SUMMERTIME AND THE FOOD IS EASY
Summer is the season to host rooftop parties and backyard barbecues. Rather than shy away from feeding big groups because of the expense, try some quick and easy dishes made from inexpensive ingredients. Combining the bounty of the season with cheap staples allows for full menus of party-friendly finger foods and dishes designed for grazing. Here are 20 ideas for summer party foods to inspire a warm weather shindig on a tight budget.
Related: 10 Tips for Hosting a Budget-Friendly Summer Party
This method of serving fruit is unusual but so versatile. After firing up the grill to cook burgers or hot dogs, use it to grill fruit -- no extra ingredients required. Enjoy sweet fruit with a touch of smoky caramelization as a topping, a simple dessert, or an addition to savory dishes such as salads and salsas. Use tropical pineapple or summer fruits such as melons, peaches, and nectarines while they're in season to get the best value.
Preparing this classic salad as a bite-size finger food helps get the most out of the components. Each piece uses just a few cents' worth of ingredients while delivering fresh and sophisticated flavor. Make ahead by layering half a cherry tomato, a small piece of mozzarella, and one leaf of basil onto a toothpick. Dress with a light drizzle of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a bit of salt and pepper just before serving.
Potatoes are a hit at any food gathering, fitting into many specialty diets because they're vegan and gluten-free. Keep it simple by cutting inexpensive russets into thick wedges and seasoning with oil, salt, and pepper. Roast in a 400-degree oven until the outsides are crisp and the insides tender, about 40 minutes. Serve them on a platter as finger food or as a side dish with any meal.
OLD BAY POPCORN
The flavor of Old Bay seasoning evokes memories of summertime and beach vacations. Skip the hassle of frying potatoes and sprinkle the seasoning on air-popped corn for a super-cheap and flavorfully seasoned snack. The nostalgic and piquant spice pairs nicely with other typical warm-weather party foods, including grilled meats, marinated chicken, and fresh salads.
Combine crisp raw green beans with two kinds of canned beans for a nutritious and low-cost side dish. Any kind of beans work well, including kidney or black; just be sure to rinse and dry them thoroughly. Toss the canned beans with cut green beans, diced red onion, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a fresh herb such as parsley or cilantro. This protein-packed salad can be served chilled or at room temperature.
Melons are abundant, juicy, and cheap during the summer months, encouraging creative ways to include them in meals. Add a fresh touch to a simple salad of greens with a light olive oil and lemon dressing by tossing in chunks of ripe melon. Stick to one variety or mix many different kinds of melon. Top with black pepper to add depth of flavor that enhances the natural sweetness.
Give the typical salsa a summery flair by adding a tropical fruit such as pineapple or mango or summer stone fruits such as peaches and nectarines. Simply toss in a small portion of cubed fresh or grilled fruit with tomatoes, onion, chilies, cilantro, and lime. Serve with chips as a dip or as a topping for foods coming off the grill.
This classic barbecue side dish uses cheap potatoes as a base, making it great for bulking up meals for large groups without spending too much. A basic recipe that combines potatoes with onion, celery, and a dressing of mayonnaise with vinegar, salt, and pepper is a good place to start. Give the salad a twist by adding tangy accent ingredients such as capers, pickled jalapeños, or olives. Remember to keep this dish chilled and stashed in a cool, shady area.
Crisp, refreshing, and tangy, cucumber salad is a vegan-friendly, low-carb, low-calorie, gluten-free side dish everyone can enjoy. Seed and peel cucumbers and slice into eighth-inch half-moons along with some thinly sliced onion or shallot. Marinate with a few tablespoons of sherry vinegar and half as much olive oil for a few hours. Serve chilled with a sprinkling of salt, black pepper, and freshly chopped dill.
ROASTED GARLIC HUMMUS
This traditional Middle Eastern dish is often considered a meal when topped with eggs, beans, or mushrooms. Here hummus has been adopted as a beloved party food and shared appetizer. To prepare, combine a 16-ounce can of drained and rinsed chickpeas in a food processor with 3 tablespoons of traditional tahini sauce and/or olive oil, one head of roasted garlic, and the juice of one lemon. Salt to taste and blend until creamy.
BERRIES AND CREAM
It's best to stick with light desserts when spending a lot of time in the hot sun (and keep bikini bods intact!). A bowl of fresh berries -- any variety or a mix -- topped with a little whipped cream provides just the right amount of sweetness to cap a meal. Whip cream right in the kitchen to control the amount of sugar, avoid preservatives, and save money.
This crowd favorite is an easy, sweet treat for a party that allows for casual grazing. The prep is simple and a fun way to get the entire family involved. Heat chocolate over a double boiler until just melted. (No double boiler? Fake one with simple instructions from Rachael Ray.) With the flame on the lowest setting that keeps the chocolate liquid, dip pretzels halfway in. Place the dipped pretzels on wax or parchment paper and chill in the fridge until set. These homemade confections will be a lot cheaper and fresher than store-bought.
When life gives you lemons, make popsicles! Craft according to taste -- but as a guideline, mix 1 part lemon juice, one-half part simple syrup or other sweetener such as maple or agave, and 3 parts water. Use a mandoline or sharp knife to cut thin slices of lemon to include in the pops, being sure to remove seeds. Freeze in popsicle molds. These keep well in the freezer, making it easy to take advantage when lemons go on sale.
A cheap and easy crowd pleaser, garlic bread is thought of as a complement to Italian dinners but can be a staple at any get-together. The best way to make it consistently is to use a compound butter -- a fancy term for softened butter mixed with crushed garlic and chopped parsley. Spread this liberally on both halves of a nice loaf of bread sliced down the middle, wrap in foil, and heat in the oven or grill for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the temperature. Cut into generous chunks and watch them disappear.
Cheap, crunchy cabbage is a good option to help feed a crowd, especially when chopped up into creamy mayo-based or zingy vinegar-based slaw. A Carolina-style slaw made with vinegar instead of dairy will stay fresh longer in hot weather. To whip up a batch, combine shredded cabbage and carrots with a light dressing of vinegar and oil, seasoning with salt, pepper, and celery seed. Enjoy it as a side dish or as a crunchy topping on burgers, dogs, and sandwiches.
JICAMA WITH LIME AND CHILI
This classic Mexican table snack delivers a lot of flavor and texture for very little money, effort, and calories. Jicama is an inexpensive root vegetable that is crunchy, lightly sweet, and a bit starchy -- like a cross between a potato and an apple. Peel and cut jicama into sticks and dress with chili salt and fresh lime for a refreshing and bold snack.