Yelena Moroz, Shivani Vora, Kaija Helmetag, and Brad Tuttle
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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.
2 of 7Allison Gootee
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.
3 of 7Mikkel Vang
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.
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.
5 of 7RealSimple.com
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.
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.
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.