Cooking for a Crowd on a Budget

by Chris on May 2, 2012

Whether you’re entertaining for a birthday party, or need to feed a lot of people because of a funeral, there are many times when you need to make a lot of food.  And we all know that if you don’t attempt to save money doing so, your food budget can easily spiral out of control. Here are some tips on how to feed a crowd on a budget.

Do It Yourself

Of course it saves money to make the food yourself.  Caterers charge a fortune, and buying pre-made food is also expensive when compared to the cost of making the food yourself.  The hard part is the time you need to make the food.  Most people can’t commit to the time it takes to make several items.  The secret to finding the time is to make the food in advance and freeze it.  Bread, rolls and desserts such as cookies and cookie dough can be made weeks in advance and then frozen.  Also, many entrees also freeze well.  For example, some people actually prefer the taste of lasagna and chili after its been frozen, as it  helps the flavors blend together.

Some other tips about doing it yourself is to find simple recipes that can be thrown together easily and to use recipes that have a lot of overlap in ingredients.  For example, you can buy tomatoes in bulk and use them for a salad, for a sandwich topping, and for a salsa.  Things like pigs in a blanket are easy to prepare in advance and require only two ingredients.  There are lots of simple recipes that can use inexpensive items to create large quantities of food.

One more example I can think of.  My sister threw a birthday party, and besides making her own salads, she purchased all of her bread from Jimmy Johns subs.  They sold them to her for 69 cents a loaf.  She purchased her own deli meat and cut up tomatoes, lettuce and cheese and made a sandwich station.  While it probably cost her $40 to $50, the same amount of subs from Subway or another sub place would have been three or four times that!

Don’t Make Too Much, Minimize Waste

cook for a lot of people for cheapMost of us worry more about running out of food than about the waste that comes with buying too much.  With that said, it’s important to not go overboard on your food purchases.  If you’re worried that you might run out of food, keep some backup food handy in the fridge or freezer just in case, but don’t serve it all at the same time.  This could lead to waste.  For example, if you are providing chili, keep some in the fridge for backup.  It is very easy to heat up if you need it, and if you don’t it can still be frozen at the end of the day.  If you leave food out all day, it not only shouldn’t be frozen, but it probably needs to be thrown away.  Plan your cooking so that you minimize waste.

Make Something Tasty Out of Something Inexpensive

I grew up going to weddings that served ham sandwiches.  The host would buy a ton of bulk ham and order dozens of rolls from the bakery.  They would set it out with some potato salad and chips and it would feed hundreds.  Now, ham sandwiches would seem a little plain, but by using inexpensive meats and other foods, you can still make some tasty courses.  For example, wrap the ham in tortillas with a little cream cheese and some pickles and cut it into spirals.

When it comes to main courses, a large and inexpensive pork butt (only a few dollars a pound) can be marinated and slow cooked to provide a meal for dozens of people.  Also, branch out from just meat.  A few bags of dried beans costs a few dollars, but can make a bean casserole that feeds dozens.

Consider Potluck

Depending on your situation, it may be acceptable to ask people to bring a dish.  For example, it would be appropriate for a family reunion or holiday party.  However, if it is birthday party for one of your family members, you probably shouldn’t do a potluck.  However, a family birthday party for a relative or grandparent would be very appropriate.  Decide whether or not it is appropriate to ask people to bring something.  Sometimes, you can provide the meal and ask people to bring an appetizer, side or a bottle of wine.

Go With The Grill

Grilling is another option that many people prefer.  Buying a large package of hot dogs and burgers isn’t too expensive, and the smell and festive atmosphere that grilling provides can add to the enjoyment.  Throw some other items on the grill too to help dilute the cost of meat.  For example, you can make bread dough and toss on little balls of dough to make crispy bread.  Or make kabobs that mix in inexpensive vegetables.  Potatoes can be chopped up and grilled until crispy.  Then toss some in hot sauce and people will love them, or at least love talking about them.

These are some of the ideas we have on this, let’s see what other blogs are saying.

What Others Are Saying About This

While doing our research for this article, we read several other blogs with great ideas.  Here is what Mile Hi Mama had to say:

Make meat an ingredient, not the main star.  Make tacos instead of hamburger, stir fry instead of individual chicken breasts, stir fry instead of pork chops, swiss steak instead of chicken fried steak.  If the meat is mixed in with a bunch of other food, the portions won’t look meager on the plate.  A pound of chicken breasts will make four Chicken Cordon Bleus, but will feed many, many more if served as stir fry or white chili.

Use fillers.  Lentils and bulgur will stretch ground beef.  Beans are a natural stretcher (use red beans for beef, white beans for chicken.) Oatmeal, breadcrumbs, and rice are great fillers, too.  I always use oatmeal in my meatloaf!  Potato tacos (cook up some diced potatoes or hashbrown style spuds with the meat) are tasty.

Serve it over a starch.  Swiss steak over rice, stroganoff over noodles, or even meat and gravy over bread is much more filling.

Add veggies.  A bag of frozen veggies added to the pasta for the last minutes of boiling, extra onions and mushrooms in the gravy, or a can of diced tomatoes will make the portions stretch that much further.

The rest of this article can be found at cooking for a crowd.

Ali Datko at Live Strong had the following ideas to help save money when cooking for lots of people:

Slow Cooker

If you’re serving a moderately small crowd of eight or  nine people, you can prepare a full meal in a slow cooker. If the group is  larger, you may still use the slow cooker to create a simple side dish, such as  baked beans. Chili and stew recipes work well for crowds because they’re simple  to customize to fit budget and dietary preferences. Begin with a base of canned  diced tomatoes and tomato sauce. Add the meat of your choice or leave the meat  out for a vegetarian dish. Include extra ingredients such as beans, vegetables,  garlic, hot sauce and other seasonings. Serve the stew or chili with a side of  garlic bread or cornbread.

No-Cook Meals

Simplify your life by serving a meal that doesn’t  require any cooking. If you don’t mind a bit of slicing and dicing, you can  easily prepare a self-serve salad bar for hungry guests. Chop up a large amount  of iceberg lettuce, and if your budget permits, some nutritious greens. Offer  toppings such as diced tomatoes, grated cheese, sliced carrots and chopped  onions. Depending on your location and the season, there may be plenty of  additional low-cost produce to serve with the salad. Other no-cook meal options  include gazpacho, a soup of cold, processed produce, and bean  salads.

Read more at budget meals for a crowd.

Basically, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  If you really want to feed people and not break the bank it is definitely possible.  Be creative and do it yourself.

Have any ideas you want to share?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jess May 2, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Some good thrifty ideas here. I have to throw a birthday party soon, and this has gotten me thinking of good filling things to serve. Thanks for posting.

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mirage1440 May 12, 2012 at 9:53 pm

There is this great place near us called The Butchery that sells a grilling bundle that feeds my huge family for birthday parties. We grill and provide drinks and chips, and everyone else brings a salad or a side dish. It works out great and we don’t end up spending a fortune to feed everyone at the party.

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