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7 actually enticing rehearsal dinner ideas for savvy brides on a tight budget

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

You're paying enough for your wedding… why spring for a lavish rehearsal dinner?

When I got married, costs started racking up pretty fast. If you're in the same boat, no worries. A rehearsal dinner doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, whether you want to go casual or fancy. You just need a clever idea, a good location and the willpower to skip expensive extras no one will remember in 10 years anyway.

Keep in mind that eating at a restaurant will usually cost more. The server's tip on a $500 meal is almost $100 by itself, and, of course, you must limit yourself to the restaurant's relatively expensive food.

That said, the restaurant will also provide plenty of room and the dinnerware, napkins, etc., for no additional cost if you eat in, so it may balance out. If a wedding party member's home isn't an option, look into hotel spaces, places of worship, local schools or parks, etc. They may be inexpensive enough to make skipping a restaurant worth it.

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1. Tamale buffet

Whether you make your own or order them from a restaurant ($10 to $15 per dozen), you'll want to plan for three tamales per guest, plus rice and beans, which are really easy to DIY using canned beans and boxes of Mexican rice. Serve sopaipillas with butter and honey for dessert.

2. Baked potato bar

Serve baked potatoes with plenty of fixin's. There are the usual suspects, like butter, cheese, green onions, bacon, sour cream, etc. But baked potatoes are also excellent topped with meats, like chopped beef, pulled chicken or pork, so the meat-and-potatoes types won't leave thinking you fed them a side dish.

More: Let us help you decide if you should have a buffet-style wedding reception

3. Barbecue

Barbecue is probably one of the cheapest ways to feed a big group on a budget. Just arrange for two meat options (and a vegetarian option if necessary), three to four side options and bread or buns. Pulled and chopped meats are typically cheapest and can be eaten as an entrée or as a sandwich. Stick with salads (potato, coleslaw) and hot sides that aren't fried (mac and cheese, baked beans), since fried foods, while popular, get soggy fast. Don't forget about the add-ons, like red onions, pickles and pickled veggies, etc. Banana pudding for dessert, and you're set.

4. Backyard cookout

Buy preformed hamburger patties to save time, and put one of the bridesmaids or groomsmen in charge of the grill. The great thing about this is that you can now afford to have some gourmet burgers (several different kinds if you want), because you're doing the cooking yourself. Ask members of the wedding party to bring outdoor-friendly sides. Make sure the invitations say BYOB, and provide plenty of coolers, cups and ice for your guests.

5. Chuck E. Cheese's

Chuck E. Cheese's… where an adult can be a kid again. It may sound expensive in terms of a kid's birthday party, but it's a steal of a rehearsal dinner, even if you provide some tokens for all the guests. Going at off-hours (like early in the morning or on weekdays) may get you a better deal in addition to less competition for game time. If you stick with pizzas or a handful of sampler platters, you can easily stay on budget. And anyone who wants something else can purchase it if they're not having too much fun kicking a 10-year-old's butt at Skee-Ball.

6. Cocktail potluck

Create a signature cocktail or two, and put the wedding party in charge of providing one heavy hors d'oeuvre each, ensuring there are eight to 10 pieces total for each guest. Just make sure someone is in charge of coordinating everything so all the food that's planned goes well with the cocktails — 'cause serving rosemary-lavender martinis with spray cheese-topped saltines is just wrong.

More: How to spend way, way less on that beautiful wedding cake

7. Grocery store Italian elegance

Get out your Costco card. Here's your shopping list. Buy as much as you need for the number of guests you'll have.

  • Rustic Italian loaves
  • Quality olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Italian seasoning grinder
  • Bags of precut romaine lettuce
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Caesar dressing
  • Croutons
  • Family- or party-size lasagnas (don't forget a veggie option!)
  • Gourmet ice cream or gelato

If you're having a small party, you can do it at home, but a place of worship can accommodate more people, and they often have kitchens. Serve the bread with small platefuls of olive oil, balsamic and Italian seasoning before the meal, then mix up a Caesar salad with the lettuce, Parm, dressing and croutons for the next course. Next comes the lasagna, and you finish with a simple scoop of ice cream.

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