Dinner parties, covered dishes, summertime cook-outs, and evenings in with friends are supposed to be relaxing and fun, but if you’re on a really tight budget or just plain broke, they can be super stressful. Making a meal or even a specific side dish can break your budget or use up half of your week’s groceries in one evening. I totally understand because we’ve been there. We’ve been on a super tight $35/week grocery budget and extra food for get-togethers was hard to supply. It’s embarrassing to admit that you can’t afford something, but you don’t want to seem rude by not bringing anything so you usually just bite the bullet and overspend. Today, I’ve got your back, girl. Over the years, I have collected some pantry staples and a go-to list of cheap recipes that I reserve for just such occasions. I’ve also developed some polite, non-obtrusive ways to ensure that you won’t have to break your budget for an event.
Food Items to Keep Stocked
The best way to grocery shop is to buy things when they are on sale (and preferably when they also have a coupon or rebate) rather than when you run out and need them urgently. I keep nonperishables and paper items stocked in my pantry that I purchased when they were reduced to rock-bottom prices. You will almost always overspend if you wait and buy when you need the item. Be prepared and buy the items you use when you see great prices. Keep your refrigerated items stocked only as much as you can use them before they go bad. Freeze whatever is freezable. This is the key to keeping your grocery budget as low as possible. Here are some of the items I keep in stock.
- Brownie Mix or Cookie Mix- anything that you can throw together last minute with minimal effort and ingredients. Aim to buy these on sale with/without coupons for less than $1.
- Betty Crocker Suddenly Salad Mix- these puppies go on sale and usually have coupons so that you can get them for less than $1. Boom. A dirt cheap side dish in your own bowl that looks like you made it from scratch.
- Baking items like flour, sugar, butter, eggs, chocolate chips. These ingredients are usually cheap, but sugar, flour, vanilla, brown sugar, etc often go on sale around the holidays and that’s a great time to stock up.
- Frozen chicken breasts- chicken at the butcher counter at Harris Teeter is always $1.99/pound. That’s my goal price for chicken breasts and I don’t spend more than that unless it’s urgent.
- Salsa- If you’re not picky about your brand, there’s always at least one or two on sale at the grocery store. Keep it under $2 a jar and preferably closer to $1.
- Cream Cheese- because this is always delicious in everything and if you’re desperate, you can toss cream cheese on a plate, top with jelly, and serve with crackers.
- Tortilla chips- No more than $2 a bag.
- Cheddar cheese- the block is usually cheaper than the pre-shredded stuff. It also melts better and has less added preservatives. The only time I buy the pre-shredded cheese is when they’re buy 2 get 3 free at the store.
- Cream Cheese Salsa Dip
This idea came from a friend of my mother’s but our family has adapted it to make it cheaper and more convenient. Grease a baking dish and smear an 8 oz cream cheese in the bottom. Pour any jar of salsa you want over that and top with shredded cheddar cheese. Bake at 350F (or microwave if you’re in a hurry) until dip is warm and cheese is melted, about 20 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips. Alternative: You can bulk this up with a rinsed/drained can of black beans between the cream cheese and salsa layers.
- Deviled Eggs
Eggs are always cheap. Devil those suckers up and toss them on a pretty dish. Travel tip: I sometimes pack my boiled eggs and the mixed-up “devil” separately and spoon in the filling after I arrive to keep them from smashing into each other on the road.
- Buffalo Chicken Dip
This one is only frugal if you already have buffalo sauce and ranch dressing in your pantry stock. If not, it’s likely more than you want to spend all at once. Cook and shred about 1 cup of chicken. Blend together 8 oz of cream cheese, 1/2 cup of buffalo sauce, 1/2 cup of ranch dressing, and 3/4 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese. Mix with shredded chicken, spread in greased baking dish and bake at 350F for 20 minutes. Serve warm with chips.
- Roasted Vegetables
Buy whatever is in season or reduced for quick sale, slice it up thin, toss it in olive oil, salt, pepper, and whatever else strikes your fancy and roast them flat on a baking sheet for about 15-20 minutes at 425F.
- Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are SO CHEAP throughout the year. They are versatile and generally well-liked. Our favorite is roasted sweet potatoes, but you can also make sweet potato fries or have mashed sweet potato casserole. Same goes for regular potatoes.
- Field Pea Salad
This is another recipe that Mom and I make all the time. It’s a little different, but people really love it. This one is best if you make it the night before. Drain and rinse 1 can of green peas, 1 can of corn, and 1 can of field peas. Toss into a bowl with 1/2 cup of finely chopped onion and 1/2 cup finely chopped red/green/yellow peppers (I skip the peppers if they weren’t on sale. Those suckers can be expensive). In a saucepan over medium heat, combine 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder. Heat until sugar dissolves and then pour into bowl with the other ingredients. Refrigerate overnight, stir, and serve.
These recipes feed a crowd without breaking the bank. Dinner parties are cheapest when you host a covered dish, but these are handy recipes for when you need to take dinner to someone else. I make these recipes and then split them into two dishes so we have one to keep and one to give.
- Pork Carnitas
Toss a pork tenderloin (I buy one of these every time they are 50% off at the store and keep it in my freezer), a can of diced tomatoes and green chilies, and a 16 oz jar of salsa in the crockpot and cook on low for 8 hours. Shred the meat and serve in tortillas with taco toppings like sour cream, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, etc. You can also throw this on nachos or on a bed or rice and beans (cheap!).
- Baked Spaghetti
This has the inexpensiveness of spaghetti, but it’s fancier because you put it in a baking dish (the rules of society are so strange). Cook a box of spaghetti noodles (You should never pay more than $1 for a box of spaghetti noodles- watch for sales), drain, and spread in the bottom of a 9×13 inch greased casserole dish. Brown 1.5 pounds of ground beef/ground turkey (whichever you can get on sale or reduced for quick sale) and 1/2 chopped onion. Drain the meat and put back in saucepan with a jar of spaghetti sauce (stock up when these are less than $2 each), and a couple cloves of crushed garlic. Let this simmer for at least 10-20 minutes while you spread about 8 oz of cottage cheese (Ricotta is too expensive) over the noodles. Pour the meat sauce on top and cover with shredded Mozzarella cheese. Bake at 350F for 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
- Crockpot Bacon and Cheese Chicken
This one comes from my all-time favorite crockpot blog, A Year of Slow Cooking. Toss 3 chicken breasts in a greased crockpot (I always put my meat in frozen because I don’t plan ahead). Combine 1/4 cup Teriyaki sauce and 1/2 cup Ranch dressing and pour over chicken. Top with 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese and 1/2 cup of crumbled cooked bacon. Cover and cook for 4-6 hours on low. Shred and serve over a bed of rice.
I know, I know, but sometimes this is all you have! Almost everyone loves gooey brownies, so you make that box mix and carry it to your event with pride. You mixed things and dirtied dishes and turned on your oven so it counts.
- Sugar cookies
I discovered this sugar cookie recipe from Catch My Party when I was looking for ANYTHING I could fix for a party without having to go buy more ingredients. This recipe is called “The Perfect Chewy Sugar Cookie” and it absolutely delivers. I know sugar cookies have a bad rep for being bland and chocolate-less, but give these babies a try. I always get comments on how surprisingly delicious they are.
- Chocolate chip cookies
I usually use my great grandmother’s recipe, which is exactly like the Nestle Tollhouse recipe except it uses 1 cup of softened shortening instead of butter. I’ll use whichever I have on hand.
- Banana bread
I have made this one many times with mushy bananas that were reduced for quick sale at the grocery store. Y’all, those things are practically free. Peel the leftover bananas, cut them into chunks, and stick them in the freezer for smoothies or later recipes. Trust me, you want to take the time to peel them before you freeze them. On to the recipe: Mash 3 ripe bananas with a fork. Pour in 1/3 cup of melted butter and mix. Stir in 1/2 cup of sugar, 1 beaten egg, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine a pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and 1 1/2 cups of flour and add to banana mixture. Optional: fold in 1/2 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Pour in a greased loaf pain and bake for 1 hour at 350F.
How to Politely Ensure you can Bring Something Cheap
I love sharing meals with friends, but, y’all, I live in the South and food is kind of a big deal. Showing up empty-handed is not an option. At the same time, I remember being afraid to ask the question, “What can we bring?” for fear that it might be something requiring an extra, budget busting grocery run. Not wanting to turn down invitations, I developed a few polite ways around it.
Rephrase the question
Instead of asking an open-ended question, such as “What can I bring?” say, “I want to bring something, would it be more helpful if I prepare a dessert or a side dish?” Or suggest a food item to bring, “I’ve been wanting to try a new appetizer, do you mind if I bring that?” It’s not rude to offer a specific item and you can do it in such a way that it’s not obvious. In this case, it’s truly the thought that counts. If you’re working toward your financial goals, there will come a time in your future when you can ask, “What can I bring?” and the resulting grocery trip will be no big deal. For now, you are demonstrating your thoughtfulness by preparing what you can to gather with your people around the table and enjoy each other’s company. That’s the most important thing.
Sign up early
A lot of offices and groups send out a sign-up sheet for food items for the next event or holiday to make sure there is a good variety present. When I hear about one of those floating around, I find it and quickly write down something I know I can prepare from what I have at home. This way, you are bringing something (which is all they asked), and you reserved your cheap option early.
Keep your pantry stocked when the items are on sale and that will keep you from being forced to pay full price when you have an event. Think through what you have and what you can make from those items when you get the invitation and volunteer it early. Waiting until the last minute will ensure a last minute trip through a drive-through or grocery store for an over-priced, subpar, pre-made item that was way over budget.
No doubt, food brings people together. It’s how we demonstrate love, compassion, and care for our people. I put together this post because, most importantly, I do not want you to miss an opportunity to gather with your friends just because your budget is tight. You need those relationships and memories and it’s possible to take part without overspending. Plan ahead, think through your options, and choose cheap recipes and you can bring good food to all your events without stressing about the cost. Happy cooking!
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