Frugal Friday: Feeding a Crowd

March 19, 2010 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment

I love to entertain, but the cost of a good party can add up quickly if I don’t plan carefully. I have a few tactics that I use to throw great parties on a budget that don’t feel like they are on a budget:

  • Mix inexpensive bulk foods with a few special treats. A couple of loaves of bread served with butter, chips and interesting styles of salsa, flavored popcorn, and homemade party mix made with store-brand ingredients will fill out a table without breaking the bank. When I put together a party menu, I always include two or three of these filler foods and I find it really helps keep me within my budget.
  • Shop in season. A veggie platter can get expensive quickly if the ingredients are coming from all over the world. When I choose vegetables that are in season, they aren’t just less expensive, they taste better too. Epicurious has a great interactive map for finding out what is in season in your area of the country.
  • Buy in bulk. While I don’t regularly buy a lot of food items in bulk because I worry about both storage and using them up in a reasonable amount of time, my local warehouse club is my first stop when I’m shopping for a party. In particular, I’ve found that cheese, bread, meats, and wine are all much less expensive. My local SAMs Club has a great selection of cheeses that go beyond the typical cheddar, including creamy brie and a mellow manchego. They also carry a nicely priced prosciutto which I wrap around breadsticks for a fun appetizer, and their six-packs of bread are great with olive oil as a bulk menu item. Before I started shopping at SAMs for parties, I made a special scouting trip to see what they had to offer and to jot down the prices so I would be able to compare them to prices at my local grocery store.
  • Plan the menu in advance and shop the sales. Unless I’m throwing a small dinner party or impromptu get-together, I try to plan the menus for my parties at least 3 weeks in advance. This not only helps me spread my prep work out over several days, but I can create a master grocery list and shop for ingredients on sale in the couple of weeks before the party. This works particularly well for more expensive ingredients that hold well like meats and even specialty crackers. By shopping over a few weeks, I can also spread out the impact of the party on my budget.
  • Ask for contributions. Without fail, every time I throw a party, most if not all of the guests ask me if they can bring something. I used to say no because I really love putting all of the food together myself, but I realized that it also meant I was carrying the full burden of the party’s cost myself. Now I decide which menu items I really want to make myself and which I can assign to those who volunteer. I’ve found that people like a bit of direction because they want their contribution to fit with the rest of the party. I’m not afraid to ask someone to bring a specific type of dish, like a green vegetable or a chocolate dessert, and I’ve even asked friends who don’t like to cook to pick up bread and oil or a bottle of wine. When I know I’m going to ask for help, I try to create a food theme so it’s easy for guests to find a dish. One of my favorite themes is the Italian-Style Big Night party. I make a couple or three pans of lasagna and ask friends to bring salad, dessert, wine, and bread. If I’m making several pans I buy all of the ingredients in bulk. I particularly like my lasagna recipe because it freezes beautifully so I can make it in advance. It also cooks wonderfully in a crockpot and pepperoni is a real surprise for guests.

What are your favorite tips for entertaining on a budget? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Recipe: Fast or Slow Pizza Lasagna


  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Serves: 8
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 30 minutes or all day


  • 1 box no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 2 jars of your favorite red pasta sauce
  • 1 8 oz. bag mozzarella or Italian blended shredded cheese
  • 1 package pepperoni slices
  • 1 8 oz. tub ricotta cheese



  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Pour ½ cup of the pasta sauce into a 9 x 13 baking dish and spread evenly.
  • Evenly layer ¼ of the pepperoni slices on top of the sauce, leaving some space between each one.
  • Lay out lasagna noodles so that they are completely covering the bottom of the dish in a slightly overlapping single layer, breaking the noodles to make them fit if necessary.
  • Pour another ¼ to ½ cup of pasta sauce over the noodles and spread evenly with a spatula.
  • Smear in a 1/3 of the ricotta in an even layer on top of the sauce.
  • Spread another ¼ of the bag of pepperoni evenly atop the cheese and top with a 1/3 of the bag of shredded mozzarella.
  • Pour another ¼ to ½ cup of pasta sauce and spread with a spatula.
  • Top the sauce with the noodles, the noodles with the ricotta, the ricotta with the pepperoni, and the pepperoni with the mozzarella. Repeat until you are out of your ingredients, or out of room in the pan, finishing with a final layer of red pasta sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese.
  • Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the noodles are soft and the cheese is golden brown.
  • Let rest 2-5 minutes before cutting to let the sauce stop boiling and soak back into the noodles. You can also cool the lasagna completely, cut into portions, wrap tightly in foil, and freeze.


  • Follow the same directions as above, but instead of stacking everything into a 9 x 13 pan, layer the entire dish into your crock pot.
  • Cook on low with the lid on for 3-4 hours and enjoy.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • You can reduce calories in this dish by using the low-fat versions of the cheese and pepperoni ingredients, and even add more fiber with whole wheat pasta. I use the turkey pepperoni and a chunky garden style pasta sauce to slip some veggies in there.
  • You can mix some cooked Italian sausage (sliced or crumbled) in with the pepperoni for another take on pizza lasagna.
  • If you are planning on freezing the dish to reheat later, make the lasagna a little wetter by upping the amount of sauce you put into the layers. Most reheating methods rob the food of its moisture, so if you make it saucier when you start, it will be perfect when you reheat it!

Entry filed under: Food Costs and Budgeting, Frugal Friday, Tips & Tricks.

Irish Beef Stew with Guinness and Chestnuts Menu Plan Monday ~ Week of March 22

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