TV cooking star Paula Deen's holiday dishes may be rich, but they're not costly to prepare.
Her Southern-style comfort food _ down-home and traditional _ is a natural fit for the season too. It works out for anyone on a budget who's throwing a party for friends and family in coming weeks.
"I've always referred to my food as very humble food," said Deen, who hosts "Paula's Home Cooking" on Food Network. "It's not packed with expensive things to dress it up."
Sticking with traditional fare is a good start if you need to economize. At the same time, you don't want your thriftiness to rain on the festivities. Food Network host Sandra Lee notes there are times when it's worth paying a little extra.
"There's a fine line between saving money and the cost of your stress," said Lee, who hosts "Money Saving Meals" and "Semi-Homemade Cooking." In other words, not everything needs to be made from scratch.
In separate interviews, Deen and Lee share ideas for indulging your guests, without overspending.
A GAME PLAN
Before you start shopping, consider setting a budget and estimating how you want to divvy it up. This way, you'll know how much you can spend on each dish or drink, without counting pennies along the way.
Once you're ready to map out a menu, pick recipes you're familiar with or know you can manage. If you aim for something too ambitious, you might be unsure of how much to make, or end up overbuying certain ingredients. You also increase the odds of bungled recipes, wasted food and feeling wiped out.
"The hostess sets the mood," Deen said. "So if you come in haggard and stressed out, you're immediately going to pass that onto the guests."
Another free strategy to throwing a good party: Choose your company wisely.
"There are some people you love so much, that a hot dog tastes like steak," Deen said. "And you can have the finest cut of beef with other people and it ain't all that much fun."
Crowd-pleasing appetizers and desserts are generally easier to throw together without spending a lot. So focus your energies on the main course.
That doesn't mean you should sink your budget into filet mignon. More affordable cuts of meat can go over just as well. For some, Deen notes that it doesn't get much better than a slow-cooked chuck roast paired with mashed potatoes and gravy.
Your meat dish doesn't have to be beef either; a pork tenderloin with pecans or roast chicken with vegetables are more affordable, and can be just as impressive. And don't worry that dishes like turkey or ham are too ho-hum. Such old favorites are why people love the holidays.
The same rule applies to side dishes: Simpler recipes save money. With something like a sweet potato souffle, Lee points out that you probably already have most of what you need: Sugar, eggs, butter, milk and a few spices.
Also pick dishes with ingredients you can use later. In the case of the souffle, any leftover sweet potatoes could be a base for pancakes the next day. Remember that seasonal produce is usually cheaper too, and build your menu accordingly.
Another way to fill out the table is asking select friends to bring a dish they're known for. It will lower your costs, and likely flatter those you ask.
"People love to show off their cooking, so let them shine," Deen said.
Of course, you don't have to serve a sit-down dinner at all. With a cocktail party, all you need (aside from drinks) is a table of hors d'ouerves. The rule of thumb is to serve about two pieces per person, assuming you've got four or five varieties, Lee said.
It sounds pricey, but keep in mind that finger foods are more affordable than they appear. For example, Lee suggests mixing cream cheese with herbs, then piping the spread into pre-made phyllo dough. Or coat some roasted chestnuts with honey and pumpkin pie spice. If you belong to a warehouse grocer like Costco, get a package of pigs-in-a-blanket to fill out the spread.
If you don't want to spend too much time on dessert, pick up a box of cake mix. You can spruce it up by substituting the water in the recipe with juice or coffee. So instead of a plain vanilla or chocolate cake, you could serve an orange- or mocha-infused cake.
"It's festive, and it cuts that packaged taste," Lee said.
DRINKS & DECOR
Stocking a full bar can torpedo your party budget, so focus on one or two signature drinks. If you opt for two, make them contrast. Try serving a whiskey-based drink, which could be balanced by a lighter, champagne cocktail.
Or you could make one of the drinks something warm. Apple cider will give off a nice holiday aroma and set a cozy mood. Put it out in a slow cooker, so people can serve themselves and you don't have to run around playing bartender.
Remember not to waste money on expensive alcohol for mixed drinks, since the other ingredients will dominate the taste anyway.
Finally, don't spend a lot on decor. Start with what you have around the house. Dig out vases and fill them with fruit, or strategically place ornaments around the house. Otherwise, go to a craft store and pick up some small wreaths or pine to place in windows or on doors.
If you've put up a Christmas tree, you might not have much work to do at all. Tidy up the house, and it could be in shape for a holiday party.