Feeding a crowd on the cheap!

Feeding a crowd on the cheep - includes printable and menu ideas!
Summer is here, which can only mean one thing…
Parties. Birthdays. Park dates. Graduations. Family Reunions. BBQ's. Church activities. Sleepovers. Weddings. Food, food, and more food.
Oops, I said “only one thing”, didn't I? Well, you get what I mean…Summer is for eating with family and friends! I am an entertaining NUT. I love having people over, whether it's one couple or 40 friends, we entertain. A LOT. If you're not careful, feeding a crowd can be expensive!
Here are helpful tips to keep your wallet in check when feeding people this summer, as explained in my TV segment today:
Click HERE to watch online
(ARG! Video error! Sorry guys! Click HERE to watch it directly online)

Feeding a Crowd On The Cheap

1. Plan your menu

Here are some things to look at when planning your menu:

  • Number of people attending.

If you are hosting a graduation party at your house and plan to invite all your family and friends…I wouldn't recommend serving steak. However, if you are hosting a dinner party with 2 of your best couple friends then sure, steak is a little more reasonable. HERE is a great resource for finding out how much to make per person you will be serving. TIP: Always ask for an RSVP by a certain date so you can get an accurate number. Doing it via text, facebook, or email will get you the most results. People hate having to call!

  • Time of day you will be entertaining.

Time of day is a HUGE determining factor for what you should prepare. There is NOTHING worse than going to a shower at 12:30 and only getting a few finger desserts to eat.  Here's a chart to help determine what you should serve:

So, if your party goes from 9:30-11am, that would mostly fall under the “light snacks” rule. if your party goes from 6pm-8pm, that mostly falls under the “full dinner” rule. If your party is from 11:30am – 1pm, that mostly falls under “full lunch” rule. See how that works?

Another thing to keep in mind with time of day is that people will eat and drink more at night than during the day, so plan appropriately.

  • Variety… More = less.

Take a dessert party for example. If you have more variety of desserts, people will eat less of each and will be satisfied with smaller bites. If you have a dessert party with 3 cakes and nothing else, you should cut big slices and expect them to be wiped out. But if you have smaller cakes, cookies, pastries, cake bites, brownie bites, and other small things, you can serve less of each and make much smaller portions because there is more variety.

See how I did this super easy cake-mix dessert party HERE
Feeding a crowd on the cheep - includes printable and menu ideas!
  • Budget.

With anything in life, setting a budget is key. Decide early what you are willing to spend and base your menu around it. Believe it or not, it's quite easy to do a party for cheap or even free. Potluck, BYOM BBQ, dessert party, even a pasta party all can be done for only a few dollars.

  • Age of attendees and seating situation.
If there are going to be lots of kids at your party, avoid dark-colored punch, soups, and meals that could cause a mini disaster in your house. If people will have a table to sit at, soups and taco salads are fine to serve. If people will mostly be standing and mingling, finger foods are best. If it's something like a family reunion, consider a menu that has something for everyone, something that everyone from little kids to seniors would enjoy.
  • Occasion.

If it's a bachelor party, I probably wouldn't do a salad bar…maybe stick more to a hearty BBQ. If it's a baby shower, maybe I'd avoid chicken wings and focus on a lighter menu. Just keep your attendees in mind so the food is fitting!

  • Time of year.

Baked potato bars, soup bars, and pasta bars are perfect for winter months. Salad bars and BBQ's are perfect for Spring and Summer. Potlucks are great all year. Just consider what's in season, and what time of year it is.

All of that being said, here are some examples of great menus that I use to feed a crowd on the cheap:
For a printable version of this list, click HEREhow to feed a crowd on the cheep - includes printable and menu ideas!
Crepe bars and waffle bars are also a fun group meal idea. Toppings can include everything from yogurt, ice cream, and chocolate syrup, to peanut butter, Nutella, and chopped nuts.
See how I did this easy pasta bar HERE

Baked Potato bars are a wonderful party food idea! You can also integrate baked sweet potatoes. Just bake your potatoes straight in the crock pot (instructions HERE) and you can keep them warm and serve them straight from the same pot.

Or, for smaller groups, have them cooked and ready on the table like so:

You can dress up your potato bar. Look at this adorable bachelor party bar I found HERE:
Remember…even the simplest (and cheapest!) meals can be delicious and a crowd pleaser.

2. Get Shopping 

See “how I grocery shop” for a full rundown on how I save 1/2 on my groceries (without clipping coupons!) .

Here are some quick tips for keeping your grocery bill down when shopping for a party:

  • Stock up on things you can keep on-hand.

Throughout the year, watch the sales! If you see condiments go on sale, stock up. Same with chips, paper plates, napkins, drinks, and other pantry items. This also goes for anything you can freeze (cheese, tortillas, meat, etc.).

  • Use what you have.

Before running to the store, open your fridge, freezer, cupboards, and pantry and use what you have! This goes for decorations, too. Trust me…you'll save A TON of money if you simply get creative with what you already have.

  • Plan your menu around what's on sale.

The week of your party, keep an eye on the ads and use it to influence your menu. I use www.dealstomeals.com to see what's on sale in my area that week, and to print a shopping list straight from that site. I then take the list and price-match it all at Walmart so I get all the store's best prices, and only make 1 stop. For more details about this read HERE. Regardless of how you do it, just keep an eye on the sales for that week. If Coke products are on sale that week, buy those instead of Pepsi products. If Heinz ketchup is cheaper than Hunts, buy Heinz. That alone will save you TONS.

  • Buy bulk.

Buying bulk will save you tons of money when cooking for a crowd! I prefer shopping at Costco, personally, but even grocery stores have bulk sections. See my list of things that I buy from Costco HERE. I avoid buying cutesy plates and cups, they are WAY more expensive. Rather, I stick to the bulk plates and cups and dress up my party in other ways. See below for ideas.

  • Be smart. Plan ahead. Don't go crazy.

You don't need to serve gourmet ketchup at your BBQ, just buy whatever is cheapest. Don't just shoot from the hip and buy 8 heads of lettuce for your taco bar unless you know for certain that it's exactly how much you need. Waste not, be reasonable, and don't go crazy! 🙂

3. Accessories & must-haves


Check out tons of my party ideas, shower ideas, and hostess ideas while you're at it!

Accessories make the outfit. In my opinion, that's the same with a party! Whether it's functional must-have's or little touches that give a party some POP!, here are some accessories that I recommend for feeding a crowd:

  • Pick a color scheme.

Now, you don't have to go crazy with it, but just incorporate it here and there to tie it all in together. Whether it's with little decorative pieces, invitations, food labels, napkins, table cloth, candles, or with the food itself, bringing a pop of color in can bring your gathering to the next level.

For a dessert party I threw I had yellow and green as my accent colors. To tie the colors in I simply placed different sheets of 12×12 scrapbook paper under some of the dishes.
You can also use tissue paper and wrapping paper for this.
And yes, you can use the paper for future projects!
  • Statement napkins.
This is an inexpensive way to dress up a gathering. Lately I have been buying my cute napkins from Ikea. Look at how adorable they are!
I love them because they are BIG (sometimes party napkins are itty bitty), and are super sturdy. They are affordable, too.
They are $1.99/pack for 30 of the smaller printed ones,
And $1.99 for a 50 pack of plain colored ones (see HERE).
  • Serving warmers.

I have two different electric serving warmers and I'm OBSESSED! I got this one for Christmas a few years ago from Costco. It's perfect for food that you've made in advance, and want to keep warm.


I got this one last year for Christmas. I love it because it's 3 individual crock pots that actually cook, which makes for easy clean-up since I'm doing everything in the same pot.
These are the handiest tools EVER for feeding a crowd. They save space, keep your food warm, and look nice and professional. They are pretty affordable. I recommend keeping your eyes peeled and buying them AFTER Christmas when they go on sale. It's an investment that you will be able to use over and over! I even use these for our Sunday dinners.
  • Stylish table cloth or runner.
This is not only an easy way to dress up your gathering, but will also protect your furniture. I have had luck buying them at Home goods for $5. I like the vinyl ones that are easy to wipe down, but I also have cloth ones that I can throw in the washing machine. Once again, it's an investment that you can use over and over.
Keep in mind that you can also use a roll of wrapping paper down the center of a table as a disposable runner! I also like the cheap table cloths from the Dollar Store, because you can toss them guilt-free.
  • Signs and food labels.
No need to buy any fancy ones from Etsy or other shops. They are simple! You can even make them on Word! Labels add cuteness and creativity to a gathering, but are also really functional – especially for dessert parties so people can know if there are nuts in the dessert they are about to eat.
I always like to put a sign on my front door so people don't feel like they have to knock and wait for me to answer, AND so they know they are at the right house. Once again, just print it on Word and stick it on some cute scrapbooking paper. Easy and free 🙂
  • Serving platters, plates, and dishes.
The dishes you use to display your food can really make a statement at a gathering. The good news? There are TONS of ways to get inexpensive platters and dishes! Thrift stores, dollar store, Target, Walmart, clearance, and even getting creative and making some yourself.
I made this stand out of Dollar Store items and glue, See how HERE.
I get TONS of DIY project ideas from Pinterest.
I got this tiered stand as a wedding gift and have used it probably a million +1 times. Buy a functional piece for a good deal, and you will use it over and over. Great investment!
Also, remember to USE WHAT YOU HAVE!
I love using baby food jars to serve sauces and toppings. Wrap a cute ribbon around them, put a label on or next to them, and there you go.
I save and re-use plastic baby food containers (the Walmart brand). I LOVE THEM because they are like tiny tupperware. For my potato bar, I prepared the toppings ahead of time, stacked them in the fridge, then pulled them out when it was time to start the party.
I used colorful baby spoons because they are the perfect serving spoon size.
Feeding a crowd on the cheep - includes printable and menu ideas!
  •  Space-saving tools.

Functionality and flow is key when feeding a crowd. You don't want people to have to reach over 3 different trays of food to reach the napkins! Here are some tools I like:

 Cupcake stands are a nice way to save space. You can buy these especially cheap at craft stores using coupons. Remember, Joann Fabrics accepts competitor coupons!
I bought a birch Lazy Susan table from Ikea for $7.99. This is SUCH a great tool for condiments! People can spin the table, grab what they want, and it doesn't take up much space. It looks neater, and helps people get what they need without reaching over all the food.
My MIL bought me this picnic caddy from Costco one year (it was around $12 I believe), and I use it for EVERY SINGLE gathering we have. I love it because it avoids having to stack things (plates, napkins, silverware), keeps things neat and organized, and takes up little counter or table space.
I absolutely LOVE my center-folding plastic table I got at Costco. They sell them online for a little under $90, but I'm pretty sure I got mine for much less in the store…maybe $50 or $60?
Costco's plastic utensils are THE BEST. They are so sturdy, I actually toss them in the dishwasher and use them again! BUT, if I'm outside (like at a family reunion or picnic) then we can toss them, guilt free. They always have coupons for them too, so stock up when they go on sale.
  • Dress up your water.
Rather than serving fancy, expensive drinks, give your water a face-lift! Slice up fruit to make flavored water. Put your water in a cute pitcher. Dress it up with fancy ice cubes. All easy ways to serve a nice drink…for cheap or free.
Ikea has great ice cube trays for $1. The black tray is really cool because it creates ice cube rods that you can put in water bottles! You can make a neat display out of these for people to put in their cups.
Take fruit that is bruised or on it's way out, and freeze it. When it's time for a party, break up the fruit and freeze it in your ice cubes. How fancy is that?!

I prefer serving my water in a large dispenser so I don't have to keep filling it up throughout the party. I shopped around for one for a year or two, then finally settled on a $17.99 pitcher from Costco that has been fabulous.

When I want to serve something other than water, I often go the easy route and buy a case of water bottles or serve soda in the can. That way I don't have to worry about spills and cups. I keep my eye on soda all year and stock up when it goes on sale.

So there you go! Wow, this was the longest post ever. Hopefully now you have all the tools you need to have LOTS of gatherings this summer…on the cheap. Remember, even the cheapest and simplest meals can make for an unforgettable party with a little creativity and a lot of love.
Happy partying 🙂

Want more entertaining ideas? Check out the followoing posts:

How to pull off a Weekend Getaway With Friends: Cost, Prep, Food, Fun, and Function! [Stone Hill Getaway]

How to plan a weekend getaway with friends and make it successful AND affordable! From FunCheapOrFree.com

No fail, 10-Minute Mini Quiche Recipe

Bird-themed baby shower – done for $25!

Bird-themed baby shower ideas

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If you’re new here, welcome! You can get all budgeting and finance tips, and my secret sauce in my fun-to-watch video program Budget Boot Camp! You have nothing to lose because if you don't save or earn at LEAST what you paid for it, I'll give your money back. So use the code FCFBLOG at checkout to get an extra 10% off, and give it a try!

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  1. Thanks so much! Love it! So many great tips & tricks on how to host the perfect party for really cheap!! 🙂

  2. Thank you! My son wants a taco bar/pasta bar graduation party. This gives me a start. Now I just have to try to figure out how much to cook.

  3. Thank you so much!! This truly helps a lot, what do you think of a hot dog bar, and buying different condiments?

    • OOH! That would be fun! You could do gourmet hotdogs and sausages for the adults and standard hotdogs for kids, with all sorts of toppings. That’s a fabulous idea!

    • Thanks Lynn! Something funky was happening on that one for sure! It should be all fixed now 🙂 ~Kerianne

  4. AWESOME post Jordan!! I also use a water dispenser for either water with sliced fruit or cucumber, or ice team. Saves a lot on buying bottles of water or ice tea and it looks great.
    I bought a yellow deli style plastic bottle for mustard and red one for ketchup from the Dollar Tree. I fill them up with whatever mustard and ketchup are on sale, it looks cute and avoids the kids asking for their favorite brands lol!

  5. That’s very helpful menu concept and ideas! Thank you for sharing! I don’t usually prepare baked potato but it seems very useful in the party. I’ll take this one.

  6. Oh wow, I needed this! I need to try and pull off a 30th birthday party for my husband – but we’re still in our FD – I will be trawling all your blog posts for tips!

  7. Catering seems really difficult and kind of expensive. I liked that you pointed out that doing a pasta bar could be a very cheap way to cater for a lot of people. That is great for me to know because I am going to try to help my sister find a good caterer for her wedding.

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