Party Like a Star (on a Real-Life Budget)

updated 11/12/2008 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/2008 AT 01:00 AM EST

According to A-list event planner Mindy Weiss, the last thing most parties need is more. "Don't stress thinking 'More is more,' " says Weiss, who has handled over-the-top (yet somehow stress-free) celebrations for, among many others, Ellen DeGeneres, Ashlee Simpson, Eva Longoria Parker, Nicole Richie, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Take the menu choices. You don't need to pile on exotic or trendy dishes. "I most often find when the client says, 'We need more,' what actually gets eaten is the familiar." As for the decor, remember that "this is your home, not a ballroom." Rather than try to turn your living room into Christmas at the Ritz by buying loads of holiday-specific decorations, "use things you have in your house—that crystal bowl you got as a wedding gift that you don't know what to do with."

Applying that philosophy, Weiss took on PEOPLE'S challenge: a dessert party for $100, cocktails for $200 and a full sit-down dinner for less than $300. Doable? "Absolutely," says Weiss. With that budget, "You can entertain in a high-end manner." And don't feel you must follow her every suggestion exactly, she advises. "Get ideas, get inspiration. But put your own personality in too. That's the thing people remember."

On the menu:

Roast Turkey & Gravy
Carrot Pudding Soufflés
Sautéed Haricots Verts
Traditional Stuffing
Ruby Salad
Pumpkin Pie

Dinner for 15 UNDER $300

To make your holiday dinner a big, expansive affair for 15, go with a buffet rather than passed platters, says Weiss. "I love buffets. A full table makes people feel warm, cozy and secure." Alongside favorite foods, Weiss works in decorative touches. "I pull things from my house and make it an art piece—Lalique statues next to the brussels sprouts—those things in your home that you think, 'What am I going do with that?' " Or she'll hit flea markets for "vintage Indians and pilgrims." The menu is familiar—and affordable because of it: "The places that sell turkey and cranberries are buying masses of it." But she also thinks people should veer from the standards to "bring in something you grew up with." If homemade pie isn't one of your traditions, fine. It isn't one of hers either. "I stand in line at the bakery for my pie."

mix it up...
A beautiful table doesn't need to match. At the wedding of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Weiss used many china patterns for a fun, eclectic feel. "Borrow five plates each from friends and family—it's a great way to include them."

Shopping List: Dinner

1 15-lb. turkey ($3.50/lb.) $52.50
Coriander, broken anise, peppercorns (black and Sichuan), cloves, paprika, fresh ginger root $27.02
Chinese rice wine, soy sauce $6.48
Cornstarch $1.79
8 oz. Gruyere, 8 oz. Parmesan $13.48
Celery, carrots, scallions $3.77
1 48-oz. can chicken broth $3.99
1 package stuffing $3.99
1 12-oz. bag dried cranberries, 1 5-oz. bag dried cherries $9.98
Radicchio, endive, red leaf $17.80
2 pomegranates $3.00
2 5-oz. pkgs. blue cheese $6.98
1 10-oz. bag pecans $7.69
1 bunch beets $2.99
Vinaigrette $2.99
4 4-oz. pkgs. haricots vert, 3 pints cherry tomatoes $18.43
1 pumpkin pie, 1 gallon vanilla ice cream, 1 container whipped topping $15.57
6 bottles sparkling cider, water $15.84
5 bottles pinot grigio $75.00
TOTAL $289.29

All lists reflect Chicago prices.

For the recipes go to people.com/holiday

On the menu:

Polenta Stars
Roast Beef on Bread Sticks
Pastry Cups with Warm Brie
Mini Burgers
Grilled Cheese with Fig Jam

Cocktails for 20 UNDER $200

People will say, 'What if so-and-so doesn't like my champagne? He's used to Dom Perignon!' " says Weiss. With a cocktail party, she advises, "what you're serving is what you're serving. Let people be gracious. If they're not, don't invite them again." In addition to nonalcoholic drinks, she recommends having one signature cocktail, such as the "Ruby Slip Martini" she created for Seal and Heidi Klum, which combines vodka, limoncello, raspberry and peach juices. For a party of 20, she thinks 30 pieces of five passed hors d'oeuvres is right. Have a beef, chicken, fish and two vegetarian. "Don't overdo it with 10 choices; five keeps up the excitement of 'What's next?' " Again, she goes for ease: In the assortment at left, she bought mini buns, frozen pastry shells and other conveniences. Lastly? "Great music. Only about 45 minutes of 'holiday' music then change it. Reggae? Motown? Classics? Rap? Know your guests well enough to know what they like."

Shopping List: Cocktail Party

1 750-ml. bottle of vodka $21.24
1 750-ml. bottle limoncello $18.99
1 32-oz. bottle of raspberry juice $5.29
1 32-oz. bottle peach juice $4.79
2 pints raspberries $15.96
3 lemons $2.67
1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese $1.99
2 16-oz. bags polenta $6.58
8 oz. goat cheese $8.99
2 17-oz. jars bruschetta spread $13.58
1 lb. lean ground beef $4.29
Frozen bread dough $5.29
1 lb. rare roast beef $9.98
2 3-oz. boxes breadsticks $4.58
2 8-oz. pkgs. Gruyere $19.98
Fig jam $5.29
White truffle honey $15.99
Wonton skins $2.29
1 6-oz. bag sliced almonds $3.49
8 oz. Brie $6.99
2 12-cup mini muffin pans $17.98
TOTAL: $196.23

For the recipes go to people.com/holiday

Cookies for 20 UNDER $100

People go to trouble to find the fanciest dessert, when truly people want comfort food like old-fashioned cookies," says Weiss, who set up a cookie bar at Eva Longoria Parker's bridal shower. "Baking is very inexpensive. But you can find great cookies too." Weiss buys both from bakeries and from big-box stores like Costco in L.A. It's easy to make a party like this feel plentiful, because, as she points out, "with a dessert theme, guests aren't starving; they've already eaten dinner." She rounds out the offerings with a cocktail and other beverages, plus berries or fruit "for the dieters." As for the cookies, elevate them with creative displays. Here she used glass jars, but if you don't have them, "use bowls, or kids' cookie jars, pitchers, vases. Delicious is delicious."

Shopping List: Cookies
(Enough for 28 chocolate chip cookies and 48 decorated holiday cookies)

3 lbs. powdered sugar $2.29
1 3-oz. canister dried egg whites $7.99
Food coloring $5.29
Vanilla extract $8.39
1 lb. golden light brown sugar $1.19
12-oz. bags of semisweet chocolate chips $4.38
Assorted holiday cookie cutters (set of 10) $9.95

Pomegranate Champagne Cocktail
(Enough for 20 7-oz. cocktails)

5 750-ml. (25-oz.) bottles of champagne $44.95
1 59-oz. bottle pomegranate juice $5.29
3 pomegranates $4.50
1 lb. bag of crystallized (candied) ginger $3.99
TOTAL: $98.21

For the recipes go to people.com/holiday

All recipes in this story courtesy of Peggy Dark/The Kitchen for Exploring Foods, from Fabulous Parties by Mark Held, Richard David and Peggy Dark (Ryland Peters & Small, 2008)

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