One of the best decisions I made my freshman year of college was to ask a bunch of friendly classmates if they wanted to come to my apartment for dinner and to watch a television show I’d just become obsessed with. Not only did I end up building some great college and even post-college friendships from that little group, but I also kept creating or joining dinner groups over the years. (Right now I’m part of a cooking club that meets together monthly to teach each other how to make some of our favorite dishes, and I’m the default host for movie nights with my friends.)
But back in 2005, I was a very young and very broke college student who wanted to regularly feed a group of six to eight people. This basically added a week’s worth of dinners to my grocery bill every time I hosted. This could have easily broken my budget since I was living off of scholarship funds, Pell grants, and my summer job money. Luckily, I was able to take some of the things I’d seen my mother and her sisters do for family gatherings and apply them to my college dinner group so I could figure out cheap, easy meals on a budget.
1. Use a recipe you’re confident in.
When you’re looking to make inexpensive meals for large groups, your first stop should be your tried-and-true favorite recipes. I love to experiment in the kitchen, but I’ve also had my share of new recipe disasters (ask me how my first ever cheesecake turned out). I’m a more cautious cook when it comes to feeding a crowd. It’s one thing to botch a small batch of expensive ingredients when you’re cooking just for yourself versus when you’ve messed up food for six and they’re all set to arrive in 20 minutes.
That’s not to say you can’t make something fancy for a night in with friends! Just make sure to put in some practice with the recipe first before you try to make it for a larger group. You’ll know whether or not the recipe is actually good by then (or how to tweak it so it’s worthy enough for company), and you’ll have a much better grasp of just how long it takes to prep and cook everything. I’ve accidentally left my guests waiting, hungry and awkward, because I hadn’t realized just how long it would take to finish everything.
2. Look for cheap meals for large families.
One of the best ways to feed a large group is to search online for cheap meals for large families. There are whole blogs dedicated to putting together inexpensive, nice meals for time- and cash-strapped families, whether that’s via meal prepping, slow cookers, or one-pot/pan/skillet meals. This is especially useful if you didn’t grow up in a large family and aren’t sure how to scale up your recipes for the size of the crowd you’re entertaining.
I’m particularly fond of one-pot/pan/skillet meals because, as a broke college student, I really didn’t have much in the way of kitchen equipment or space. Anything casserole-ish that you can assemble and then bake in a 9 x 13 pan is a good way to go, like lasagna or chicken pot pie or enchiladas. Sticking something into the oven for half an hour or more still leaves you plenty of time to make the other parts of the meal on the stovetop if necessary, or at the very least it leaves you with time to tidy up before your guests arrive.
3. Be honest about much money, time, and energy you have and budget accordingly.
The quickest way to crash and burn when you’re cooking for a large group is to not be honest about how much everything will cost, how much time you have to assemble the meal, and how much effort it will all take. College taught me that there were just some days I couldn’t afford to host a dinner party, whether it was due to class schedules or homework loads.
This is where it’s important to figure out what food you can make ahead for a crowd. Do you have any favorite slow cooker recipes? Can the casserole be pre-assembled and stuck in the fridge so all you have to do is stick it in the oven when you get home? If the dish itself can’t be made ahead of time, is there any prep work you can do beforehand, like peeling or dicing vegetables? Can you pre-measure ingredients so you don’t have to hunt for the right measuring cups and spoons while you’re stirring? Prepping as much as you can ahead of time will make feeding a crowd much easier.
One of the best things you can do is to be honest with yourself about what you think is the real star of the meal and allocate most of your money and effort to that. Do you have a fantastic pasta dish with homemade sauce? Splurge for the fresh herbs and spices you need. Is your pizza dough recipe perfect? Set aside the time to make the dough instead of buying it. Play to your strengths, and be strategic about everything else.
4. Ask people to pitch in.
Whether you’re cooking for a crowd of six or 20 or more, you’ll always find that people are more than happy to pitch in, especially if you give them some direction. Tell people you have the main dish covered (generally the most expensive and time-consuming part of the meal), and then provide a list of other things people can pick from to bring. If you’re making lasagna, your volunteer list could contain garlic bread, a salad, another vegetable side dish, drinks, and a dessert. That way, people can choose something that fits their own time and money limits, and you will have fewer things to worry about while you take care of the core.
Sure, it’s fun to be able to make every single part of the meal, plate it all beautifully, and have a full sit-down dinner, but that’s not always practical. You don’t have to go it alone, so don’t be shy about asking for assistance.
While I’m happy to be out of my broke college days, they taught me a lot about how to host a dinner group on a budget. Learning how to feed a crowd is just one of the many cooking and entertainment skills you can practice and get better at with time.
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