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Skip: A full bar.
Opt for: A single, memorable cocktail. For example: a winter lemonade. Muddle ¼ cup fresh cranberries in 8 ounces of this traditional summer drink, then top it off with 2 ounces of vodka or whiskey and a splash of seltzer. Presto! An instant merrymaking hit.
Opt for: Cava or Prosecco. These affordable bubblies are available for around $10 a bottle, says Allison Enke, a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market. Find one that was produced within the past two years. For roughly half of what you would pay for a vintage bottle, you’ll get just as much fizzy flavor.
Skip: Fancy flat breads and spreads.
Opt for: Crostini. You’ll save a few bucks if you buy a couple of baguettes (typically about $2 each) and make your own dip. A can of cannellini beans goes a long way: Rinse them, then combine with ½ clove garlic (crushed), 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley or tarragon), 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons olive oil; season with salt and pepper and gently mash. Top each baguette slice with a spoonful of the dip. Or let guests dip the slices into a bowl of olive oil spiked with chopped fresh thyme and rosemary.
Find more crostini recipes here.
Skip: Aged cheeses, such as Gouda and manchego.
Opt for: Fresh ricotta, mozzarella, or Feta. These cheeses are more perishable, but less time and milk are required to make them, so you’ll find quality choices starting as low as $5 a pound or so—nearly $10 less than many aged cheeses, says Ariel Kalishman Walsh, a cheesemonger at Saxelby Cheesemongers, in New York City. Enhance the flavor of ricotta with a drizzle of honey, then serve with crackers. Or make toothpick kebabs with cubes of fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and fresh sage.
Skip: Beef tenderloin or prime rib.
Opt for: Less expensive cuts of meat, such as short ribs, beef chuck, pork shoulder, and chicken thighs. Some of these cuts can retail for as low as $1 a pound. “Stew it in your slow cooker or Dutch oven to give it a top-quality taste,” says Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, the author of Good Food to Share ($30, amazon.com) and the founder of TheKitchn.com, a food blog.
Find slow-cooker recipes and tips here.
Skip: Shrimp or salmon.
Opt for: Eggs. This bargain protein isn’t just for breakfast, and a dozen eggs can fill up a group of friends for less than $5. Poach the eggs and serve them over polenta, risotto, or pasta, along with earthy winter vegetables, like sautéed Swiss chard or kale and roasted acorn squash or fennel.
Find more egg recipes here.
Skip: Tarts and soufflés.
Opt for: Ice cream. Yes, even though it’s winter. Pick up a tub—mint is a festive choice, but plain vanilla works, too—and brew a pot of coffee. Scoop the ice cream into cups, then pour in about ½ cup of hot java for a riff on the Italian dessert affogato, says Scott Hocker, the editor in chief of TastingTable.com, a daily food newsletter. The total cost: about $6.
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