CHEAP AND INVITING
The idea of inviting friends over for a home-cooked meal may seem daunting. What with work, family, and other obligations, who has time these days for such a quaint social ritual? And then there are the expenses for food and wine. But it's possible to pull off a dinner party for six without too much effort or too high a cost. These 15 themed, multi-course menu plans all come in at $5 or less a person and can be pulled together in a relative jiffy.
HEALTHY HARVEST DINNER: RICE & SQUASH PILAF ($10)
At about 70 cents a pound (enough for two servings), fall and winter squashes are good choices for inexpensive vegetarian meals. Toss roasted squash with rice ($1.50) and a handful each of dried cranberries ($2.50) and chopped, toasted walnuts ($2) for a tasty and nutrient-packed one-bowl main course. Season with sea salt, black pepper, and extra virgin olive oil ($2).
HEALTHY HARVEST DINNER: ROASTED BROCCOLI ($6)
Cutting a few heads of broccoli into bite-size florets and roasting in the oven with salt and pepper is a delicious way to work nutrient-dense greens into any meal and add contrast to the presentation.
HEALTHY HARVEST DINNER: MAPLE LEMON GREEK YOGURT ($6)
Transform Greek yogurt into a delicious dessert by whipping it with maple syrup and lemon zest. For four servings, use 3 cups of yogurt ($4.50), 3 tablespoons of maple syrup ($1), and the zest of one lemon (50 cents). Whip until fluffy. Total cost: $22
MEXICAN FIESTA: REFRIED BEANS WITH CHICHARRÓN ($7)
Dried beans add subtle flavor to this dish, and $1 buys more than enough to go around. Once the beans are soaked and cooked, sauté onion, (optional) chilies for heat, and dried oregano ($2) in a few tablespoons of butter ($1). Add beans and mash until mostly broken up and creamy, and salt to taste. Serve with chicharrón, crispy fried pork skin available at Mexican markets for about $3 a bag.
MEXICAN FIESTA: CHICKEN TACOS ($12)
This is a fine recipe for leftover chicken, or any vegetable or meat on sale that is perfectly suitable for a dinner party. Sauté chicken or other filling ($6) with onions, salt, and chili powder ($1) until cooked through. Heat 12 corn tortillas ($2) on a griddle and cover with a towel to keep warm. Serve with chopped onion, cilantro, and lime wedges ($3).
MEXICAN FIESTA: ARROZ CON LECHE ($7)
A classic Mexican favorite, this cinnamon- and raisin-spiked rice pudding is easy and cheap. Combine a 1½ cups of rice ($1) with twice as much milk ($2) in a pot and cook slowly until creamy. Add 1 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, a handful of raisins, a few dashes of cinnamon ($4), and a splash more of milk and refrigerate until chilled. Total cost: $26
COMFORT FOOD: LENTIL SOUP ($5)
There's something so warming about a bowl of hearty lentil soup, and with lentils costing less than $1 a pound, it's possible to make a lot of soup for little money. Using a pressure cooker or slow cooker, combine a few cups of lentils with sautéed onion, garlic, carrot, and celery ($3), three bay leaves, salt, paprika, smoked paprika (optional), black pepper, and chili powder ($1) with plenty of water. Cook until the lentils break down. Salt to taste.
COMFORT FOOD: ROAST CHICKEN ($18)
Perfect in its simplicity, a roast chicken satisfies even the pickiest eaters. At about $1.50 a pound, plan to roast two whole chickens ($15) and enjoy the leftovers, including the bones, which can be used to make a budget-friendly soup stock later. After washing and patting dry, slather the bird with olive oil, salt, and pepper ($1) and roast over quartered onions and dried herbs ($2) until golden brown.
COMFORT FOOD: APPLE CRISP ($7)
This straightforward and inexpensive recipe is the right finish for a comfort food dinner party and a great way to use seasonal produce. Toss four sliced apples ($4) with lemon juice, one-half cup brown sugar, and a pinch of cinnamon ($1). Add a topping of one-half cup flour, one-half cup rolled oats, one-third cup butter, 2 tablespoons sugar, and a dash of cinnamon ($2) and bake until the top is browned and the apples are cooked through. Total cost: $30
POTATO LOVERS FEAST: VEGETABLE RAGU WITH POTATOES ($14)
Make a cool evening festive with this version of poor man's shepherd's pie. For the ragu, chop and combine three carrots, two medium onions, three celery stalks, and one head of garlic ($4) in a few tablespoons of oil (50 cents) and cook over medium heat until tender. Season with salt, pepper, and bay leaf (25 cents) and add 9 ounces of chopped mushrooms ($4.50). Once the mushrooms have cooked down, add 4 tablespoons of soy sauce (25 cents) and enough water to cover. Simmer for 20 minutes or until reduced by half. Add three pieces of crustless bread (50 cents) and stir until they dissolve and thicken the ragu. Taste for seasoning and add more bread as necessary to achieve the desired thickness. Serve over boiled and smashed potatoes ($4).
POTATO LOVERS FEAST: SWEET POTATO PIE ($10)
A recipe for sweet potato pie from Wake Up and Eat is cheap and vegan. It uses a prepared crust ($3), tofu ($1), vanilla (25 cents), maple syrup ($1.25), sweet potatoes ($3), and coconut milk ($1.50) to yield a silky, rich, and satisfying dessert. Total cost: $24
AMERICAN FAVORITES: CHOPPED SALAD ($7)
For a crunchy chopped salad, hearts of romaine ($3) are a good option. Add half a red onion, a red bell pepper, and a cucumber ($3); chop finely; and toss with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper ($1).
AMERICAN FAVORITES: PIZZA ($12)
Instead of calling in for a pizza to feed a crowd, try making basic pizza dough, which is easy and inexpensive. Combine a small amount of active dry yeast with warm water and sugar to activate, then add flour, salt, and a touch of olive oil. Knead well and let the dough rise for an hour. Then punch it down, let it rise for another hour, and it's ready to go. The cost of dough for two large or three medium pizzas is roughly $4. Top with marinara sauce (homemade is best, but store-bought ($3) will do), low-moisture mozzarella ($5), and any other favorite topping. Bake at 500 degrees until hot and bubbly.
AMERICAN FAVORITES: ICE CREAM SUNDAES ($9)
Keep it simple with two scoops of any flavor ice cream (about 50 cents a serving), warm chocolate sauce ($3), and whipped cream ($3). Total cost: $28
ITALIAN FEAST: GARLIC BREAD ($5)
Garlic bread is quick, easy, and a low-cost filler whenever there are a lot of mouths to feed. Spread a loaf of good Italian bread ($3) with a few pads of butter ($1) and some minced garlic and parsley ($1), wrap in foil, and set in a hot oven until warm and crusty.
ITALIAN FEAST: CAESAR SALAD ($7)
Caesar salad is all about the dressing. It's easy to whip up a homemade version by combining mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy paste, a few garlic cloves, salt, and pepper. The cost of the sauce is roughly $1 a batch, much less than packaged alternatives. Toss with hearts of romaine ($3) and top with a few shavings of parmesan and homemade croutons ($3). This classic will disappear quickly.
ITALIAN FEAST: MUSHROOM & BACON PASTA ($11)
Pasta is a go-to dish for a tight budget, impressing guests for just a few dollars a plate. Stock up on a favorite dry pasta when it goes on sale for extra savings. Even at full price, a box of good-quality pasta costs less than $3. While the pasta boils in salted water, crisp up chopped bacon ($2) in a pan with olive oil. Add garlic, onion, and chopped mushrooms ($4). Add a splash of wine, broth (50 cents), or pasta water as the pan gets dry, along with salt and pepper to taste. Pour cooked pasta into the sauce and toss with a handful of chopped parsley and grated Parmesan cheese ($1.50). Total cost: $23
MEXICAN DINNER: MEXICAN RICE ($5)
Restaurant-style Mexican rice is quick, easy, and budget-friendly. A version from Favorite Family Recipes serves four, so scale up for six diners. Combine rice ($2), tomato sauce ($1), broth ($1), and seasonings such as cumin, salt, garlic, and oil (50 cents) with fresh cilantro (50 cents).
MEXICAN DINNER: MARINATED CHICKEN ($8)
Chicken is a low-cost and versatile component for fancy dinners or family meals, and two chicken thighs per person is a healthy serving. Marinate 12 thighs ($6) in a mix of garlic, salt, chili, and lime ($2) for up to six hours and bake in a hot oven until cooked through.
MEXICAN DINNER: SWEET & SPICY JICAMA ($5)
Jicama, which tastes like a cross between a potato and an apple, is a common snack and dessert in Mexico. To prepare for guests, peel a large jicama ($3.50) and cut into thick strips. In a separate bowl combine salt, chili, and sugar (50 cents) and cut two limes into wedges ($1). Enjoy with a squeeze of lime over the jicama followed by a dip into the salt mixture. Total cost: $18
CHILI WITH ALL THE FIXIN'S: THREE BEAN CHILI ($8)
One-pot meals like chili are easy, inexpensive, and deliciously layered with flavor. Combine presoaked pinto, kidney, and black beans ($3); chopped onion, green bell pepper, and garlic ($3); a can of chopped tomatoes ($1); and cumin, oregano, chili powder, salt, and black pepper ($1) in a slow cooker with plenty of water. After a day of slow cooking, the dish is ready to serve.
CHILI WITH ALL THE FIXIN'S: FIXIN'S BAR ($14)
The best part of chili is the fixin's. Be sure to include a colorful assortment, so everyone can doctor up their chili just the way they like it. Chopped scallions ($1), grated cheddar cheese ($2), sour cream ($2), salsa ($2), avocado ($3), and corn chips ($4) make a nice mix.
CHILI WITH ALL THE FIXIN'S: CORN BREAD ($3)
Save time and money by using Jiffy's corn muffin mix, available for $2 or less at most supermarkets. With the addition of some water and eggs ($1), it makes a delicious cornbread that complements the chili. Total cost: $25
ISRAELI CLASSICS: HUMMUS ($6)
After the first time making hummus at home, the thought of spending money on the store-bought variety will be banished forever. Soak and cook half a bag of dried chickpeas ($1), and combine in a food processor with fresh lemon juice, salt, water, and a few tablespoons of tahini ($3). Process the chickpeas while hot to get a thick and creamy texture. Serve with warm pita ($2).
ISRAELI CLASSICS: ISRAELI SALAD ($8)
This refreshing salad combines chopped cucumber, tomato, and onion ($5). Toss with fresh parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper ($3) and let sit for a few hours before serving.
ISRAELI CLASSICS: SHAKSHUKA ($13)
A hearty option for any meal, shakshuka will quickly migrate from dinner party fare to the family meal plan. Start by sautéing a chopped onion in olive oil ($1). Add two cans of chopped tomatoes ($5) and simmer over medium heat, adding cumin, paprika, salt, and chili powder to taste ($1). Crack in two eggs for each person ($3) and cover, cooking until the eggs are set. Serve with grilled toast ($3). Total cost: $27
EUROPEAN SUPPER: HERBED FRITTATA ($8.50)
A frittata is basically a crustless quiche made of eggs and dairy. For an herbed frittata, start with 12 eggs ($3) beaten with a few tablespoons of whole milk (25 cents). Heat 4 tablespoons of butter (50 cents) in a pan over medium heat and add the eggs. Sprinkle fresh chopped herbs ($1.50) such as chives, parsley, basil, and thyme onto the eggs; season with fresh black pepper and garlic salt (25 cents); and top with 3 ounces of cheese ($3). Once the frittata is firm on the bottom, it's time to flip (if the action seems fraught, invert the frittata onto a plate and slide it back into the pan, cooked side up). Keep on the heat another few minutes until both sides are cooked.
EUROPEAN SUPPER: GARLIC CROSTINI ($5.50)
A perfect complement to the frittata is crunchy and aromatic garlic toast. Toast 12 thick slices of sourdough bread ($5), then rub with a clove of garlic (20 cents) while still hot. Drizzle with a touch of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt (30 cents).
EUROPEAN SUPPER: APPLES AND HONEY ($4)
Simple, fresh, and cheap, the combination of apples and honey is a light and sweet dessert that takes advantage of seasonal fruit. Cut three apples ($3) into slices and fan out on a plate. Drizzle roughly 2 tablespoons of honey (50 cents) on top. Sprinkle with cinnamon and a small handful of chopped walnuts (50 cents). Total cost: $18
MOROCCAN FÊTE: SPICED CARROTS ($6)
Slice 1½ pounds of carrots ($3) into half-inch rounds and sauté in a large skillet. When halfway cooked, add freshly squeezed orange juice ($2), cumin powder, a dash of cinnamon, cayenne, and salt to taste ($1). Cover and cook over medium heat until carrots are cooked through but still firm.
MOROCCAN FÊTE: VEGETABLE COUSCOUS ($9)
This is a good recipe for large gatherings and can be changed easily to fit any flavor profile. Combine equal parts boiling, salted water and couscous ($3), add a pinch of turmeric, and cover for four minutes. Fluff with a fork and add cinnamon, nutmeg, chili powder, and salt to taste ($1). Mix in raisins ($1) and oven-roasted onion and cauliflower ($4).
MOROCCAN FÊTE: COCONUT DATES ($10)
Take a break from baked goods full of butter and sugar with these naturally satisfying treats. Juicy and rich Medjool dates cost about $7 for half a pound, which is more than enough to go around. Fill the dates with chopped coconut ($3) for a sweet and healthy dessert. Total cost: $25
ASIAN INSPIRATION: CRISPY BEAN SPROUT SALAD ($8)
Bean sprouts can be found year-round at any Asian market, and at about 50 cents a serving, they're a delicious way to get a lot of food for a little money. Toss with crushed peanuts ($1), a pint of halved cherry tomatoes ($3), a handful of chopped cilantro, a few tablespoons olive oil, and a few splashes of rice wine vinegar ($2) just before serving.
ASIAN INSPIRATION: SPICY NOODLE STIR FRY ($14)
Virtually any vegetables in the pantry will do for this quick main dish, along with tofu or meat for protein. Start by sautéing onion, green or red chilis, garlic, and ginger ($3), then add a chopped bell pepper, celery, frozen peas, and corn ($4). Toss in the pan with cooked noodles ($4) and sprinkle with soy sauce and sliced scallions ($1).
ASIAN INSPIRATION: COCONUT STICKY RICE ($4.50)
This extra-rich version of rice pudding is both decadent and cheap. Combine 2 cups of short grain rice ($1) with one can of coconut milk ($3), 1 cup of water, a pinch of salt, and a few tablespoons of sugar (50 cents), and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer until the rice is cooked. Total cost: $25.50
DOWN-HOME DINNER: OVEN FRIES ($6)
There are many ways to use potatoes, and this version of fries saves effort, mess, and money by foregoing the big pot of oil. Cut five large potatoes ($5) into wedges; coat lightly with oil, salt, and pepper ($1); and bake in a 375-degree oven until the skin starts to brown, about 30 minutes.
DOWN-HOME DINNER: CHICKEN FINGERS ($9)
A healthier rendition of chicken fingers swaps out deep frying for pan frying. Cut 12 chicken thighs ($6) into strips and dip into flour (50 cents) and two lightly beaten eggs (50 cents). Follow with a deep dredge into seasoned breadcrumbs ($1). Pan-fry the strips in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil ($1) and drain on paper towels or brown paper bags.
DOWN-HOME DINNER: CHOCOLATE BANANA PUDDING ($5)
This raw vegan recipe has a decadent texture and rich chocolate flavor that doesn't taste like health food. It's made with three ripe bananas (75 cents), one large ripe avocado ($3), 4 tablespoons cocoa powder (75 cents), and 3 tablespoons maple syrup (50 cents). Blend the ingredients in a food processor until smooth and creamy. Adjust the sweetness and chocolatiness as desired. Total cost: $20
TEX-MEX TREATS: CHIPS & SALSA ($9)
Homemade chips and salsa not only taste better than the store-bought variety, they also cost a fraction of the price. Cut 12 fresh corn tortillas ($2) into six pieces and fry in hot oil ($2) until golden brown. For the salsa, roughly chop three ripe tomatoes ($2), one onion (50 cents), one jalapeño, and a handful of chopped cilantro ($2), and toss together with lime juice (50 cents) and salt.
TEX-MEX TREATS: CHICKEN QUESADILLAS ($14)
Save time and money by using a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store ($7), along with a pack of flour tortillas ($3). Shred a block of Monterey Jack cheese ($4), which is cheaper than the pre-shredded variety. Add leftover veggies or meat for more flavor. Heat the tortillas in a skillet and layer one half with cheese and chicken, fold over, and cook until the cheese melts.
TEX-MEX TREATS: SPICY BROWNIES ($7)
This cheap trick spices up an everyday favorite. Spike a favorite brownie mix ($6, plus $1 for eggs) with 2 teaspoons of chili or cayenne pepper powder to add a warm kick of heat to a sweet treat. Total cost: $30
A FRENCH AFFAIR: SIMPLE SALAD ($6)
Combine 1 tablespoon of mustard with two parts olive oil and one part wine vinegar ($1) and shake. Pour over a bowl of arugula or other hearty greens ($5) and toss to combine.
A FRENCH AFFAIR: CHEESE BOARD ($15)
Take some time at the local cheese shop to find three distinct cheeses. Consider a blue, something semi-hard and creamy like goat gouda, and something firm and crumbly like cheddar, all about $10 a pound. Buy half a pound of each.
A FRENCH AFFAIR: ARTISAN BREADS ($9)
Stop at the best local bakery and choose one or two fresh breads plus one at half price from yesterday. Heat the day-old bread in the oven for 15 minutes before slicing and serving along with the fresh loaves. Total cost: $30