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Entertaining while on a tight budget - potluck? fewer events w budget menu items?

I finally have a living space larger than a shoebox & love entertaining... Lately, I've been maxing out my budget & there seems to be little to no wiggle room. Naturally, one of the things I tell myself I can't afford is hosting go are get togethers/dinner parties! But, I'm wondering if that really needs to be the case!

I typically do not like potluck events (hosting them) but am wondering if those are better than no event at all. Or, the alternative would be fewer and/or between events, with the menu crafted so as not to go crazy budget-wise.

Thoughts from those that have been in a similar situation?

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  1. Something fun to try, if you have the oven space is a "gourmet" pizza evening where your guests can make their own. The dough doesn't cost much, and neither do many toppings and sauces. ( shredded cheese, marinara, pesto, varied veggies that you can roast or sautéed in advance, even sliced chicken sausage or grilled chicken etc... ) Maybe a large salad on the side. And guests could bring additional veggie dishes, dessert and some wine? If you wanted them to.

    It could be fun for guests to create, cook and shmooze and then everyone can sit down and try their creations...

    4 Replies
    1. re: MRS

      Thank you for posting the idea! I think I need to start compiling budget friendly menu plans. I had thought about pizzas, but since I typically try to stay away from flour/pasta (fir weight mgmt reasons), I vetod it... but for a special occasion, I would indulge! (And having my home filled w people certainly IS a special thing!)

      The two budget menus I recently pulled off were:
      1) pulled pork with homemade buns... & homemade ice cream for dessert
      2) Asian spring rolls, veggie curry & homemade sorbet (w/ coconut milk).

      If I can keep the overall food cost to around $20-30... (say for 6 people) I would be in heaven!

      1. re: The Oracle

        As much as I don't care for her (too perky) take a look on the Food Network website for Melissa D-Arabian's (Host of Ten Dollar Dinners) recipes and videos.
        The premise of her show is non-boring, somewhat adventuresome dinner for a family of 4 for less than $10.

        When our 20 something daughter moved into her own apartment after college and had to face the daunting task of actually planning meals and hosting some, she found this a good tool.

      2. re: MRS

        Pizzas was my first thought also. And.... making your own crusts is pennies per. I make my crusts the day before, and let them rise and ferment overnight in a covered large bowl(s) for better flavor. You can also make one large and cut down to individual size, and roll out in advance, or let people roll their own.

        A tomato sauce is also good and relatively cheap to make from a nice can of san marzano tomatoes, and whatever options you like, and people can construct their own, as long as they are okay taking turns in the oven.

        And then, buy whatever toppings you like, a big salad, you can easily pull off a pizza party for $20-$30 for 6.

        When guests ask what they can bring, have them bring the wine...

        1. re: cheesemonger

          great idea...never thought of the pre-prep. even better!

      3. You know, potluck sounds good to me.

        Set a "theme," and let the guests know about it. Do go into some detail, so that there is no confusion. Of course, the coordination will be on you - who wants 6 salads, only? But that should work. Your friends will understand, and will have great fun in your new space.


        4 Replies
        1. re: Bill Hunt

          We used to do Potlucks all the time with a group of friends. Setting a theme is the way to go and it makes the meal come together better. Even more fun, pick a theme and then have people research info on it and discuss it at dinner.

          1. re: MissBubbles

            I was part of a group for several years -- one partner in each house was a real food, so we had ethnic potlucks -- each person took a course, and whomever was hosting chose the cuisine.

            We had some seriously good food, and the total spend for the host was one dish -- everyone brought appropriate beverages for their course.

          2. re: Bill Hunt

            I think it depends upon your friends, but with friends who love eating (and love you!).. potlucks can be a hit.

            I miss the days of graduate school when I shared a house with post-docs from Indian, China, Israel, Bulgaria.... we had the most AMAZING potlucks.

            And sometimes simple is just wonderful. Homemade pizzas on a pizza stone, a big vat of pasta, and often indian food is very cheap to make (but time consuming....). And then your friends can bring the wine!

            1. re: Bill Hunt

              Great advice, as always, Hunt! Now to brainstorm themes & dream up guest lists!

            2. Just keep it simple - big pot of soup, chili, or pasta sauce in the crockpot - when people ask what they can bring, let them fill in the salads, cornbread, or desserts, and BYOB. As long as I'm having a good time with my friends I don't usually care if it's fancy-schmancy food. Or do a house hop - appetizers at person A's house, main course at B, desserts at C, cocktails everywhere. My group does mainly potlucks - the host makes the main dish and everyone else brings the trimmings.

              2 Replies
              1. re: NonnieMuss

                I'm with you on this. For me, having folks BYOB makes all the difference in the cost of the event. A big pot of soup, chili or such--dishes where a little meat goes a long way--can be done on a budget.

                1. re: NonnieMuss

                  I'm adding a chili/cornbread/salad night to the menu ideas!

                2. Not sure if you want to go quite this far, but in college we used to host 'dinner parties.' The host provided ten packs of ramen noodles, and everyone brought something that might go well with the flavor that the host had chosen. It worked out really well in that those of us who were flush that week might bring some mushrooms or ground beef or chicken parts, and no one was ever frowned upon if their contribution that week was a can of mushroom soup or a couple of carrots. We had a friend who showed up one day clutching a handful of wild onions he'd yanked out of the yard...he may have meant to be funny, but we chopped them up and used them. We'd make up two or three recipes with the ingredients we had, and then have dinner together. Strange, I don't remember anyone ever being too broke to buy beer...
                  I do think that your friends will still enjoy themselves over red beans and rice or chili and tortillas...an occasional potluck is fine, too, once in a while, particularly if, as other posters have mentioned, you provide a main and let everyone else bring side dishes.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: tonifi

                    we did this every week as a Friday or Saturday dinner - we called them Stone Soup nights....but the premise was the same -- some weeks it was really, really good, other nights, well, we enjoyed the company. Somewhere amongst the bunch of us, we could usually rustle up enough pocket change for a plastic bottle of rum at Albertson's.

                    chili, Soup and salad, Lasagna , spaghetti night.....lots of ways to entertain on a shoestring.

                  2. If you host events where the focus is not so much on food, then you can get away with the cheaper menus. Instead of the traditional dinner party where you sit around the table and eat and talk, invite people over to play cards, for example. That way, you'll eat but the entertaining will involve more than the food.

                    1 Reply
                    1. Some friends and I are starting a dinner book club with the idea of being an opportunity for enjoying two of our favorite things-reading and eating! We have been doing this already in a way as the dinner conversations often turn to books but we decided to formalize it.

                      The host will choose the book and make the the main but then will create a menu that ties to the book-maybe based where the book was set, the time of year, etc. It is basically a potluck with a theme. You can definitely do this inexpensively.

                      1. You have to embrace the culture of 10 lb. sack of chicken quarters for $6.79, Whole fresh hams for $.89 per lb. Whole tilapia at $2.99 per lb. Learn how to break these down and then search preferred cuisines for inspiration.

                        The independent and ethnic groceries usually have veggies at a lower price than the chain grocery stores. Quality in my area is iffy.

                        So here is a menu from a recent dinner I hosted for a couple. I asked them to bring a dry white wine.

                        We started with a light chicken soup.

                        Next was fish quenelles, steamed snowpeas stuffed with gorgonzola,and basmati rice with a raw egg yolk on top.

                        Dessert was sliced papaya and mango with a scoop of lemon sherbet.

                        The bottle of Italian pinot grigio cost more than the entire dinner. And we had a marvelous time. You do not need a crown roast or whole king salmon to entertain your guests. And if that is their expectation, I would advise you to widen your circle of guests.

                        1. many delicious cuisines are based on peasants trying to feed a family. :) this includes many asian and mediterranean dishes and explains why pricey meats are never the star of a meal. look for cheap cuts, like pork butt, that can often be had for less than $2pp. chicken or fish on-sale. various grains, buy veggies in asian or latin markets for cheap-cheap.

                          presuming your friends may be in similar straits, pot-lucks don't have to be free-for-alls with everybody bringing either pasta salad or brownies. pick a theme. decide what you'd like to make then have everybody else fill out the rest: ask each person to bring an app, or salad, or side, etc. let them inform you of their choice, so as others dawdle, their options dwindle, but the meal will still get coursed out. a few can bring just booze. this will be cheaper for everybody than eating out.

                          1. We entertain 10-15 and sometimes even more. We do things like lasagna and garlic bread or pulled pork and macaroni and cheese. I'm not shy about asking people to bring stuff like apps or salad or drinks. If everyone brings something, the price is more reasonable. I usually put out the theme like Italian or BBQ and people will offer to bring a dish or ask me what to bring.

                            I used to feel uncomfortable about having a gathering and having guests being stuff but I'm over it. It's all casual and there's no reason for us to pay for everything every week just because we have the best setup for watching the games. If the alternative is to only do it once or twice a season or get everyone to chip in, well we would rather hang out together more often.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Njchicaa

                              That's definitely where I'm at (getting over asking people to bring something). People offer anyway... so I need to get over myself!

                            2. We did plenty of 'on the cheap' entertaining while we were in college. Sometimes potlucks, but I'd often make a few pots of arroz con pollo or chicken biryani--lots of rice, little meat, but plenty of flavor.

                              One friend likes to host 'breakfast for dinner' potlucks: she makes eggs any way you want 'em, and guests bring sausage, bacon, juice, or fun breads and jams.

                              I'd much rather eat simple eggs with friends than do without entertaining. Hope you get together with your friends soon!

                              1. As mentioned below the BYOB is reallllyyyy key to sticking to a budget. In the invite/evite just note that.
                                My good friend has had many budget friendly parties, each with a "theme" that were a lot of fun.
                                - childhood favorites: she had pigs in a blanket, mac and cheese, pb and j, baby carrots with ranch, made from a box brownies and rice krispie treats
                                - mexican taco bar: do it yourself tacos with lots of toppings, a big salad with cilantro and lime vinegrette, fresh mango with chili pepper dessert
                                - baked potato bar: baked ahead sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, chili, lots of toppings, salad greens

                                So although it was all done on a budget the "theme" made it feel special and not like she had skimped on anything.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Ttrockwood

                                  You have definitely hit a cord with me - theme is key!! Now to get my creative juices flowing & devise theme nights! Thanks for the great ideas too!

                                2. quiche or frittatas are very affordable, pair well with a simple caesar salad or similar, and bread/rolls for those who would like it.

                                  a basic quiche recipe i use calls for:
                                  for crust:
                                  1 cup flour
                                  1 stick butter
                                  4.5 tablespoons ice water
                                  for filling:
                                  3 eggs
                                  1.5-2 cups cream
                                  1 cup cut-up ham cubes
                                  1 cup cut-up jarlsberg swiss cubes
                                  0.5tsp salt
                                  pinch pepper (white is prettier)
                                  pinch nutmeg
                                  1-2tbsp butter cut into small bits

                                  crust: pulse flour and butter and water in food processor until it just comes together. turn onto a well-floured work surface and roll out thin with a floured rolling pin. immediately put into a greased pie plate. using pie weights, bake for 10-12 minutes @ 375F.

                                  filling: put cream, seasonings, and eggs into food processor. beat until fluffy. scatter cheese and ham into pie crust. pour filling over. sprinkle butter bits on top. bake at 375F for 30 minutes or until JUST set and slightly "wiggly" in the middle if you gently shake the pan. let cool for 30 minutes, slice and serve. 8 slices.

                                  you could use whatever you wanted instead of the ham/cheese, but i find this combo delicious.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: chartreauxx

                                    I'm a huge quiche fan! It's so versatile!

                                  2. BYOT--Bring Your Own Topping. You make the pizza dough and sauce and maybe the cheese, everybody brings their favorite toppings. That would be fun.

                                    2 Replies
                                      1. My mother used to entertain a crowd on a shoestring every single Sunday. One thing I remember well was two types of soup, a tureen of each at either end of the table. Served with endless loaves of homemade French bread. Casseroles are good too ... I remember the turkey tetrazzini fondly. She would also make a tortilla casserole that was good. Or Swedish meatballs over noodles ... she did some kind of home-fermented brew for the sauce that started with something from the store (buttermilk & maybe some sour cream?) that I simply cannot duplicate the flavor of today. But it was delicious, and when I was growing I remember once eating 7 plates' worth as our guests looked on in awe as all this food disappeared down this skinny little kid.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: foiegras

                                          I love the idea of a weekly gathering. Those nights must have left you with endless memories!

                                        2. 1) imho, potlucks often result in the BEST meals
                                          2) reducing the amount of meat and focusing on legume-based dishes (mexican, indian, southern US, etc) reduces cost
                                          3) as winter approaches, legume-based soups are a great main course

                                          1. A timely budget menu would be grilled chicken drumsticks, potato salad, and corn on the cob. BYOB and ask a couple of people to bring dessert (pie, brownies, vanilla ice cream).

                                            1. If you enjoy them and your guests seem to be happy to attend, go ahead... but since you say you DON'T like hosting them, why do it? People are coming because they want to spend time with you, not because they expect a million dollar extravaganza.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Kajikit

                                                I think I need to learn to love potlucks! And, I'm learning there is an art to them. I hope to find the sweet spot that apparently exists!

                                              2. We always hosted the-night-before-Thanksgiving with a Souper Supper. 4-6 soups, in the kitchen, for however many guests were in town. Dead cheap and fun as well as delicious. Be sure to vary them - not all creamy, etc. Lots of your homemade bread is perfect. A crostini bar wouldn't be amiss here either.

                                                Last year, I needed a 'different' prep-ahead meal for anywhere from 50-75 people. I made a large pot (!!) of cheesy-garlic grits and had about four different toppings - Port wine, red onion, mushroom, another was pulled pork in BBQ sauce and I don't remember what all.

                                                The pizza party is always a good idea and budget-friendly if you don't go overboard with imported meats & cheeses. You can substitute make-it-yourself tacos or burritos if your friends prefer Mexican food. NOLA rice & beans or the French cassoulet are also budget friendly (if you eschew the expensive ingredients and substitute readily available foods). Have a living room picnic on the floor with soup in a thermos, boned stuffed chickens (cold), potato salad with grownup jello-shooters for dessert. A Spanish tapas party can be very inexpensive, especially if you major in the tortilla espagnole. As others have mentioned, Indian food can also be a delicious source of inexpensive meals.

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: Sherri

                                                  Love all the ideas & would love to know more about the Souper Supper! I was wanting to host a night-before Thanksgiving event, but was concerned about it being too heavy of a meal, with a big meal looming the next day!

                                                  1. re: The Oracle

                                                    Oracle, there's not a lot to tell about a kitchen stove soup party, AKA Souper Supper. Four large pots of different soups gently simmering on the burners, a big stack of soup bowls (*** more on this later), soup spoons and a spirit of adventure from your guests is all it takes for a fun evening. I always have a vegetarian option - Minestrone works well, a creamy soup of some sort - cream of green is my personal favorite since it can be anything, a fish stew need not be cost prohibitive and a beef-y mushroom barley or black bean stick-to-your-ribs kind of offering would do the trick.
                                                    *** Once, when we had many more guests than bowls, I asked everyone to bring their own bowl or mug. Laid out on the kitchen island, it made a very impressive display of about four dozen different vessels. For some reason, everyone was really 'into' the soups that year.

                                                    Worry not about your pre-Thanksgiving meal being too heavy. The individual decides what he/she wants to eat and you are off the hook. If it makes you feel better, make two of the offerings 'brothy' and the others more substantial.

                                                    Offering various garnishes makes this festive -- minced scallions/chives work for most soups, grated cheese need not be pricey, creme fraiche (more than affordable if you make your own), croutons, diced tomatoes, and on and on. When the food looks good no one will be analyzing the cost (and if they are, remove them from your guest list because they're boors).
                                                    Here's to some wonderful parties at your new house. Cheers!

                                                    1. re: Sherri

                                                      I have neighbors who host a Christmas soup party, and they have a big collection of Christmas theme mugs that everyone eats in. They also serve hot chocolate, and ask people to bring Christmas cookies.

                                                      You could ask some people to bring a soup mug if you want to start a collection ...

                                                2. I just went to a potluck where the hosts provided the chicken for fajitas and the rest of us brought all of the extra goodies and dessert. Worked out great. You could to the same idea with burgers, too.

                                                  1. Another vote for potluck. Just went to one last night. The host provided the main (lasagna), one person brought garlic bread, someone else bought a salad, someone else brought some apps, I brought dessert, and everyone brought their own libations. Worked out quite well and it was a still a lovely meal.

                                                    You could also try to base your meal around a protein that's on sale... like doing braised bone in chicken thighs (often on sale for 99 cents a pound or less), some kind of in season veggie, and potatoes. Cakes are usually pretty cheap to make for desserts. Have it be BYOB, or provide one kind of beverage (ie a paired wine) and let everyone know if they want something else they can bring it.