I love hosting parties and gathering my friends and family together to celebrate a special occasion or just to hang out. It’s fun to catch up with people I haven’t seen in a while and to provide my kids with an opportunity to play with some friends, as well.
While providing catered food for your guests can be very impressive, it can also be very expensive. I’m pretty conscious of my budget all the time, but especially when hosting guests. Over the years, I’ve come up with an arsenal of party food ideas to fill my guests’ bellies without draining my bank account.
Cheap Party Food Ideas
As you consider your party, you’ll need to think not only about who the guests will be, but also where it will be held as well as what time of day you’d like to host. Here are some cheap party food ideas to consider as you plan the big event.
Breakfast or Brunch Ideas
If you have some wiggle room in terms of when you can throw your party, aim for mid to late morning if you can. Why? Because breakfast and brunch foods are cheap! Eggs, sausage, and baked goods are generally much cheaper to purchase and prepare than meals that happen later in the day. (Of course, you can always serve breakfast for dinner, right?) Some easy and cheap breakfast/brunch items include:
1. Waffle Bar or Pancake Bar
You’ll see the “bar” or “build your own” language come up a lot in this list. That’s because the easiest way to feed a crowd is to let them assemble the meal themselves! In addition, by providing your guests with a variety of ingredients, you’ll allow them to choose what they’d like based on personal preference, allergies, etc.
A waffle bar or pancake bar is pretty easy to put together: just make a huge batch of waffles or pancakes and set out toppings like strawberries, blueberries, sliced bananas, chocolate chips, whipped cream, butter, and a variety of syrups. It’s incredibly easy to make your own berry syrup: just mix berries, sugar to taste, and water over low heat until the sugar is dissolved, then crank up the heat a little and stir until the syrup thickens.
Here’s a freezer-friendly waffle recipe you can use to make your waffles ahead of time, then just pop them in the toaster when it’s time to eat: The Best Freezer Waffle Recipe Ever
2. Yogurt Parfait Bar
Yogurt isn’t always the cheapest, but if you stock up when it’s on sale and make sure you buy the big containers, you should do all right. Provide a few different flavor options – plain, vanilla, strawberry, blueberry, etc. – and set out granola or granola cereal and berries. Guests can layer their parfaits however they like. Kids especially will love this option!
3. Bagel Bar
Let your guests take bagels to the next level by providing cream cheese (of course), but also extras to go on top of the cream cheese like chocolate chips, sunflower seeds, avocado, berries, nuts, spices, and any other little spreads or goodies you find in your pantry. Don’t be afraid to get a little creative!
Bagels regularly go on sale, and you can also check your local grocery stores or bagel shops to see if they offer any weekly specials on a baker’s dozen or end-of-day/next-day baked goods.
4. Egg Bites or Mini Quiches
I have a go-to menu plan when I’m throwing a baby shower brunch, and it always includes egg bites or mini quiches. They’re just so easy to make – not to mention cute! My tried and true recipe is this Easy Egg Bites Recipe which can easily be customized depending on what you like and what you have on hand, plus it’s freezer-friendly.
Eggs go on sale quite regularly and are an easy and filling protein option. You can also double, triple, or quadruple this Easy Freezer-Friendly Quiche Recipe to feed a crowd.
5. Egg Bake
Speaking of eggs, why not try a few different egg bakes? Use your family’s favorite egg bake recipe, or browse online to find several different options. For instance, make one with peppers, chorizo, and spices for the grownups, and make a milder one with cheese and sausage for the kiddos (or those with kid-like palates).
If you have some time to plan ahead, this Slow Cooker Breakfast Casserole Recipe is a crowd-pleaser that is very similar to an egg bake.
6. French Toast Casserole
French toast casserole is fantastic because bread is typically pretty cheap, and most recipes you’ll find allow you to use the “ends” of bread that you may not typically consume. I personally like French toast casserole made with French bread (ha!) which can be purchased relatively inexpensively at the grocery store or bread outlet. Find a recipe that calls for the casserole to sit overnight in the refrigerator so all of the delicious flavors blend together while you sleep.
7. Fruit Salad
With most of these options, you’re probably going to want a side or two. Fruit salad is a pretty healthy crowd pleaser and can be thrown together with whatever you have on hand and/or with what’s on sale and in season.
Watermelon is inexpensive during the summer months, and you get a lot of fruit out of just one of them. Add some cut up grapes and berries and you’re all set. However, if watermelon isn’t in season, cantaloupe and honeydew make good bases for fruit salad in the winter and add some nice color to your spread, too.
Lunch or Dinner Ideas
Brunch is fun, but let’s be real – most parties take place in the afternoon or evening. Still, you don’t need to break the bank to serve a crowd. Here are lots of different lunch and dinner ideas to consider:
8. Taco Bar
Tacos are a definite crowd pleaser! With all of the possible combinations and fixings available, everyone can make exactly what they like. Plus, it’s quick and easy to make ground beef taco meat and keep warm in the slow cooker, and chicken tacos can be another tasty addition to your spread. Here’s my favorite Chicken Tacos Recipe:
- 1 ½ lbs. chicken breast (can be frozen)
- 3 T. lime juice
- 1 T. chili powder
- chunky salsa
- frozen corn
First, put frozen chicken, lime juice, and chili powder in slow cooker on low for 6 hours. Next, shred chicken with fork, add more lime juice if desired. After that, add salsa and frozen corn (about 1 cup of each); cook on low for 45 minutes. Serve.
Add Mexican rice, black beans, and/or pinto beans to make the tacos more filling. Offer a variety of options on which to serve the taco meat – crunchy taco shells, soft taco size tortillas, and tortilla chips. And of course, don’t forget the fixings! For example, our favorites include guacamole, queso blanco, salsa verde, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, sour cream, cilantro, shredded lettuce, chopped green onions, salsa, and refried beans.
9. Pasta Bar
This is another option with nearly endless variety. Think of all of the different shapes of pasta: traditional spaghetti, of course, but also penne, ziti, fettuccine, farfalle (my personal favorite), and more. Plus, pasta is super inexpensive and you can usually find reasonably priced gluten-free options, as well.
Mix up a few different sauce options – meat sauce, marinara, alfredo, etc. – and let your guests put together their favorite bowls. If you have some fresh tomatoes from your garden or a friendly neighbor has bestowed an abundance of tomatoes upon you, here’s a guide on How to Make Spaghetti Sauce from Fresh Tomatoes (and yes, it’s freezer-friendly!).
10. Baked Potato Bar
I first encountered a baked potato bar at a wedding reception, and while my husband and I were originally thrown off by the idea, we ended up loving it! Russet potatoes are cheap and filling and can be topped with so many different things. Set out a spread of bacon bits, sour cream, chives, chili, salsa, chopped ham,
If you don’t know how to bake potatoes, it’s very easy. First, preheat your oven to 350° F, then scrub your potatoes (figure one per person with a few extra). Poke a few holes in each one with a fork, rub them down with olive oil, sprinkle with a little salt, and bake for about an hour (more if you’re baking a lot of potatoes) or until they’re squishable.
11. Pulled Pork Sandwiches or Roast Beef Sandwiches
It’s pretty easy to find pork on sale at the grocery store, and if you have a smoker at the ready, it doesn’t really matter how expensive the meat is because it will turn out delicious after being slow cooked for hours and hours. Mmmm. I like to provide a variety of sauces, both ketchup-based and mustard-based (a.k.a. southern barbecue).
Along the same lines, shredded roast beef sandwiches are another big hit. Just make sure to buy a chuck roast or beef brisket that’s easy to shred. Here’s my favorite roast beef sandwiches recipe (courtesy of my mother):
- 9 lb. boneless beef roast
- 16-oz. can beef broth
- 1 T. instant beef bouillon
- Salt and pepper
First, preheat oven to 325° F. Cover roast with cut up onion and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 4 hours. Next, turn oven down to 250° F. Slice roast, then cover with beef broth and bouillon. Cover and cook for 2-3 hours. Shred and serve on buns.
12. Soup or Chili
Soup is great for feeding a crowd, especially when the weather is a little cooler outside. Let your guests warm up with several different options that appeal to a variety of tastes. (Yes, that means you probably will need to have vegetable soup or something similar for the kids.)
Here are some easy soup recipes you can try out at your next party:
- Instant Pot Cheeseburger Soup Recipe
- Perfect Tomato Bisque Recipe
- Slow Cooker Taco Soup Recipe
- White Chicken Chili Recipe
You’ll probably need something to serve along with the soup, so consider making some garlic bread, cornbread, or grilled cheese sandwiches for your guests to eat along with (or to dip into) the soup.
13. Burgers, Brats, and Hot Dogs
Fire up the grill! While steak is delicious, it’s not exactly budget-friendly, especially if you’re feeding a crowd. Keep it simple and pick up frozen burger patties, a huge party pack of bratwurst, and hot dogs for the kids.
Offer a variety of condiments for your guests to enjoy: sliced cheese, caramelized onions, relish, and sauerkraut are some fancier options along with your standard ketchup and mustard. If your party is really casual and you know your guests well, you can make it a BYOM party – Bring Your Own Meat – and then all you need to provide is the sides…and the grill, of course.
…or is it kabobs? No matter how you spell it, this is another fun option to let you show off your grilling skills. Have your guests create their own kebabs with a variety of marinated chopped meats, veggies, and sauces, or make them yourself ahead of time to streamline the process. I’m partial to this Easy Cajun Shrimp Skewers Recipe myself.
15. Hawaiian Roll Sliders
Hawaiian roll sliders are super easy and delicious. Just cut the rolls in half, spread mayo on one half, and top with a slice or two of deli meat and cheese. After that, place the rolls close together in a baking dish and top with melted butter and spices and bake at 350° for about 10 minutes (don’t overbake!). I like the recipe at KingsHawaiian.com. Make a few different varieties to give your guests some options.
16. Pasta Salad
Pasta salad is a quick and inexpensive side dish, especially if you skip the boxed mixes and just make your own. Cook short pasta like rotini so it’s a little al dente, then throw in some add-ons like cubed cheese, diced meat, olives, chopped veggies, or whatever floats your boat. Toss with Italian or ranch dressing and refrigerate for a few hours. Serve cold. Delicious!
17. Potato Salad
I never liked potato salad until I tried my mother-in-law’s recipe. Now I am spoiled forever for trying anything else. Thankfully it’s not a family secret, so here’s the recipe that changed my mind on potato salad:
- 5 lbs. potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
- 3 eggs
- 1 T. salt
- green bell pepper, chopped
- sweet Vidalia onion, finely diced
- 2 T. pickle relish
- ½ c. (or more) mayo
- ¼ c. (or more) mustard
First, place potatoes and eggs (in shell) in a large pot. Cover with water and add salt. Boil until you can stick a fork in the potatoes easily, but don’t overcook. Drain. Pull out eggs and place in cool water.
Next, in a large bowl combine cooked and drained potatoes, chopped onion and bell pepper, and pickle relish. Peel and chop eggs and add to the bowl. Add mayo and mustard. Stir and continue to add same amounts of mayo and mustard until your potato salad is the consistency you want.
18. Macaroni & Cheese
Macaroni and cheese isn’t just for kids – it can be dressed up with toppings like bacon, bread crumbs, or broccoli for those with a broader taste palate. Of course, you can always just pick a few boxes of the cheap stuff to have on hand for picky eaters.
19. Party Subs
Looking for party subs? Skip the expensive catered options at your local sub shop and head to the grocery store or warehouse club instead. Many times these stores will have foot-long party subs that are much cheaper than the restaurant version, and you can place an order ahead of time to get exactly what you want. Of course, purchasing premade food will no doubt be more expensive than making it yourself, but it’s much less time consuming and can still be a crowd pleaser.
Again, buying premade food is going to be a little more expensive than making your own, but if you’re feeding a large crowd, the time savings can be worth it. Plus, you can get pizza for cheap, especially for guests that don’t really care about what they’re eating (as in, most young children or teenagers). Think beyond frozen pizza and pick up some deli pizzas to have on hand, or just swing by your local cheap pizza restaurant or grocery store and pick up a stack of hot and ready pizzas.
Of course, the cheapest option for party food is to host a potluck. If a potluck fits the occasion of your party (like a casual end-of-summer get together or a sporting event), why not ask your guests to bring a dish to pass? The tricky part is spreading out the types of food so you don’t end up with ten desserts and a bag of chips.
To help with this dilemma, consider asking some guests to bring a side, some guests to bring a dessert, some guests to bring a main dish, etc. to divide the meal appropriately. Alternatively, you could provide the main dish and have guests bring whatever they want and see what happens.
Appetizers are nice to have on hand while your guests are waiting for the main meal, or you can just have an appetizer party and provide a variety of hors d’oeuvres. Some of my favorite options include the following:
Popcorn is unbelievably cheap if you just make your own vs. buying the microwave packages. You can use an air popper or just make it on the stove top. My go-to method is found at SimplyRecipes.com. In addition, consider picking up some inexpensive seasonings to allow your guests to dress it up a little.
23. Veggies or Chips and Dip
Offer your guests a healthy option by providing a veggie tray with a variety of dips like ranch dip, French onion dip, guacamole, or salsa. In addition, you’ll probably want to have chips on hand for the non-veggie lovers. You can purchase premade veggie trays, but it’s very simple to make your own and customize it to your preferences as well as what’s on sale and in season.
24. Fruit and Dip
Again, if you buy produce that’s on sale and in season, a fruit tray can be an easy and inexpensive option. Try to pick fruit that is conducive to dipping like strawberries, bananas, and apples. Add some yogurt for dipping or make your own fruit dip.
My favorite fruit dip recipe is extremely simple: just combine equal parts cream cheese and marshmallow crème. Next, blend together and enjoy!
One of the most fun parts of a party? Dessert! Of course, some parties like a graduation party or other celebration necessitate the need for a store-bought dessert like a cake, but there are plenty of other options for giving your guests a sweet treat on a budget.
25. Ice Cream Sundae Bar
My friend from college had an ice cream sundae bar at his wedding reception and it was a huge hit, not to mention a lot cheaper than ordering a bunch of fancy cakes! To make your own at home, buy several different tubs of ice cream and let your guests choose their favorites, then set out a variety of toppings like fruit, nuts, sprinkles, whipped cream, and syrups.
26. Brownie Bar
Similar to the ice cream sundae bar, a brownie bar is another fun option for your guests. (Not to mention, you don’t have to worry about anything melting!) Just bake a bunch of different kinds of brownies and cut them into a variety of sizes and shapes. Once that’s done, let your guests top them with whipped cream, fruit, sprinkles, nuts, and a bunch of different kinds of frostings.
27. S’mores Bar
If your party is outdoors and there’s a bonfire, don’t forget to provide supplies for s’mores! Stock up on graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars for your guests to assemble into a delicious treat. I like a twist on s’mores in which you use peanut butter cups instead of chocolate bars for the filling. Delish!
No matter what the occasion, no matter who’s attending, and no matter when you’re having your party, you don’t have to break the bank to feed your guests. Mix it up and have a little fun with your menu, and remember that the time spent together is the most important thing. (But hey, good food matters, too!)
What cheap party food ideas and tips do you have? Please comment below to share your experience!