Budget-Friendly Potluck Meals (Eat Well, Spend Less)

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Most of us enjoy getting together with family and friends to share a meal and some good times. My mom excelled at this when I was a kid. It seems we often had a houseful of people for the holidays, and she always served up a sumptuous feast.

It wasn’t until I was married and well into motherhood that I realized that those get-togethers were probably pretty pricey! How she pulled it off while on a budget, I do not know. But she never complained. And she always made it work.

There are a number of ways that you and I can make it work, too. One of my favorites? The potluck.

Finances shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying time with friends.

One way to offset the cost of a big party is the potluck. It’s a win-win for everyone since each party carries a little bit of the weight, in terms of preparations as well as costs.

A potluck can be approached in a number of different ways.

  • Provide a main dish and invite friends and family to supply the side dishes and desserts.
  • Ask everyone to bring a one-dish dinner like a casserole or dinner salad.
  • Host a BBQ where everyone brings his own meat as well as a dish to share.

Once you’ve decided to host — or attend — a potluck, it can still be tricky to make it fit your budget. You want to make enough, you want to make it easy, and you want to make it good. And contrary to popular belief, typically “inexpensive meals” like Sloppy Joes or Spaghetti and Meatballs are no longer economical with the rising price of beef.

Here are some tips for making your potluck meals budget-friendly:

1. Use what you have.

Since I’m in the middle of a pantry challenge where I’m building my meals on what we already have, this is my first line of attack. What do you already have in the cupboard that can form the basis of a great dish to share?

2. Go meatless.

Generally meat and cheese are the more expensive ingredients in a dish. Omitting them can greatly reduce the cost of a dish and still be just as tasty. Consider a variety of salads, bean dishes, or even casseroles that focus more on vegetables and legumes instead of meat or cheese.

3. Bake someone happy.

Baked goods are usually economical and they typically can be prepared in bulk. Spend an afternoon baking up cookies, cakes, pies or breads. These items will be a hit without hitting you too hard in the pocketbook.

Aimee is nails it this week in her post, The Art of the Potluck. Head over there to read her tips for organizing a potluck and how to be a good attendee.

This post is part of an ongoing series about how to eat well and spend less. Along with some fabulous foodies, organizers, and frugalistas, I’ve been bringing you suggestions on how to eat like a king without becoming a pauper to do it. This month we’re discussing ways to entertain and enjoy fellowship with families and friends β€” and still stay under budget.

Be sure to check out what the other ladies are sharing this week or browse their archives:

What are YOUR favorite Potluck meals that fit the bill?

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. I always sign up for the bake goods when going to a potluck. I love to bake and I always have ingredients on hand to whip something together.

    Some recipes that have been big hits at potlucks are my strawberry chocolate chip muffins http://www.skinnymomskitchen.com/2011/05/24/strawberry-chocolate-chip-muffins/ and carrot pineapple muffins http://www.skinnymomskitchen.com/2011/06/29/carrot-pineapple-muffins/


  2. jenny w. says

    This may be just a tad off the topic. My family attends a homechurch with 5 other families. We eat a meal together once a month. Instead of doing things potluck style, we decided that we would take turns providing the meal for the whole group. So, our family has to provide the whole meal for the whole group a couple times a year. I’m wondering if any of your readers have yummy, simple recipes for feeding large numbers of people, 24-30. Thanks.

    • @jenny w., Soup! Get out your largest pot and start chopping veggies, in my opinion. I think soup and a side of bread and a big salad with lots of vegs is the best way to feed a huge crowd like that (or Mexican food). My post today actually lists all my best soup recipes, because that’s also my favorite thing to share with others when I bring a meal: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2011/07/19/eat-well-spend-less-the-gift-of-a-meal/

      Good luck with the planning! πŸ™‚ Katie

    • @jenny w.,
      Jenny, during these hot summer months, I would suggest a build-your-own sandwich bar.
      You assemble buns or bread, condiments, and sandwich fillings and everyone creates a sandwich to their liking.
      It’s nice to supplement with fresh vegetables or fruit and a plate of cookies, too. πŸ™‚

      • Jessica Fisher says

        @Aimee @ Simple Bites, that sounds like a great idea!

      • lizi says

        @Aimee @ Simple Bites,
        i wonder how you do sandwich meat (nitrate/preservative free) and cheese on a budget, because those can really add up quick.
        also for us, i try to stick to only soaked/sprouted grains, and i am not a bread baker (yet!) so we buy ezekial bread, which would add up if you use more than a couple loaves at once. i have got to start baking my own!!!
        but what a good idea in the summer months, maybe even a wrap bar or burrito bar sans meat if ppl can dig it πŸ™‚

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @jenny w., I like do-it-yourself pasta salad. Cook up a ton of penne or rotini (or a combination) and then provide all kinds of mixins – grilled chicken, chopped vegetables, etc. Serve with different dressings. Yum!

  3. Sarah says

    My mom’s group had our annual picnic this weekend and we did potluck as well. Last year we had it at someone’s house, had grilled chicken, sausages, the whole shebang. This year we had it at a local park pavilion (rented for $20 — $2 per family), and each family made a side dish. We thought about ordering a pizza, but everyone was so glad we didn’t b/c everyone brought beautiful, filling sides and salads: spinach and orzo salad, pasta salad, quinoa salad, and potato salad. It was delicious, no one left hungry, and it was very cost-effective!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Sarah, we’ve done that, called it a Salad’s On. So fun to have so many salads. In hot weather, who wants to eat more than that, anyway?

  4. Nora says

    The chocolate minty melts look lovely!

    Personally, I would never host a BBQ and tell my guest to bring their own food. If I open my home to someone, I intend to feed them to the best of my ability. To me, asking someone to bring their own meat and side dish to my home is like going out to eat and not tipping the wait staff because I can’t afford it.

    If it’s a potluck at Church, park, etc that’s a different story.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Nora, I can understand that.

      At the same time, we’ve lived through seasons and social circles where if being able to pay for everything was the criteria, no one would have ever gotten together. As much as I love food and entertaining and doing it all myself, I think being with the people is more important.

  5. I adore hosting at home and potlucks are a fun way to do that. However, I have to admit that as long as I can swing it, I much prefer handling the food myself. It’s just plain easier for everyone and it does not have to be outrageously expensive.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @BarefeetInTheKitchen, it definitely is easier. But, at the same time, I think our culture sometimes puts too much stock into “entertaining” instead of fellowship and hanging with friends. I personally love to do all the cooking, but there’ve been times when it’s nice for others to help me carry the load, whether it’s the work, the creativity, or the finances.

      • @Jessica Fisher,
        I could not agree with you more. It is easy to get sucked into an entertaining mindset vs just hosting and enjoying the time with family or friends. Somehow I am surrounded by mostly people who do not cook or bake, so contributing to a potluck (even just grabbing food from a store on the way to the event) can be stressful for them.

        Whether it is potluck style or primarily made in my kitchen, I make a point of relaxing and doing my best to just enjoy the company instead of being on duty in the kitchen all night. Does that make sense? I find it makes for a nicer and more relaxing evening for everyone.

        • Jessica Fisher says

          @BarefeetInTheKitchen, I totally get that. It really depends on the crowd. I wouldn’t ask my husband’s boss to bring something — unless we were good friends. I think your friends are very blessed that you’re so happy to take the load off. πŸ™‚

  6. When we celebrated our daughter’s first birthday a couple months ago, I brainstormed how to best feed a crowd on less money. I ended up using inexpensive pork roast cuts I had in my freezer to make crockpot BBQ pork. Using pantry ingredients, I made homemade buns to go along with the pork. It was a huge hit and the pork went a long ways. And the best part, it cost me very little out of pocket to feed a crowd. I was quite pleased.

    • @Michelle @ Simplify, Live, Love, Barbecue pork is awesome for things like this. I always keep an eye out for good prices on pork shoulders or pork loins throughout the year so we always have a few on hand at any given time. Then when party time comes around, it’s a cinch to make, no upfront cost since I’d already worked it into a previous budget, and everybody loves my BBQ pork, so there are never any complaints!

  7. Sarah says

    @Nora, I see your point, and at something like my child’s birthday, I totally agree (although if my parents, etc, offer to bring something I graciously accept!). At the situation where it’s my group of friends, where everyone is in a vastly different financial situation (from unemployed to 6 figure salary), it’s nicer for everyone if we do a potluck type thing, because the most important thing is being able to get together and share a meal.

    • Nora says

      I can wholeheartedly understand your point of view.

      To clarify, I am only referring to “Host a BBQ where everyone brings his own meat as well as a dish to share.” I take no issue with a potluck or someone offering to bring a dish, most people do…. I just feel it’s in poor taste to ask someone to supply their own meal in my home.

      In our social circle we have the least amount of disposable income. My friends appreciate that I make a simple homemade meal.They know it comes from the heart.

      • lizi says


        i too, see where you are coming from. bringing your own raw meat does seem unseemly to me, hehe. also bringing your own meat AND side dish, well why not just stay at home.
        i guess really it depends on the circle of friends. in college we always had potluck parties, and i slowly realized i rarely went to a potluck as a child except for once a year boy scout banquets (which i loved!). a year or so ago when meeting at my grandma’s i suggested potluck style and i could tell it made my mom a little uneasy. i think she thought the host should provide everything, or maybe that is how her circle of friends operates. but it seems we all agree here that potlucks are usually a great way to get everyone together, and for true fellowship since everyone pitches in whatever they can (maybe even just help with the dishes- my favorite!!). although i love cooking and sharing food, so i usually end up providing a big chunk of the meal when we have friends over, but i really love it- it seems like the best way to pass on blessings and goodwill.
        altho back to the BBQ issue- it can be expensive to provide meat for a few families, especially when you aren’t just using CAFO chuck and nitrate laden hotdogs. i guess if you felt comfortable providing all the meat and asking guests to contribute sides that would be okay. we are lucky we get grass fed natural burger from our milkman for $3.39/lb. i highly recommend sourcing half or quarter of a cow to ease the cost AND get healthier meat. it might take a little leg work but if you seek, you can find πŸ™‚ and sharing that bounty will surely bless you for it πŸ™‚

  8. If I want to bring something with meat on a budget, I use bone-in chicken thighs slow-cooked in a sauce. I have a Moroccan chicken recipe that works well for this! We’ve also done chicken w/ dumplings.

  9. LizAndrsn says

    I, too, agree that we’ve lost focus on fellowship and friendship for the sake of the perfect tablescape. Chefs on TV have been good for bringing more people into the kitchen, but they focus on the product, not the fun, IMO. I’d love to see Tyler Florrence or Bobby Flay do 30 minutes on Potluck Chic for a Crowd, but I don’t think that’s what The Powers That Be have in mind for the Food Network (but I’d watch it!). Talk about something useful!

  10. Amy says

    I agree with soup! We have soup, salad & sundae meals for people in our church. It’s so easy to whip up a couple soups, make a tossed salad, serve ice cream with toppings. It’s also nice to have a later party (like 8 in the evening) and have people bring appetizers or desserts. Less food. Less cost. And sometimes when the babysitter comes, the littlest ones are in bed or on their way to bed.

  11. Marcie says

    Jessica, I was looking through your recipes and found the “Chihuahua Chili” It sounds great for my boys who love chili but don’t like allot of the BIG chunky versions. I can’t find the “chihuahua” beer in my local store. I was wondering if you could use any mexican beer or any beer for that matter?

    • Jessica Fisher says

      Totally. We just thought it was a funny name. You can use any beer you like.

  12. Since our blog focuses on feeding others, frugal is “in”. We try to combine beans and corn or veges with meats to make it go further, especially when we’re feeding a homeless shelter of 40 once a month. A favorite we made recently was California style (Jessica should like this) chicken fajitas, by adding zucchini, onions, peppers and potatoes to the grilled chicken.

  13. I’m the Children’s Pastor at our church and my BFF is the Youth Pastor. My hubby & I have 2 teens in the YG and on Thurs nights, our Youth House is open to any teens in the community. They hang out, listen to music, etc but we also feed them and let me tell you 30 hungry teens can eat ALOT! All the parents take turns providing dinner and my 2 go-to budget meals to take are:
    sloppy ‘turkey’ joes (made with the $1/lb rolls of seasoned turkey at WalMart) or MacNCheese Lasagna! Serve both with corn and some pudding and you have a inexpensive meal that teens love πŸ™‚

  14. I love potlucks. πŸ˜€

    I think it’s a-okay to plan a potluck. We do potlucks for church/fellowship gatherings. (Mostly when it’s 4+ families. Let’s face it, providing a big meal for that many people could easily be 25% of my weekly food budget — for 1 meal!!)

    When we invite dinner guests, I don’t ask them to bring anything. If they offer, I will usually take them up on that offer. πŸ˜€ Sometimes I tell the other lady (usually a mom too!) to just enjoy a night off from cooking. πŸ˜€

    • @Tammy L,
      You’ve made a good point here, Tammy. When I’m hosting a dinner party, I’d never ask my guest to bring the main dish, but for a casual, backyard shindig with up to 50 other people, I think it is perfectly acceptable to suggest BYOG.
      Here’s another reason why Bring Your Own Grillables works in this day and age- special diets. I’m happy to supply a full salad and dessert bar, and guests can bring something to grill that suits their diet (and budget). Be it a veggie burger, salmon fillet or T-bone, it works for them.

  15. Heather E. says

    THANK YOU! We have potlucks at our church all the time and it seems like I never find out until I only have a day or two to cook for it. I am so thankful for your recipes and how cheap they are! I look forward to using these for a long time!
    Thank you again!

  16. Thanks for the new ideas! I love potlucks. Here are some of my favorite frugal things to bring:

    My own pasta salad recipe is good warm or at room temperature, as a main dish or a side dish. It works with just about any vegetables.

    Honey Baked Lentils are great in any season when you can stand to turn on the oven. Very frugal and tasty and easy to make! Jenny W., this is easy to make in large amounts and serve with a big salad.

  17. Janna says

    Buy what’s on sale and use that. Better yet, grow your own veggies in the backyard.
    Potato salad, pasta salad, bean salad, etc. are very economical. Dips (such as hummus or black bean dip) plus home made flatbread (sooooo easy to make) goes a long way. Also, cookies or a nice quick bread dessert is always a welcome addition to the table.
    Don’t think you need to make enough food to feed 50 people. A small contribution that will offer a sampling for a few people rather than a full plate for everyone is adequate and sensible. The combination of all the other dishes people bring will be enough to satisfy everyone.

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