Budget Cooking for a Crowd

Chips and salsa for a crowd of party guests
Provide guests with chips and salsa to snack on while they wait for the meal to be served.

Whether you're planning a graduation party, a family reunion, a baby shower, or a weekend BBQ for your friends, keep in mind some basic tips on budget cooking for a crowd.

Snacks and Appetizers

If guests will be arriving at different times, you'll want to offer an assortment of snacks and appetizers for people to nibble on while they wait for the main event to start. For example:

  • Chips and salsa
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Party mix made with cereal, pretzels, and mixed nuts
  • Vegetable tray with carrot sticks, celery, plum tomatoes, cauliflower, and broccoli
  • Fruit tray with fresh fruit that's in-season

Main Course

Choosing a main course is the most difficult aspect of budget cooking for a crowd. Whether you're cooking for a small party of 15-20 people or a large event that includes 100 or more guests, you need to take into account factors such as whether you have enough room for everyone to sit down to eat, and how long the food needs to stay hot or cold.Here are some ideas for affordable main courses:

  • A "make your own" taco bar
  • Baked potato bar
  • Mini sub sandwiches
  • Pizza, cut into thin slices or small squares to minimize food waste
  • Spaghetti or lasagna with garlic bread
  • Hot dogs and hamburgers
  • BBQ beef or pork sandwiches
  • Chili, if your party is in the fall or winter months

While it's generally cheapest to make your own food for a party, you can sometimes find good deals on main courses at warehouse stores like Sam's Club or Costco. For example, the cost of purchasing several plates of pre-made mini sub sandwiches may be almost the same as buying all of the ingredients to make the sandwiches yourself.


Unless everyone at your party is on a strict diet, you'll probably want to offer some sort of dessert to finish the meal. Affordable options when budget cooking for a crowd include:

  • Homemade mini chocolate chip cookies
  • Brownies
  • Cupcakes
  • Chocolate-covered strawberries or banana slices
  • Chocolate fondue with marshmallows, angel food cake, graham crackers, and assorted fruit


If you're on a tight budget, you'll want to avoid serving alcohol. Soda is also an expensive drink option in most cases. Typically, the best choices for drinks on a budget are coffee, iced tea, and lemonade. Keep the cups a fairly small size to subtly encourage guests to drink less.

Budget Cooking for a Crowd: Choosing Your Recipes

The Internet has made it easier than ever to find recipes for any type of occasion. LoveToKnow Recipes has simple party food ideas suitable for any budget. All Recipes is another popular site for cooks on a budget, since you can search the site's database to find recipes with the specific ingredients you wish to use. Just remember to check your math when you're making a large batch of a particular dish. You don't want to be embarrassed because you made the dessert with double the amount of sugar that was required!

Don't Forget to Ask for Help!

Entertaining a crowd can be a stressful experience, especially if you don't normally do much cooking for your own family.

However, keep in mind that most people are happy to help with planning an event if you give them specific duties. If someone offers their assistance, don't be afraid to have them help you chop vegetables for the relish tray or make salads. Having people bring part of the meal, such as an extra dessert, is another way to help you stick to your budget while taking some of the stress of event planning.

If you prefer to handle all the cooking yourself, ask your helpers to run out for paper plates, napkins, and silverware or round up the large serving plates you'll need for the appetizers.

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Budget Cooking for a Crowd