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How to feed many people cheaply

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Hi fellow chowhounders,
I'm usually on the Manhattan board, which is a telling sign that I don't cook much. However, I've been tasked to plan a menu for a retreat for 15 people, for 4 meals (2 breakfasts, 1 lunch, 1 dinner) and a princely budget of $200.
I am a little overwhelmed naturally about menu options.

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  1. Who is doing the cooking? If it someone who doesn't cook much you may need to make simpler choices than what I am listing below:

    Breakfast Options: French Toast, Pancakes, Scrambled Eggs, Muffins, Fruit, Granola
    Lunch: Stew made from cubed beef, canned tomatoes, stock, with chopped potatoes and veggies, or sandwiches with vegetable and celery sticks, chocolate chip cookies...

    Dinner: A pasta meal such as lasagna, or stuffed shells, spaghetti and meatballs with salad... or take some chickens and cut them into pieces and roast them with oven roasted potatoes and veggies....

    1. 1. Breakfast 1: Eggs, hashbrowns, toast:, mixed seasonal fruit, coffee. About $50

      2. Lunch: Tacos. Get lots of corn tortillas, red onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, cumin, cilantro, and ground meat. make up a hot sauce. About $60

      3. Dinner: black beans, rice, green salad. About $40

      4. Breakfast 2. Pancakes, bacon or sausage, mixed fruit, coffee. About $45

      1. Do any of the attendees have special dietary needs? Will they have other food options in the area? Meals are social time at retreats, so it would be good if anyone with special dietary needs can be included. I'm gluten-free and vegan so, for example, from the suggestions from Trish Untrapped I would only be able to fruit, veggie and celery sticks, salad and the veggies if no butter. From Sam: hashbowns (if no butter) , mixed fruit, corn tortillas, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cumin, cilantro, hot sauce (if they were presented separately from the other ingredients) Dinner looks good! Mixed fruit.

        Not trying to put down the suggestions, and realizing that my needs are "extreme" just mentioning that checking for special diets and either accommodating them or letting them know that they'll need to provide for themselves.

        Most individuals who are on special diets will generally ask about accommodation or plan to bring their own but something to consider.

        1 Reply
        1. re: lgss

          lgss, good that you posted! Indeed, xigua, do check on any special dietary needs! I'm highly allergic to several types of seafood.

        2. 15 peeps?
          no problem.
          brekkie: french toast and seasonal fruit. luckily, seasonal fruit means apples and cheap. saute with some brown sugar butter and cinnoman. deelish. 2nd day........western sandwiches. fry some chopped ham slices with onion and pepper....pour in the eggs (i egg per person mixed with a little milk) and let set. serve on buttered toast.

          lunch: the sandwich is your best friend. intersting breads a couple different kinds of meats, some spreads nad condiments, roasted veggies and fresh greens and you are set. have a coleslaw or pasta salad as your side.

          dinner: spaghetti bolognese: lots of pasta a green salad some good bread and a garlicy meat sauce. add zuchinni and mushrooms to bulk it up.

          1. i'm surprised no one suggested oatmeal as an option for breakfast...it doesn't get much cheaper than that. you can jazz it up inexpensively by offering a few different kinds of chopped dried fruits & nuts as add-ins. plus, if you prepare it with water instead of milk, it's an option for vegans & those with dairy allergies. unfortunately oats are still a crapshoot for celiacs - some can eat them, some can't...and GF oats are much pricier than the traditional ones.

            beans are always a great way to stretch a dollar, and are fine for vegetarians, vegans, diabetics, celiacs...as long as you avoid soybeans it's a safe bet that pretty much anyone will be able to eat them. maybe a mild bean chili with optional hot sauce or peppers on the side for those who want to add more heat?

            roasted root vegetables will add bulk without breaking the bank.

            you could also do acorn squash stuffed with a wild rice, quinoa, or buckwheat & veggie pilaf.

            3 Replies
            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

              Along those lines, for breakfast, do a choice of oatmeal or cold cereal, with lots of fruits, dried fruits and nuts. You can get some great bread for those who'd like toast. Get a jar of peanut butter and one of jam.

              Alternatively, one day you could make oven baked French toast and oven baked frittata, again with fruit and toast.

              For lunch, salad bar! But be creative.

              Dinner: pasta one night, stir fry the next. You can stretch stir fry a long, long way.

              1. re: brendastarlet

                Ooh.. baked french toast! That sounds really good... Do you have a recipe to share?
                Thanks everyone btw for the suggestions and the reminder to ask for dietary restrictions.
                I went online to look at serving sizes and costs and so far have a draft menu:
                1. Oatmeal for Bkfast #1
                2. Pancakes/ french toast for bkfast #2
                3. some sort of bread and spread for the fussies
                4. Sandwich bar or frittatas/quiches seem easy and fuss free for lunch. Need to check prices
                5. A stew/Pasta of some sort.
                Please keep the ideas coming!

                1. re: xigua

                  This is a great French toast recipe and you can assemble it the night before:


            2. Breakfast: make things that are easy to put together. I second the notion of easy things like fruit salad, though that can get pricey. How about quiche/ fritatta? easier than scrambled eggs, can be made without a crust (for us gf folk) and can be filled with great veggies. Chop some veggies up (mushrooms, roasted red pepper, frozen spinach, etc) add some cheese, pour some eggs on top, pop in the oven. easy!

              Dinner: I made a very hearty beef stew/borscht the other night which averaged to about $2.50 per serving. I know it doesnt satisfy the vegetarians out there, but it was filling, nutritious, and seasonal. Someone said rice, beans, and salad would cost you $40 bucks?! i think it would be waayyy cheaper than that, unless you are using really high priced veggies for salad. Rice and beans is a great way to stretch a meal, and it shouldnt cost more than 7 or 8 dollars for 15 people, but if i were going on a retreat I would be disappointed to have that as my main meal.

              How about ratatouie(sp?) its super easy, vegetarian, filling and cheap. can be served with rice and maybe some sausage on the side for meat eaters? leftovers can show up in the frittata the next morning.

              again, the GF thing. Ask first before doing a pasta. I would be very sad if i showed up somewhere and I was left eating a bowl full of sauce.

              1 Reply
              1. re: julseydesign

                Sorry, that was me and I meant to add ice cold beers to the beans and rice dinner. So $40 with beer.

              2. i'd do a pancake breakfast for #1, with good maple syrup or hot jam syrup, and bacon/turkey bacon if it is not a healthy type retreat, fresh fruit or slices of veggie frittata if it is. coffee and juice. or muffins, cocoa & fresh fruit salad. informal

                i'd make a big 7-bean chili for lunch, and serve with fixins including sour cream, scallions & cheese, cornbread, green salad, bev of choice, and cookies (i'd intentionally make extra chili because i'll use it tomorrow). when you get to mack out your own chili bowl it is fun and interactive. informal

                dinner ideas, depending on allergies/restrictions-- paella, pasta carbonara/alfredo/marinara, a different green salad, breadsticks/garlic bread, red wine in a box, ice cream/sorbet. fancier presentation

                next day's breakfast i recycle some of the bean chili and fixins and make huevos rancheros/vegan rancheros, whole fruit, coffee & juice. informal

                the last breakfast is practically free and leaves room for splurging on the dinner meal and using high quality ingredients elsewhere. if you omit alcohol you can get even more mileage from your food dollar, obviously.

                have fun!

                1 Reply
                1. re: soupkitten

                  A retreat. Hmm. Do you remember the story from your childhood called "Stone Soup"? As part of the "fellowship", ask everyone to bring an item -- veggies, maybe chicken, maybe a bag of noodles. Build a soup together, cook it all day in a gigunda pot, then serve it with great bread & a salad.

                2. I second the suggestion of a french toast casserole (so easy for a group!), or perhaps a breakfast strata -- similar concept but with more savory elements. Two 13 x 9 pans of the stuff and you're ready to roll. You can search the web, or check out a Cook's Illustrated recipe.

                  Lunch - make your own sandwich spread seems like a great option.

                  For dinner, there's a terrific old Gourmet chili recipe you might consider (link is below). I skip the suet and just use olive oil. We make this every year for a neighborhood party, and it's great because you can make it all in advance, and then the informality of people fixin' up their dish the way they want is part of the fun. We serve with pinto beans and rice -- cooked separately -- so that vegetarians can still fix up a bowl with whatever they wish. For some reason we always serve this with shredded carrots, too. Not traditional, but it adds a cool and sweet element. Of course, I see that goodhealthgourmet has much more virtuous recommendations, so audience consideration is key here.