Practical Tips for Budget-Friendly Entertaining

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A few months back, I asked y’all what you wanted to see on Mrs. Southern Social and got a chorus of requests for budget-friendly entertaining ideas. I kicked myself for not thinking of this sooner, because while I love to design grand tables for special photoshoots and holidays, my entertaining style is typically low-key. I’m not looking to spend a fortune to enjoy an evening with friends, and nor should you.

To get the ball rolling, I put together this absolutely darling table using pieces almost exclusively from Target and Amazon (and of course, mini caramel cakes from Dessert Designs; if you live in Nashville and haven’t had these yet, what are you waiting for). Everything is linked here, including my fabulous top ($79 at Dillard’s). Lucky for us, tabletop has become such a popular category that every store/brand seems to have upped its game. Of course, I must reiterate my golden rule: figure out how to use your existing pieces in new ways. For example, here I used a wicker utensil holder as a vase. Read on for all of my budget-friendly tips and tricks, including menu selection, place setting ideas, and decor inspiration. I hope this blog post answers all of your questions, and as always, I wish you happy hostessing!

THE DECOR. While I love calling a florist for special events, I certainly don’t splurge every time we have guests over. Even for Mrs. Southern Social shoots, we often handle the florals ourselves. Get yourself a bunch of bud vases (these are under $4), do simple arrangements in each one, and scatter them down the table interspersed with candles and/or votives (these are my favorite). As for flowers, hydrangeas are fab because the heads are large, so you get good bang for your buck. (At Trader Joe’s they’re $5.99/bunch – the best deal). I also love clusters of grocery store roses, hypericum berries, and big bunches of “filler greenery,” baby’s breath, or carnations en masse. For longer-lasting décor that you can use throughout the season, consider small planters filled with inexpensive green moss, mini topiaries, ferns, succulents, or mini mums. Go to your local nursery for inspiration; there are so many budget-friendly plants that look great in a pretty container on your dining room table (and last forever).

Of course, you don’t have to use flowers or greenery. A beautiful charcuterie board or grazing board (full of Trader Joe’s goodies) is a great centerpiece, especially for smaller tables of 4-6. And let’s not forget fruits and veggies. I used mini apples for an outdoor Christmas celebration last year, and things like pumpkins, artichokes, lemons, and clementines look so chic when artfully arranged (pile them into pretty bowls, or arrange on cake stands). Check out my table with Host & Toast Luxury for all the produce inspiration.

THE PLACE SETTINGS. When I’m designing a table and want it to feel fresh, but not spend a ton, I tend to bring in one new element to liven things up. It could be anything from new dessert plates, new napkins, or a great new placemat or table runner. But here’s the thing – none of these pieces need to be expensive.  

  • Melamine and tin (yes, tin!!) dessert plates are great – they’re less expensive, look fabulous layered with plain white dinner plates, and since every brand is making them now, the designs have become really elevated. Current favorites include:
    • Literally EVERYTHING at Courtland & Co: tin and melamine versions of china patters like Tobacco Leaf, beautiful floral pieces, and more;
    • These guys, on sale from Pottery Barn;
  • Paper placemats from Hester & Cook and Lucy Grymes are works of art that instantly elevate your table for a relatively modest price (under $30). I also love Hester & Cook’s paper table runners.
  • Caspari’s guest towels are $7.5/package and bring a pretty pop of “chic” to your tabletop. While I don’t love all their designs, there are plenty of great ones; for example,  these would be pretty with some grocery store roses in hot pink or orange. I also love these and these – decorate the table with coordinating hydrangeas + green apples + votives.
  • My favorite resources for budget-friendly tablecloths, napkins, placemats, chargers, and table runners are Dillard’s (the Southern Living Collection specifically), Target, and Home Goods. I’m using this runner on an upcoming table and you can’t beat the $36 price tag.

THE FOOD. Fabulous parties DON’T require expensive food. In fact, when I plan a menu, I often think about Ina Garten because she always talks about serving casual, comforting food, especially when people assume it’ll be something fancy. Even though I don’t cook like Ina, I love her entertaining advice and think this is brilliant, especially in fall and winter when we’re craving comfort food anyway. I’ve pulled together some menu ideas that are relatively easy on the wallet, and for folks like me who buy food instead of make it, a lot of these dishes lend themselves well to carry-out. Nashville-area friends: check out this list for my favorite to-go options.

  • Soup or stew + crusty bread + green salad
  • Meatloaf + mashed potatoes (the most comforting comfort food ever)
  • Lasagna + Caesar salad (Nashvillians: I adore the lasagna at Food & Co – they’ll even make it in your own serving dish for pickup)
  • Chili bar + toppings
  • Baked potato bar + toppings
  • Chicken or veggie pot pie
  • Short ribs + polenta
  • Enchiladas
  • A classic, comforting casserole like King Ranch Chicken (Southern Living has lots of ideas)
  • Host brunch and serve a breakfast casserole and fruit (for Nashville friends, the BEST breakfast casserole to-go is at Picnic Café).

*All photos courtesy of Lele Fain Photography*

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