A Dinner Party is Born: Budgeting & Shopping


I am not good at “reeling it in” when it comes to entertaining. 

Notorious for over-shopping and preparing, I am like an unstoppable force, hunting and gathering goods for my guests every time anyone so much as mentions stopping by. Heaven forbid anyone should go home hungry from one of my gatherings. AND the runaway train that is over-preparing, planning and spending does not just clunk through the get-togethers I host – this train makes stops at my friends’ places. I’m pretty sure this little quirk is why I haven’t been asked to help plan the menu of my best friend’s annual New Year’s Eve party since the “Great Shopping Spree of 2008” incident.

Part of my problem is going to the store completely unprepared, armed with no list or plan of action. Normally, I will blindly roam the aisles hoping against hope that the items I am mindlessly dumping in to my cart will somehow present themselves as an innovative dish. And those items? Usually the most expensive versions in the store. The other part of my problem is not knowing when to edit and maybe not needing to get the most high-end version of whatever ingredient it is I am purchasing. So I started my shopping journey in the most new, novel way. I made…a LIST.

Okay, sure on the normal day to day I do go to my local Stop & Shop with some must-haves jotted down and even occasionally prepare as far as planning meals for the week. But somehow this good sense often escapes me when it comes to selecting treats for gatherings and the like. This time, I knew flying by the seat of my stylish pants wouldn’t work. So for starters, I picked menu items and stuck to them. Not only that, but I chose challenging dishes but ones that still featured familiar techniques or flavors.  As I mentioned the last time, I had selected a taco themed menu and I had spent some time finalizing what I would be preparing. Some of the guests kindly offered to bring their own goodies, but I still set up a full menu. The list was:

Bite Size Chicken Tacos

Ahi Tuna Nachos

Pulled Pork Tacos

Bean Salsa

And I also opted to make my own salsa as I much prefer the fresh kind which is always significantly pricier. Drink-wise I decided to have some wine on hand, but to mainly server margaritas. In the eleventh hour, my husband – a craft beer enthusiast – decided to add a bit of a beer tasting to our evening. For our shop, we headed over to Whole Foods in Ridge Hill. As much as I love the joint, I am not usually inclined to do my weekly marketing there, as it is not always the most cost-effective. But when I am in search of a particularly beautiful cut of meat, or the best in-season veggies, it’s a go-to. Admittedly, for Christmas, I did get the brilliant present of a gift card there (thanks, Mom-In-Law!) but I had planned on hitting up Whole Foods regardless.  Because I had collected a few of the less/non-perishable items (particularly ones I knew would be more cost effective elsewhere- tortillas and tortilla chips, the jarred salsa I would need for my taco chicken recipe,) on some of my recent trips to other stores, I figured we would be okay exclusively shopping for our more specialty ingredients in one stop.

I figured now was as good a time as any to start practicing “reeling it in”.

For the most part, I did pretty okay heading home with maybe just one or two superfluous items. The produce was great, as expected and I was able to walk out with pretty much everything on my list. I even made the decision to swap out fresh beets for an organic can, as the beets would only serve to provide color to one of my recipes. (Note: I will be providing some recipes and instructions in the next installment, sit tight!)

What served me the best was Whole Foods’ self-serve nuts/grains offerings. For example, one of my recipes called for a few Macadamia nuts and the pre-packed kinds were all pretty pricey. I literally only needed a few and couldn’t think of a suitable cheaper nut replacement, but luckily I was spared from digging too deeply in to my pocket. Thanks to Whole Foods’ bountiful buckets of glory, I was able to portion out a few Macadamias and only pay for what I needed – which ended up being about $2.50-3. I think this is pretty genius when you don’t need a huge supply of these particular ingredients. They even sell loose pasta like this (at least at the Ridge Hill location) which is almost physically impossible for me to walk away from as I am a pasta-hoarder. But I walked away! Reeling it in!

I was also able to find some of the spices that sometimes aren’t readily available in the local Shop Rite and also my all-important wonton wrappers (not something I have personally seen in regular supermarkets.) I splurged on a few more flour tortillas when I spied ones that appeared freshly made. So freshly made, the scar on my arm (which I achieved while working the tortilla station in my former life as a mall Mexican restaurant server) began to twinge a little. (Harry Potter and I have that in common, only he’s the Boy Who Lived and I’m the Girl Who Grilled.) As for the beer selection – THAT was something to behold. While your average beer case is there, it is stocked with tons of craft beers and includes plenty of local treats as well. (Captain Lawrence, what what!) Beside the regular case, are about 4 glass-door fridges containing larger, individual bottles of brews. And these are no convenience store coolers – they’re more likely to be found in the champagne aisle then the 711. You can also create your own 6-pack with 12 ounce bottles that are sold separately. But the crowning glory is the growler fill station. Whole Foods offers about 5-6 different beers on tap available for purchase via a growler (32 or 64 ounce sized reusable bottles) purchased there or one you bring along with you. So impressed was I with this whole set up, it inspired me to pen a blog dedicated to supermarket craft beer shopping, coming soon!

Needless to say, my hubby walked away a happy man.

Despite all the goodness I was able to procure at the market, I did leave a little dissatisfied. I was unable to score any of my protein at the spot. There were no fresh tuna steaks offered that day, and since I was serving it raw, I really didn’t want to use frozen. They also did not have the pork shoulder I’d need either. While they did have plenty of the boneless, skinless chicken breast, the price was so astronomical I couldn’t bring myself to do it. However, I would assume that the price had a lot to do with all the chicken they had (or I saw) being organic. So if that is what you are looking for, it could work for you. Thinking on my feet, I headed to a Central Ave shopping center in Yonkers that house a fishery, a Shop Rite and A&S. I obtained my tuna, chicken cutlets and pork shoulder from each respectively and felt good about the price on each – chicken was on sale, tuna was about $15 for two beautiful steaks and the pork was $10 and change for three pounds of shoulder.

I can’t help feeling like perhaps there was more I could’ve done to cut corners, but honestly all I can remember getting carried away with was the beer (how many times has THAT sentence been said?!) In the end of the day I was happy with the food items I took the time to invest in and search for (the tuna, the pork) and even our little added touches (like the “house made” looking tortillas) added to the experience.

Next! THE FOOD! I’m sharing techniques and recipes from my menu. Until then, I’m still cooking at #teenstestkitchen

-Christina Halpin



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