With summer behind us, fall in full swing and the holidays right around the corner, I’ve been thinking about the fun family gatherings that are a regular occurrence in November and December. Most of my husband’s extended family live within an hour of us, so hosting them (and their children) for a family shindig is a commitment to feeding 30+ people! Truthfully, when I married into this large family the thought of hosting them at my place was kind of paralyzing (feeding this large group would surely require cooking at least three turkeys for Christmas)! Luckily for me, I genuinely enjoy the company of my in-laws and over the years they’ve shared their best budgeting tips for throwing a large dinner party. I would say after almost 18 years I’ve got it down, so without further ado…

1. Time is Money

Be mindful of how much time it can take to plan and prepare a menu for a big family dinner. Sometimes the prep work is fun (like decorating holiday cookies with your kids), but other times you may decide the best course of action is to shell out some moolah for convenience foods (think large veggie trays and bags of fresh baked rolls from Costco) that’ll save you a ton of time when you’re running short on it. Or you can just own up to the fact that your sanity is more important than a home cooked meal and proudly have pizza delivered when it’s your turn to host…true story!

2. Shop the Sale

Ham, turkey, and canned pumpkin are some of my favorite items to go on sale during the holiday season, making them a less expensive option. Pumpkin pies, pancakes, bread, toasted seeds, and even pumpkin sandwiches (don’t judge…you have to get creative with school lunches on a Monday morning) are just a few of the pumpkin goodies my kids devour during the fall months. And with ham and turkey marked at bargain-basement prices, you can always buy extra, freeze it, and serve it later. Local grocery store chains have occasional ‘case-lot sales’ and I generally find these a great time to stock up on some of my regular go-to items—paper products, broths, baking essentials and canned goods—when hosting big gatherings.

3. Plant a Garden

To be totally honest, I have a brown thumb (and living at 7,000 feet only adds to the difficulty), but I know plenty of people in warmer climates that grow their own produce. Besides helping to cut your grocery bill, homegrown food always tastes better and tending the family garden can be a fun family activity…or sweet chore to assign to your littles. For example, if you live in the Northwest you might grow a plethora of berries (and freeze them for a sweet treat that’s available anytime), while in the West it might be tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini that practically grow on their own. As for my own parents, who live in the ideal climate of Southern California, avocado, lemon and grapefruit trees abound. Collect a few favorite recipes with what you can grow and you’ll have a tasty, inexpensive meal ready to go!

4. Cook in Season

Peaches in late summer, apples in fall…When possible, stick to using ingredients that coincide with the season they grow in abundance and you’ll find the cost at the grocery checkout to be much lower. Just because we have a booming global market and the ability to purchase mangoes in December doesn’t mean we should! Not to mention how produce tastes better when you purchase it in season. (Helpful hint…Don’t try to make raspberry jam in January, as it may end up costing you $28 a jar! Not that I speak from experience or anything.)

5. Serve Yourself (and dish up some affordable carbs)

Making a big dinner and serving it buffet style is pretty much a guaranteed win. This scenario ensures everyone gets the portion size that works best for them, AND the menu options they’ll actually eat! (Sadly, I’ve yet to see one of my young nieces or nephews or my own children actually chow down on a Caesar salad or ask for more steamed veggies.) Besides ensuring that less food goes to waste, this also saves you time on meal prep, which is a real bonus when you’re running around like a madwoman trying to clean the house (while hollering at your kids to tidy up their bedrooms for the umpteenth time and begging your husband to clean up the cat’s vomit again) twenty minutes before everyone is due to arrive. Another nugget of wisdom is to serve carbs that are inexpensive—pasta, rice, potatoes, and/or dishes that don’t require much meat (like Hawaiian haystacks or a taco bar) to help save money.

6. Potluck Baby!

As of late, our family’s go-to for hosting seems to have fallen into a potluck pattern…and I love it. Whomever is hosting typically provides the main dish and drinks and everyone else is asked to bring a side dish, salad or dessert. Besides saving money, it’s nice to have a little variety for the palate. (One sister-in-law is always asked to bring her homemade bread because it’s to die for!). A potluck is great as then each family knows there is at least one menu item their pickiest little eater will chow down on.

Don’t let cooking for a large group or figuring out how to pay for it overwhelm your good intentions of hosting a family gathering. At the end of the day, it’s the memories you share and traditions you establish that everyone will remember—not the food. (Although if you fail to cook the turkey completely for Thanksgiving dinner and half the guests go home with food poisoning your mishap will likely live in infamy.) Spending your resources on good food to be enjoyed with the people you love is time and money well spent.

Reflecting on the importance of sharing a meal with friends and family, my sister-in-law explained, “In Hawaii, our friends and neighbor’s kids called us uncle and auntie. So even with no bloodlines in the state, it seemed like we had an invitation to a big “family” gathering in someone’s carport or at the beach every week and couldn’t go home without everyone carrying home a plate. It was a different concept than I grew up with and at first I just thought they were wasteful. Even church and work parties were like this. I soon learned it was their culture, and their food budgets took precedent over furniture or home improvement. You feed the village and the village feeds you. And in the meantime, you create bonds that last long after a couch or decoration is out of style.”

So without further delay, send out that Evite and start planning your holiday gathering!