The post has been updated to reflect January 2023 prices.
How to Feed a Lot of People on a Budget
After years of cooking for crowds (I have my husband’s big family to thank for that), I’ve learned much about how to feed a lot of people on a budget; and how to avoid giant embarrassing fails that lead to a delivery pizza solution. If you want to learn from my mistakes then read on :0)
Feeding a crowd on a budget is easy when each guest or family brings a dish to share, instead of committing to feed everyone yourself. This is also known as holding a Potluck 😁 Potlucks can be very exciting when you give them a “theme“, such as “your favorite meal as a kid” or “a regional cuisine”, or just “bring whatever the heck you want” and be surprised!
If the whole Potluck idea is not going to work in your situation and you’ve already committed to feeding everyone, then read on. I’ve got you covered with lots more tips and recipes to share below.
What is the Best Way to Feed A Lot of People?
So you want to impress your co-workers, friends, or family with a warm, welcoming homemade meal that you have prepared yourself. How do you do this without slaving over the stove all day and breaking the bank???
- Choose a recipe that can be scaled up without having to cook or bake more batches.
- Create a “Bar” and feed everyone cafeteria style, such as a potato bar. (This idea works great as a potluck too.)
- Slow cooker/Instant Pot to the rescue!
- Make as much food ahead of time as you can.
Chose a recipe that can be scaled without having to cook or bake in batches
Stews, soups, pasta, and salads are excellent for this. Create the entire meal in one giant pot or bowl. You do NOT want to be cooking batch after batch after batch to have enough food for everyone. That is exhausting!
This is often what I resort to when I have a large gathering of people to feed. I invite potluck style in the summer and cook up a giant batch of stew myself in the winter.
Create a “Bar” and feed everyone cafeteria-style
There are lots of bar ideas out there, such as the Nacho bar, Baked potato bar, Burrito bar, Hot dog bar, Root Beer float bar, Hawaiian Haystacks bar, Sandwich bar, etc. All of these can be done on the cheap, and links to all these ideas can be found below. They are also really fun!
The bar idea works great with Potlucks too- you can ask guests to simply bring one topping with them, such as cheese or sour cream.
I don’t know about other people’s families and friends, but when I invite people over they often ask me what they can bring to contribute, which I really appreciate! Sometimes I have it covered, and sometimes I don’t- so it’s helpful when they offer to bring something.
Slow Cooker/Instant Pot to the rescue
You can cook a Pork roast into melty pulled pork sandwiches, a tomato-based hearty Italian ‘Sunday Gravy’ served over pasta, or a creamy shredded chicken to ladle over rice for Hawaiian Haystacks. Then simply cook the pasta or rice right before your guests arrive to complete the meal.
Beware of meat prices, however, as they continue to climb. Having meat as your main protein or entrée can often be costly. Remember, beans and potatoes are the cheapest foods on the planet, so make use of them.
Make ahead, make ahead, make ahead
I feel like such a girl boss when all my guests arrive to a clean house and a meal that’s ready for them! Making food ahead of time is such a great way to alleviate stress. I almost always will make my desserts, side dishes, and any breads/rolls ahead of time. I can still make them from scratch and be un-frazzled when the crowd comes to the door.
Cheap Meals for a Crowd
To help you decide which cheap meal for a crowd would be best for you, I did some research for ya!
I calculated the cost of each of these recipes (assuming you already have basics like spices and oil) if purchased at Walmart, then rounded to the nearest dollar. I chose to use the cheapest available products. I was shocked at the results!
The links in the ‘Recipe’ column are the actual recipes I used to calculate the prices. Of course, your results will vary depending on the specific recipe you choose to make. The prices in the ‘Cost’ are a guide so you can see and compare the relative cost of these recipe ideas and choose an option that’s best for you.
|Breakfast for Dinner (pancakes, eggs, hash browns)
|A generic box of pancake mix, 12 eggs, bottle of generic syrup and 6 russet potatoes.
|Hot Dog Bar
|Cost can vary depending on how fancy you get- here I included the basics: cheese, onion, chili with beans, ketchup, mustard, bbq sauce
|Baked potato Bar
|Price includes 10 lbs bag of Russets.
|Eckrich Deli ham, Frigo mozzarella cheese sticks sliced to replace cheese balls, Great value dressing.
|Chili with Beans
|Doubled this recipe and substituted 1 lbs ground beef in place of 2 lbs of ground turkey
|Slow Cooker Cheddar and Bacon Potato Soup
|Double the recipe, 8oz block cheddar shredded yourself.
|Used 2 cans great value sweet corn and doubled the recipe. Shred cheese yourself to save $$
|Tuscan Bread and white bean soup
|I skipped infusing the olive oil and just used plain evoo. Doubled this recipe. 1 Marketside Italian loaf was plenty of bread.
|Double recipe. Sour cream not included in this price.
|Grilled Chicken with Tossed Salad
|I included a 10 lbs bag of frozen chicken breast and tripled this recipe.
|Pulled Pork sandwiches with Homemade coleslaw
|Double the recipe, purchased Smithfield Pork Shoulder picnic roast, 7lbs + 2 bags of Hawaiian rolls 8 ct.
|Cost can vary depending on how fancy you get- in this price I included: Velveeta cheese, guacamole, black beans, salsa, ground beef, fresh tomato
Updating this chart above with prices current as of January 2023, I was shocked to see the results from my research. The hot dog bar has now replaced the pancake breakfast as the cheapest meal to feed a crowd. In 2021 my data showed that a pancake breakfast for 16 people was just 7 dollars using generic ingredients!
The results of this 2023 chart update were appalling to me. Inflation is a real buzzkill for sure, and something I am definitely keeping my eye on the next time I have a crowd to feed!
I am still a huge fan of the “pot lucky” Potluck if possible, but that won’t work if you have a house full of family visiting from out of town. Good luck and I hope your next gathering is cheap yet fantastic!