stroll just about anywhere, but have you ever traveled a labyrinth? These elaborate pathways look like mazes, but are actually beautiful, winding walkways, each with a single route and endpoint and usually shaped to fill a large circle. Thought to clear the mind and encourage relaxation, labyrinths are found in parks, public gardens and in or near houses of worship, and each has its own special history. Labyrinthlocator online can help you find one nearby.

Anything but routine workout Challenging the mind and body with a completely different kind of athletic pursuit can take cross training to a new level. Consider, for example, indoor rock climbing. Climbing gyms are everywhere, and the adrenaline rush alone of scaling a rock wall is worth the price of a lesson (the Web site indoorclimbing lists climbing gyms around the country).

Or take to the water and try sculling or rowing. Between handling the oars, balancing the narrow boat and learning to move your vessel through the water smoothly, there’s no time to dwell on work projects or household duties. Introductory rates make the sport accessible to novices. (USRowing lists nearby rowing clubs and associations.)

Make it or bake it Complete this sentence: “I’ve always wanted to make….” Share the labor (and fun) with a friend or really do it yourself -- without taking a class. Whether it’s beef Wellington or banana cream puffs, there are plenty of cookbooks, recipes and online how-to videos to guide you.

The same goes for art projects. Have you been collecting broken pottery for the day you make time to try mosaic art? Well, that day is here. Take on a mosaic tile mirror or café table, using instructions at such places as Mosaic Tile Guide.

Go to extremes Ellen Yacoe runs nearly every day, but when the dance therapist and mother of three really wants a change of pace, she goes for a Polar Bear swim in the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean -- off season. “All thoughts of work, how my kids are doing in school, even the family budget go out of my head in an instant,” says the Oakton, Va., resident. “It’s a scary but exhilarating event.”

On the other extreme, a long session in a steam bath or sauna can be so relaxing that you’ll have noodle legs when you’re done. Take a complimentary day membership at the Y or local gym. You can work out and then reward yourself with a mind-clearing blast of heat. Or skip the workout entirely and meet a friend for lunch.

Take a midday snooze Don’t discount the possibility that a two-hour nap is just the stimulus your winter-weary self needs. You may not sport a tan by day’s end, but the glow that goes with feeling good will be just as noticeable.

7 Secrets to Trim Thanksgiving Costs

Every year, the American Farm Bureau Federation announces how much the average cook will spend on a Thanksgiving feast for 10. And every year, many of us just roll our eyes: “Last year they said it would cost $42.91 for everything,” says veteran Thanksgiving host Carol Reiman of Mountain Lakes, N.J. “I easily spend that much on the turkey alone.”

You, like Reiman, might never quite match the AFBF’s low Thanksgiving price tag, “but if you get creative with simple substitutions, use coupons and plan ahead, you may find that number to be pretty realistic,” says Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com.

Here, some tips to help you trim Thanksgiving costs -- without skimping on your celebration. 

1. Start saving Sunday circulars now.
Stores start issuing coupons for Thanksgiving staples like cranberry sauce and stuffing mix weeks in advance. “No need to actually clip the coupons,” says Nelson. “Just write the date on the front of each circular and keep them all together.” A week or so before Thanksgiving, log on at CouponMom.com or a similar coupon website. You’ll learn which stores near you have sales on the Thanksgiving foods you need. Then compare the listings with the coupon circulars you saved for a double discount.

2. Organize and inventory before you shop.
“Pull out all the recipes you plan to use and make a list, along with specific amounts of what’s needed,” advises Nelson. Then inventory your cabinets: Knowing now there’s only 1/8 teaspoon of baking powder in the can helps you avoid a last-minute dash to the pricey market around the corner. Discovering you still have two cans of cranberry sauce from last Thanksgiving helps you avoid redundancies.

3. Cut back on how much you cook.
Families across the country waste nearly 25 percent of the food they prepare for Thanksgiving, because they simply prepare way too much. Try reducing overall quantities. Do you really need to triple grandma’s candied yam recipe, or would doubling do? Or just reduce the number of options: Make one kind of potato instead of two and do away with traditional warhorses (like that green gelatin) that nobody seems to eat anyway.

4. Don’t be afraid to make substitutions.
When that sweet potato recipe calls for chopped pecans on top, don’t shell out $5 for a 16-ounce bag. Use whatever nuts you have on hand -- or get creative. “I use a crumble topping with oatmeal, butter and brown sugar that comes from an apple crisp recipe. It costs just pennies to make,” says Nelson. For recipes with small doses of specific spices or flavorings, you can usually make a substitution (swap an onion for a shallot, for example) or just skip it altogether.

5. Warehouse wisely.
Bulk prices aren’t a bargain if you have to buy more than you need. Since you’re cooking similar menus, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to shop with a buddy and split those monster bags of potatoes, vats of grapes and buckets of onion dip.

6. Trim the trimmings.
Instead of paying big bucks for flower arrangements, work with what you’ve got. Ferry in your potted mums from outside. Fill clear glass bowls with lemons, oranges or apples from the fridge. Or clip evergreen stalks from trees in the yard and arrange them in tall vases: They’ll smell great and be right in tune with the season.

7. Delegate, delegate, delegate.
If guests offer to bring something, take them up on it! Granted, the turkey is your gig. (Frozen store brands are your best bargain; many stores even give out free frozen turkeys once you spend a certain amount.) But everything else -- dessert, appetizers, side dishes, wine -- is fair game. Just be sure you don’t put perennially late Aunt Sally on hors d’oeuvres duty. And if you’re not crazy about Uncle Fred’s kitchen flair, ask him to bring ice cream. Remember, Thanksgiving is all about sharing the harvest’s bounty. And most people are more than happy to contribute to the table.