Entertainment seems to be a universal budget crasher. My son Brian told me that he tries to stay in his budget but sushi night always puts him over. He has subsequently switched to the 10 cent wings night at his local barbeque place and bragged to me that he ate something like 35 chicken wings in one sitting. Entertainment, which inevitably involves expensive food, will bust a budget every time. My friends and I went on a hike this past weekend (free!) but afterwards we grabbed lunch with a group of friends so each couple ended up spending something like $35 bucks on lunch and libations. There goes the benefit of the free entertainment.
With better planning, you can have a whole month’s entertainment for about $100 a couple. How? In the summer, every city in the U.S. has free outdoor concerts! Many are sponsored by local parks and recreation departments working to get people out and enjoying the local parks. I am spoiled since I live in a resort community that has wonderful free outdoor entertainment five nights a week. But I experienced a similar thing in Northern California – the zoo, local businesses, and regional parks all had free outdoor concerts.
The key to making it on less than $25 a picnic (so you can do it every week) is to choose your venue (free) and bring your own food. The food needs to be something special though. If you are like me, it can’t be bland or basic or you’ll get pulled over to the expensive food vendors just by the wonderful smell of the food cooking. Forget the ham sandwich and chips; consider making up a nice picnic dinner for your evening out. You don’t have to be a gourmet to do it either. Trust me. I am not!
Here are some keys to a delicious picnic that won’t blow your budget:
Everything doesn’t have to be fantastic – but a couple of things should be. Pick out two exotic or interesting dishes and fill in with others. Here is an example:
Fruit salad – keep it simple. Just cut up fruit for a fruit salad – that’s easy and who doesn’t like fruit?
Special salad – spend your time and energy on a special salad such as Vietnamese spring rolls (if I can make them anyone can), corn salad, or broccoli salad with lots of crunchy stuff in it. Make it a dish to look forward to. Here are links to some recipes (click here.)
Then make your main dish something interesting too! You can do the old standard – fried chicken served cold. There are a million lemon chicken dishes that taste great cold and are perfect for summer. (Click here and here.) Add something special to sandwiches like pesto, chilled grilled onions and peppers or crunchy artisan breads.
Dessert – anything goes. Why not do something really easy like cookies? Just look in your pantry to see what you already have before heading out to the store. The main thing is to have something sweet to top off the great meal.
Tips for a classy picnic on the cheap:
Plan ahead and watch the sales. I just bought eight large chicken breasts on sale for a little over eight dollars so if you watch the sales you can get what you need inexpensively. Be careful of the fruit salad, however, since it may actually be cheaper to buy it cut up already (since you don’t have to pay for the rind!) The ingredients for the picnic are significantly cheaper than buying food there.
Plan with a friend – they bring the main course and you bring the salad. It is much cheaper and less time consuming to make double of your special dish than to make two different ones. If you don’t cook, work it out to do the salad (make it or head to the deli) and ask a friend with culinary talents to bring the main dish.
Don’t buy a bunch of plastic utensils! Who wants to eat off plastic? Bring your forks and spoons from home and even your plates. It makes for a much classier setting – like a picnic from the Gatsby era. In the 1920’s, picnics were popular and people not only used their own dinnerware but they also brought rugs and even wooden bird cages with live birds to their picnics! I think we can bring our dinner ware and then throw it in the dishwasher when we get home.
Need ideas? I am not very creative when it comes to food so I like to get ideas from others. Go to the deli section of Whole Foods (or your favorite gourmet foods store) and look for some mouth watering specialties. I love Whole Food’s deli case because they put things together I would never have thought of! This is where you can get those special dishes that you look forward to and keep you from running down to the pricey barbeque. Splurge and pick up something there if it fits into your budget or simply recreate it at home.
All you need now is a blanket, lawn chairs (I like the short ones so I am closer to the food), an ice chest (food spoiling kind of spoils the whole thing) and some friends to join you. Another added bonus is, of course, your popularity. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to come to your picnic? Instead of meeting for pricey sushi, take advantage of free entertainment provided in your city and BYOF (bring your own food) — you control the costs and maybe even have a more enjoyable time.