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Low budget dinner for 20


I am asked to prepare dinner for a group of 20 people, age between mid-30s to late 70s, for $100. At $5 per person, I thought maybe some salad, minestrone, and dinner rolls, but thought I'd ask here first and hopefully there may be some imaginative options.
They are not expecting anything spectacular or any miracle, they know you can only do so much with $5pp. Also, because of their age I am suspecting no greasy meal.

Any input?

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  1. I've made lasagne for 20 people that can fall within that budget. I've served it with salad, garlic bread, and a sheet cake for dessert.

    1. I've made a really inexpensive dinner for 12 of salmon and crab cakes- making salmon only would be fairly simple for 20, and would enable you to stick to your budget. I made the cakes with part fresh salmon and then canned salmon (boneless/skinless)- I used the fresh so there'd be some good looking chunks (but it didn't increase the budget too much b/c I didn't need much). I use red onion, capers, egg and a small amount of bread crumbs which means that I can get 2-3 medium cakes per can- but I make mine on the big side. If you mix in 1.5-2 lbs fresh salmon you would need between 5-7 can (not the tuna size- the soup-like size).
      You could put one larger cake on top of a salad and that's a great and healthy meal. Plus, you'll like have $ for dessert. I like cupcakes with pretty icing, personally.

      1. From personal experience, when I need to keep the budget down, I go ethnic. Usually Mexican or Asian. For about $100, I was able to feed around 25 people a menu of veggie spring rolls, and pork potstickers, char siu pork tenderloin, beef and broccoli, fried and steamed rice and egg drop soup. Granted, it was a lot of work, but the cost was low.

        Mexican would be easy to do as well. A large pot of frijoles charros and mexican rice would be very inexpensive. Allowing you to afford nice cuts of meat, and veggies for great salsas.

        1. I've done brunswick stew, salad and cornbread for less than $100 for 20-25 people.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jeanmarieok

            Stew is a great option. Start with a large cheap roast and cut up your self... they taste better than pre-cut stew meat.

          2. Do you want to spend a lot of time prepping, or something you can do quickly? With a little time, you can make chicken pot pie w/ a corn bread topping. If you have a Costco, you can buy inexpensive chicken thighs. Season and bake, then remove the meat. Make a stock of the bones and skin. Make a gravy with the stock, add chicken and peas, corn, carrots (frozen is pretty inexpensive). Put in large pans, top w/ corn bread batter and bake. You can do a side salad, too.

            1. I like your soup and salad idea a lot. Cold and snowy here, so soups are a great option. I like the potato, Italian sausage and kale soup, similar to Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana, with garlic bread.
              Costco has a 3 lb bag of frozen raspberries, blueberries and marion berries that makes a great cobbler. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Pampatz

                Go cajun do a nice chicken and rice jambalaya with a crisp green salad and some crusrt french bread. You might even be able to afford a bread pudding for dessert.

              2. Your meal can be quite elegant and well within your budget. I make a very easy phyllo dish for at least 20 people quite often.

                1 large onion, diced
                1lb mushrooms, sliced
                5 large carrots, shredded
                1lb bag of spinach, cleaned and shredded
                5 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
                2 garlic cloves, minced

                1 package phyllo dough, thawed

                Cook the potatoes in a pot of water until quite soft.

                In a large pan, saute onion and mushrooms. When almost done, add garlic and carrots and cook until carrots are soft. Add spinach and cook until wilted.

                Mix 1 cup of milk (can be skim to whole milk) into 2 tablespoons of flour. Mix this into the vegetable mixture and stir over moderate heat until very thick. This binds the vegetables together. Add the cooked potatoes (they will not stay whole) and lots of fresh herbs.....chopped thyme or chopped oregano and chopped italian parsley. Salt and pepper to taste. Cool mixture.

                You will need a large pan. Figure out the size of pieces you want and choose a pan accordingly. I use extra virgin olive oil for the phyllo but you could use half butter and half olive oil or just butter.

                Oil the base of the pan. Place a sheet of phyllo in the pan (you may need to overlap two sheet depending on the size of pan. Do 8 layers of phyllo for the bottom. Add the cooled vegetable mixture and spread evenly over the phyllo, than add 8 more layers of phyllo over the top. Brush the top layer well and slice through the top layer into 20 squares.
                Preheat oven to 375. Cook phyllo for 40 min. should be well browned on top.
                You can make this a day ahead and keep in fridge. Cook just before serving.

                I usually serve with a rice pilaf and a salad.

                I cook lunch 3 times per week for up to 30 people each day and my budget is way less than yours. I also make a homemade dessert each of these days.

                A pan of squares and ice cream does not cost much! Good luck and have fun!

                5 Replies
                1. re: Deborah

                  Fabulous recipe and great idea. Could you post another one of your meals to feed up to thirty? You must have a good stock of them! I'm going on vacation with 19 friends and we are each going to cook one night. I loved the phyllo idea and wanted another recipe or two to choose from? Since yours are tried and true, I'd really value your input.

                  1. re: meresparky

                    I am sorry meresparky. I didn't see your post until today. Hope your vacation was fun!

                    1. re: meresparky

                      For an informal meal (you mentioned vacation) a good way to stretch meat is to make barbecued beef. Use a crock pot (or a couple of them). In each one put a 3 or 4-lb chunk of any meat you like; beef eye of round was on sale in Chicago two weeks ago for $1.99 lb so that would work fine, something like that. Put it with canned tomato sauce, a few cans of water, chopped onion, vinegar, brown sugar, salt, garlic, cinnamon, and clove (last two are essential). Hot pepper if you like. Cook overnight. Pull meat apart with forks.and even maybe do some chopping on a board. Correct seasoning to your taste. Serve on hamburger buns. Stretches the meat amazingly. Any that's left over freezes perfectly.

                    2. re: Deborah

                      I cook twice a week for a youth program I run and I love it. My budget is $50 and this recipe sounds perfect. What I am not fully understanding is the 8 layers of phyllo. Can you explain this to me? I'm trying to visualize it and it just isn't working for me :o)

                      Also, can you post a few of your meal menus that you are able to maintain your budget? I would love to have extra for the youth to make desserts.

                      1. re: socallmewren

                        Socallmewren, I think she means that, when you pull out the phyllo, you'll have a pile of super thin leaves or sheets of dough. You'll want to put 8 of them in the bottom of your dish (to form a firm crust). I'd brush butter between each layer or two. Then another 8 on top. You'll have a veg 'sandwich' with 8 sheets each on top and bottom, and veg filling between.

                    3. Lilith, I vote for minestrone. For pennies, you can load it up with (drained and rinsed) bean protein. Skip the salad (you'd have to do at least one dressing), and put those greens into the soup -- frozen spinach, maybe Savoy cabbage which is mild, fresh basil. If it's in the budget, saute off some ground chicken or turkey. Drain fat, add bite size crumbles to the soup.

                      Definitely some bread. Big sheets of boxed corn bread. Or perhaps you can get some rolls at a bakery discount store, slice, spread with butter, garlic powder optional, and warm.

                      The frozen fruit posted below is a great idea. For an alternative dessert to the cobbler, make a hot compote and serve over scoops of vanilla ice cream.

                      1. From personal experience:
                        Arroz con pollo
                        Shepherds pie
                        Lasagne, of course
                        Triple-cheese baked pasta
                        Tamale pie (with beans)
                        Chili and corn bread
                        Beef stew
                        Chicken curry with rice (might not work in that crowd)
                        Gigantic slow-cooked pork shoulder (I just bought a 20-lb one for less than $20)
                        Or, for that matter, any kind of good pasta sauce (bolognese - doesn't have to be classic Marcella) with pasta
                        Sweet and sour meatballs with rice or something

                        I have been dragooned into cooking for my filmmaker son's various shoots more times than I care to admit. Cheap, big, tasty food.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Nyleve

                          chili and cornbread was gonna be my rec too.

                          anything grain based is obviously cheaper. lentils, bulghur, rice, quinoa, all these make lovely salads.

                          quiches and fritattas can be done cheaply as well.

                          stuffed cabbage rolls or sweet'n'sour cabbage w/ meatballs, with mashed potatoes and grilled peppers

                          the $60 dinner party: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/t...

                          here's michael chiarello's idea for a budget party that you could multiply: http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/show_...

                          another interesting link to dinner party recipes: http://whatscookingamerica.net/Menu/M...

                          let them build their own pizzas party

                        2. OR a nice chix pot pie.

                          1. French onion soup; it can go in the slow cooker as it seems you've got your hands full already!

                            1. I also think you're good to go with minestrone, salad and bread.

                              But what about pasta? It's super cheap and everyone likes it. Spaghetti and meatballs with salad and rolls.

                              1. Salad, soup and bread might work for lunch, but not dinner.
                                Menus involving rice, potatoes and pasta can stretch a long way for low cost. You can make a pasta salad in addition to the salad. Try cooking rice with vegetable broth instead of plain water. Check out the sales in your market for meats.

                                Also find out if there are any vegetarians.

                                1. A paella makes a great party dish that serves the purpose of the entree. You can bargain hunt around whatever sausage, chicken, shrimp, fish, mussels etc is the best deal and throw it in. You can put in whole chicken drumsticks or thighs, often cheap for a pack of 12 or more. The bones will give great flavor. Its a great way to use scraps of food. Also possibly use a large bag of frozen shrimp. And the rice helps stretch a small amount of protein.

                                  Serve with a nice salad, some bread, and see if the budget can handle a not-too-expensive wine to make Sangria! (you can stretch the wine with club soda in Sangria)

                                  Also, black bean dip (beans are cheap) with chips might be a good appetizer, if you want to take this in a more Latin/Carribean rather than Spanish direction.

                                  For dessert, flan made with coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, and eggs is ridiculously cheap and easy to make (since you dont want to spend too much time on any one dish, when prepping for 20) You could make it the day before, refrigerate, and then pull it out when time.

                                  1. Red Beans and Rice

                                    Red Beans

                                    "In all the ancient homes of New Orleans, and in the colleges and convents, where large numbers of children are sent to be reared to be strong and useful men and women, several times a week there appear on the table either the nicely cooked dish of Red Beans, which are eaten with rice, or the equally wholesome White Beans a la Crème, or Red or White beans boiled with a piece of salt pork or ham."
                                    -The Picayune Creole Cookbook 1900


                                    • 2 cups large dried kidney beans
                                    • 6 cups water
                                    • 4 strips bacon, cut into inch pieces
                                    • 2 cups yellow onion, chopped
                                    • 1 cup bell pepper, chopped
                                    • ½ cup green onions, chopped
                                    • 4 sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
                                    • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
                                    • 1 large smoked ham hock
                                    • 1 pound baked ham steak, cut into 1 inch pieces
                                    • 1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced ½ inch thick
                                    • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme, ground
                                    • ⅛ teaspoon black pepper
                                    • ⅛ teaspoon white pepper
                                    • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
                                    • 1 teaspoon Tabasco ®
                                    • 2 bay leaves

                                    Note: To reduce cooking time soak beans overnight in 4 cups water or put 2 cups of beans in a pot, cover with 4 cups water, bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes; remove from the heat, cover the pot and let stand for 1 hour.


                                    1. In a black cast iron pot, sauté the bacon until limp then add the onions, bell pepper, green onions, parsley and garlic.
                                    2. Cook until onions are clear, about 5 minutes.
                                    3. Add the beans, ham hock and ham to the pot and add enough water to make 6 cups.
                                    4. Stir.
                                    5. Add the seasonings and stir.
                                    6. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours or until beans become tender and have made a thick sauce.
                                    7. Stir to prevent scorching on bottom.
                                    8. Add additional water to keep peas covered.
                                    9. Serve over boiled rice with pickled onions.

                                    Boiled Rice

                                    Serves: 6

                                    With this method of boiling, the rice will come out grain for grain, firm but cooked and free of excess starchy residues. No more gummy rice that sticks together in globs.


                                    • 14 cups of water
                                    • 2 teaspoons salt
                                    • 2-4 cups long grain rice


                                    1. Fill a 6 quart pot with 14 cups of water. Do not alter the water volume.
                                    2. Bring the water to a boil and add 2 teaspoons of salt.
                                    3. When the water is boiling rapidly, pour in up to 4 cups of rice. "Up to 4 cups"; you can boil a half-cup or 4 cups, it makes no difference.
                                    4. When the water comes back to a boil, reduce the heat but keep the water actively bubbling, and begin to consider your cooking time.
                                    5. As the rice cooks, you should continue to stir the rice every 2 or 3 minutes to distribute the heat also you need not cover the pot while the rice is boiling.
                                    6. It should take no more than 15 minutes for the rice to be completely, perfectly cooked.
                                    7. Taste a few grains of the rice to be sure there are no hard centers.
                                    8. When the rice tastes cooked to you, immediately take it off the heat, pour it into a colander and rinse well with hot water.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: speyerer

                                      I do love that cookbook. I use it all the time.

                                      1. re: speyerer

                                        I was going to suggest the same. When I'm feeding a crowd on a budget (which seems to happen frequently... DH is a full time student and we often host his classmates, 10-15 or more at a time), I always go for "peasant food"- foods that are designed to serve lots of people on a budget- and cajun is just the ticket. Jamabalaya is tasty, easy, and cheap, esp. without seafood, red beans and rice is super easy. Maybe a gumbo. I serve them with salad and dressing, and fresh cornbread.

                                        Other 'peasant food' items have been mentioned here, and I'd add Cuban black beans and rice, Hungarian goulash (not like the American Chop Suey we often refer to as goulash), NE baked beans with brown bread, etc.

                                        I do go to soups often- but I rarely serve broth-based soups to this crowd. They're hungry. More often bulky stew-y soups- black bean, chili, lentil, hearty chowders, etc. Also, soups are sometimes a pain because they require a bowl and a plate, a soup and a fork, instead of just a plate and fork.

                                      2. How about a nice chicken gumbo over rice? The ingredients are all fairly inexpensive and you'll have your carb, protein and vegetable all in one bowl...i'd suggest keeping the rice and gumbo separate until right before serving...

                                        1. A couple slow-cooked cheap, large beef chuck roasts, surrounded with carrots, onions, potatoes could easily feed 20. Or beef stew.

                                          Also, whole chickens are quite cheap (at least where I live). Seven or eight whole chickens (at about 5 bucks x 8 = $40 total). Cover wtih butter, garlic salt, and pepper and roast on a bed of carrots, potatoes, and onions which will soak up the yummy juices (add a touch of water or chicken broth at the bottom, so it doesn't burn)..... for a cheap and no-hassle meal. The veggies should set you back about another 15 dollars, which still leaves 45 dollars for bread and a nice salad.

                                          Even possibly a large roasted turkey with a pan of stuffing, large bowl of mashed potatoes, and nice salad seems feasable for 100 bucks.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: Mellicita

                                            This is sounding perfect b/c in addition to my 20 adults, there are 6-8 children under 10. What child does not like chicken? Add a big bowl of rice............and maybe a Oreo Dream Dessert?

                                            1. re: meresparky

                                              If you're roasting chicken and you've got children, I'd suggest adding a family pack of drumstricks. That's what most kids like, and they're easy to do.

                                          2. "Taco salad" is good for this: ground beef, taco seasoning, tomatoes, onions, cheddar cheese, beans, Kraft Catalina dressing, crushed nacho chips. You can use a large plastic bag for mixing. :-)

                                            1. I'm on the same page as Mellicita-- roasted chicken, potatoes, carrots, and a simple salad.

                                              I'd stay away from beans if you've got an older crowd! Half of them are probably on cholesterol and I'm not sure they'd appreciate anything that relied on ground beef and a lot of cheese.

                                              1. Thank you everyone for your suggestions.
                                                I will let the group choose what they would like to eat, I am sure they will be delighted to be given the choice. Now, I can only hope that they will all agree on the one dish!
                                                (And I forgot to write that the dessert was not expected in this dinner, as a number of them do not and a few others cannot eat sweet things anyway)

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: lilith

                                                  go with water , tea and coffee for your drinks...or you will kill your budget


                                                2. While I love a dinner of soup, bread and salad, some people do not think of that as dinner. I would probably go the pasta route, maybe make two types one creamy and the other hardy. For creamy you can go the penne with vodka sauce route with green peas. For hardy I have a recipe that we call "pasta and bacon", which is simply bacon, onions, white wine, canned tomatoes and basil. Serve with some simple grilled veggies, like zuccini, eggplant, onions and garlic. Get some good bread. Rather than a salad you could do veggies and dip, so you don't have to make (or buy) different salad dressings to meet people's tastes.

                                                  1. Chicken Marsala is a great dish, you can also pre cook and cover and put in a low heat oven, serve over a little pasta tossed with pesto or oil, bread and salad.

                                                    Another option that is a lot of prep work but fun and easy after that is a taco bar, soft & hard tacos, fresh salsa, ground beef in a crock pot and or shredded chicken, the meat can be done the day before, the slice and dice veggies that day.

                                                    1. I'm loving reading this!!!!!! I hope more posts come soon! I'm shooting for the 7-8 roasted chickens and veggies, rice, fresh bread, and dessert!

                                                      1. I'm repeating a lot I know.

                                                        Chicken and dumplings to me is perfect, adults and kids. Inexpensive, has some vegetables and the dumplings. Serve with a simple salad and a simple gremalata or just easy baked cookies. I make a simple shortbread cookie topped with jam and topped with another cookie. Very inexpensive and can be made ahead. Or how about just some fresh watermelon with mint.

                                                        Mexican, 1 pan with chicken one with just beans, enchiladas or many good mexican dishes.

                                                        Soups is great. Many simple soup ideas with beans and veggies that would go a long ways. A make a chunk potato soup that you can add Kale and other fresh vegetables and even some sausage or bacon for a hearty soup.

                                                        I make a great chicken dish with peppers and mushrooms over rice. Even to make ahead and just simmer. I goes a long way, A nice loaf of bread and salad

                                                        Pasta, lasagna always good. But a good carbonara. Another with vermicelli, spinach, black olives and artichokes with a light cream sauce, Serve with some grilled romaine hearts and a nice balsamic vinaigrette and fresh summer tomatoes. I love a nice baguette grilled and then topped with pesto and some parm.

                                                        I love the stuffed cabbage rolls, I love one with turkey and some fresh vegetables. A nice tomato sauce. Scalloped potatoes and a cucumber and tomato salad.

                                                        White bean chili, Easily under 20 with corn bread.

                                                        I know I repeated so many other good ideas sorry. Lots of great ideas here.

                                                        1. Old thread, but:

                                                          1. Roast chickens, potatoes, salad
                                                          2. Beans (cooked with some cheap cuts of meat) and rice
                                                          3. Tacos: ground meat (cooked and grease drained), tortillas, lettuce, tomato, grated cheese, refied beans, salsa...
                                                          4. Sukiyaki or shabu shabu cooked at the table
                                                          5. Lasagna and salad
                                                          6. Braised chicken thighs, vegetables, rice or potatoes
                                                          7. All kinds of curries as options.

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                            This is very timely for me...

                                                            I think I'm doctoring up a packaged corn soup (Imagine brand that was on sale at 99 cent store for 99 cents per carton) with some fresh corn kernels and roma tomatoes, chicken cubes and garnishes on the side (avocado, cilantro, chopped red onion)

                                                            French Bread garlic croutons

                                                            Potato dish

                                                            Cole Slaw

                                                            Apple crisp

                                                              1. re: MIss G

                                                                4 lemon meringue pies
                                                                potato soup
                                                                xhicken divan over rice