5 Ways to Save on Summer Cooking

The following post comes from partner site Mintlife.

Lazy days of summer? Hardly. All that nice weather means there are plenty of barbecues, picnics, and other parties to attend and host.

That busy social calendar, in turn, can mean elevated food costs. An American Express survey from 2011 found that 64 percent of consumers planned a blowout summer celebration, spending $422 on food and drink for 17 guests. Three-quarters of hosts say they plan to ask guests to chip in by bringing a dish too.

But you don’t need to limit your menu to crudités or bring chips-n-dip to every event to stick to a budget. With a little creativity and a few recipe tweaks, you can whip up summer favorites for less. Here are a few tricks to save, followed by a handful of budget party recipes…

1. Grow your own herbs

Spending a few bucks on small pots of herbs for the garden is cheaper than paying $3 for a bunch of fresh basil to make caprese salad, or $2 for mint to make juleps. “You might get up to 10 times as much in yield from a plant, and still pay roughly the same price,” says Kendal Perez, deals expert for FreeShipping.org. Perez’s cheap go-to: caprese salad, using homegrown basil, cheap tomatoes from the farmers market, and mozzarella bought in bulk from a warehouse club.

2. Pull together cheap cocktails

Use what you’ve got, rather than buying more booze. Chances are, you have the makings for an inexpensive sangria or punch. Even flat soda from a previous party works, says a spokeswoman for DIY site The Poor Porker. To make a “Pepper-Razz” cocktail, muddle six raspberries in a shaker, add 2 ounces white rum, and 4 ounces flat Dr. Pepper soda. Add ice and shake. Strain into a martini glass and serve with a fresh raspberry garnish.

3. Stock up early

“Pick up essentials such as barbecue sauce, ice cream, and hot dogs in May, which is typically when sales are best,” says Steven Zussino, president of Grocery Alerts. It’s also a good time to pick up charcoal for the grill. You’ll save 15 to 20 percent compared with other summer offers.

4. Use marinades

They’re inexpensive and give a boost of flavor to meat and veggies. You can get by with cheaper, tougher cuts — the marinade will tenderize them — instead of pricier steaks. Chef Brack May at Cowbell in New Orleans marinates skirt steak in a little olive oil, fresh lime juice, and pureed roasted jalapenos.

5. Add in salad

You can get creative with in-season produce. Chef May pairs that skirt steak with a salad made from a quarter of a watermelon (chopped), 4 cups of tomatoes, a half-cup julienned red onion, a half-cup chopped cilantro, and two Serrano chilis. Combine with a quarter-cup each of lime juice and olive oil, 2 tablespoons chopped basil, 2 tablespoons honey, and a pinch of cumin.

Or get creative and incorporate cheap nutritional powerhouses, like beans and potatoes. “Sub in rice for pasta in all your favorite pasta salads,” says Janet Groene of Camp and RV Cook. It’s cheaper and more nutritious.

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