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Crafting a pocket-friendly picnic

Making Ends Meet

Making Ends Meet

May 22, 2009|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI

I grew up in a family of foodies. Planning for every occasion began with a menu.

Every Thanksgiving dinner in my memory was followed by a choice of no fewer than 18 pies.

Even holiday picnics were lavish. They went beyond burgers and hot dogs to magazine recipes rendering meatballs and pasta salads, fried chicken, ham salads, and carved watermelon boats with melon balls. These dishes were in addition to staples like my mom's baked beans, my grandma's potato salad, and a half dozen or so desserts.

Such feasts were standard fare that required minimal effort and no expense on my part. They were just always there.

Then I grew up. With a home and family of my own, I set out to host such a fete.

I prepared the menu with abandon, planning to host my family as well as my husband's. Meanwhile, I had not thought through the price tag that would come with the shopping carts full of food I would need to buy. As I rolled through the check-out line, I was stricken with sticker shock.

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Horrified, I loaded the trunk with food and headed home to call my mom. I needed to know how much money she usually shelled out to provide the kind of spreads I'd grown up with.

It turned out the price I'd paid was right in line with the figure she mentioned.

There are areas of my budget where I choose to spend money on things that were not very important to my mom. Her saving in those areas freed up more money proportionally for her grocery bill.

I needed to consider whether I would be willing to make cuts in other areas in order to regularly provide the kind of feasts I'd grown up with.

The answer, for me, has fallen somewhere in the middle. I resolved to cut frills while holding onto that feeling of bounty.

I've learned to plan dream menus on paper, figure the costs, then go back to cross off frivolities or find more cost-effective ways to replace them. Learning to do so has been a process of creativity and discipline.

Heading into Memorial Day weekend, I've been planning ahead for fun-filled picnics and get-togethers. When I shop, I will spring for essential dishes that make the mouth water and please a crowd. As for side dishes, I'll make one big one, and fill in with watermelon and a couple bags of buy-one-get-one-free chips. Or friends and family will each bring a dish. For drinks, I'll buy whatever is on sale.

After the meal, I won't be offering a table covered with desserts. Instead, there might be a tray of inexpensive pastry squares or cookies. Or maybe we'll slurp on popsicles wrapped in long, clear tubes of plastic.

I tend to focus a little less on food and more on fun. Bubbles and sidewalk chalk never seem to lose their appeal for the younger crowd. Older kids and adults line up for games passed down through the family, like bocce, croquet or badminton. As night falls, my husband is always good for a stash of sparklers.

I'm still a foodie at heart. I'll always relish the savory, abundant, comfort foods of my youth. But I trust that my children will grow up with different, yet equally fond, memories.

Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is alnotarianni@aol.com.

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