I’ve gathered some great ideas for party food for a crowd on a budget for you! All the ideas are simple and affordable to make so you can focus on having a good time at your own party rather than worrying about perfectly timing when each dish comes out of the oven.
I find the easiest things to serve are made with 10 or fewer ingredients and have only about 5 steps or less.
Many can be made ahead of time. Some can be served and sit at room temperature, avoiding the waste that happens when hot food cools to room temp and is no longer good.
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A note on food safety & hygiene when entertaining a crowd
While we’re not likely going to be having large gatherings anytime soon, we might still have people over. Please follow the rules for gatherings in your local area and follow good food safety practices to keep your friends and family healthy.
- Use serving utensils for all foods
- Provide individual dishes for appetizers rather than allowing guests to nibble from the serving trays
- Ask guests to wash or sanitize their hands before eating
- Have a designated area for dirty dishes (a wash tub or in the sink work well, depending on your set up)
- Expect guests to stay home if they’re feeling sick
Tips to keep your party food simple & budget-friendly:
Party food on a budget generally consists of regular foods that are made party friendly by the way they’re served!
No matter what food you serve at your party, you’ll save a lot of headache and money by following these general tips.
Use the slow cooker or Instant Pot!
Any dish made hands off is going to simplify your party food. It could also save you money if you use the slow cooker or Instant Pot to tenderize a tougher cut of meat to serve guests, rather than serving a more expensive cut.
I’m a fan of using what you have and I don’t think you need both a slow cooker and and Instant Pot. If you are in the market for one though, I’ve included some recommendations below.
If you don’t already have one, this slow cooker has almost 10K high reviews! Use a slow cooker liner for even easier cleanup.
If you don’t yet have an Instant Pot, this one has great reviews and is rated best for beginners.
Ask guests to bring something
The fewer dishes you have to cook, the easier it will be on you and the less money too! It’s generally expected to bring a side dish to a big holiday meal like Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s also super common to bring an appetizer to a less formal gathering, so don’t feel weird about asking guests to bring something!
BYOB or alcohol free
Asking guests to bring their own booze, or even having an alcohol free party are also great options. If you’re asking guests to BYOB, I do recommend to still have a few drink options in case someone forgets. Something like a punch or a few bottles of wine are great to have on hand.
If you want to go alcohol free, definitely have other non-alcoholic drinks for your guests. It can help to host the party earlier in the day as people are less likely to expect to drink mid day than in the evening.
Serve less expensive beverages
There are always more frugal options than what you might normally serve. Make a few strategic switches and most people won’t even notice.
- 2L bottles instead of cans
- beer & wine instead of hard liquor
- iced tea instead of soda
Use less meat & dairy
Meat and dairy are 2 of the most expensive grocery ingredients, so using less is almost guaranteed to save you money. Dishes where meat is a part of the dish instead of the main component will allow you to serve less meat per person without seeming cheap.
- choose meatless or mixed dishes instead of meat as the centre of the meal (steak tacos vs steak & potatoes, veggie chili vs chili con carne)
- serve several options on a cheese platter besides just cheese that will give guests flavorful options that besides just cheese (dips, vegetables, olives, fruit)
Use reusables wherever possible
Disposable cutlery, plates, napkins, glasses, etc are not free. In fact, they could easily add up to $1 or more per person!
I recommend instead to use reusable dinnerware whenever possible, and spend that extra money on the food!
Here is my favorite affordable, break resistant, and timeless dinnerware set that I highly recommend. You can get it on Amazon.
Pre portion the food
This might sound a bit weird, but people take cues about how much to eat based on how the food is served.
- slice the cheese on a cheese platter rather than serving blocks with knives. Lots of people will cut a thick slab for each cracker if left to their own devices, but if the cheese is already sliced, they will likely only put one thin slice per cracker
- cut squares/dainties into bite sized pieces. I like to cut brownies into 1″ x 2″ pieces rather than 2″ squares. Most people will just take one piece, whether it’s big or small. This way the food goes farther.
Plan the food according to the event
The food you serve is going to vary whether you’re hosting a Superbowl party vs a Christmas dinner. First think of what kind of party you’re hosting, then decide what you’re going to serve based on what types of food fits with the party you’re hosting.
There are some foods that can fit pretty much any party with just a little tweak to presentation.
If you’re planning a fun but frugal Christmas party, try serving any of the suggested foods in a holiday theme. For example, make a tray of veggies and dip into a Christmas tree shape and serve with festive dips. The same veggies and dip could be served at a football party on a regular platter.
Plan the food according to the time of day
Is your party over a meal time or in between meal times? Generally it’s less expensive to feed guests snacks rather than a full meal, so if you have flexibility when you invite people over, consider inviting them mid afternoon or later evening to avoid having to serve the full meal.
Plan the food according to the guest list
Does your guest list include kids or is a crowd of hungry men? You would probably want to plan for less food for younger kids, and more food for teens and men.
Are they fancy folk or regular down to earth people? I wouldn’t serve high end olives and blue cheese to people who are used to only ever eating cheddar and mozzarella.
Not only will they likely not enjoy the food, it will be a waste of money to serve food that your guests won’t like.
Frugal grocery shopping
Not only is it important to choose the right menu, if you want to host a frugal Christmas party, it’s a good idea to also use grocery shopping on a budget best practices. Try to get your ingredients on sale if possible!
Make it yourself
Of course it’s simpler to just open a box to heat and serve, but you’re almost always going to pay for that convenience in price and often in quality.
I recommend choosing a few simple dishes to make yourself.
Keep reading for some simple party food ideas on a budget, including main meals, appetizers, and desserts!
Budget Party Food: Main Meal Ideas
Pulled Meat Sandwiches
If you are serving meat, a pulled meat sandwich is a great option! These recipes usually call for tougher cuts of meat that you tenderize by cooking slowly over time. They also hold really well so you don’t have to worry about perfectly timing your meal as you do when serving something like steak.
- pulled pork
- pulled BBQ chicken
- beef on a bun
Skewers are another affordable option for serving meat. Generally there are only a couple ounces of meat per skewer but it looks like more. To make it go even further, make skewers mixed with meat and veggies.
The steps for this slow cooker veggie chili by is literally cut up the ingredients and add them to the slow cooker.
Homemade soup is a great option to serve at a casual dinner party. Make it special by pairing it with homemade biscuits or bread.
It can also make a great, affordable appetizer to help fill guests up without a lot of extra money spent.
Make pasta party worthy by serving it in a build-your-own format. Set out a bunch of yummy toppings and offer a couple different sauces for guests to choose from.
Jennifer Hunt, RDN, LD of Jennifer Hunt Nutrition says a “build-your-own taco or nachos bar is always fun for kids and adults alike!
This slow cooker chicken & black beans recipe is a fantastic easy recipe that can easily be scaled up to fit the crowd.
Then put out bowls of all types of fun toppings- lettuce, grape tomatoes sliced in half, black olives, sour cream or yogurt, onions, peppers, cheese, salsa, avocado or guacamole, and cilantro!
I find that make-your-own meals that include protein, veggies, healthy fats and fiber allow everyone to fill up and accommodate a variety of food allergies or preferences.”
Same idea as above. Simply put out a bunch of toppings and let guests build their own salad!
A salad bar would be great for a summery dinner party or BBQ.
Make sure to include filling salad options like chicken pieces, roasted chickpeas, variety of cheeses, and a few whole grains like rice or quinoa in addition to veggies and dressings.
Make your own pizzas
Such a fun idea and a lot less work than making all the pizzas yourself. You could buy premade pizza dough, or make a homemade batch for even yummier results.
Frugal Party Snacks & Appetizers
Cranberry Jalapeño Dip
This cranberry jalapeño dip from Chrissy Carroll, RD at Snacking in Sneakers, is a delish appetizer for a frugal holiday party. Only 8 ingredients and 5 easy steps! A little sweet, a little spicy, and a whole lotta delicious!
Veggies & Dip
Inexpensive veggies like carrots and celery, paired with other veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, and mushrooms is a simple, healthy and low cost option that is perfect year round.
To make it a bit more festive, display regular foods according to the party theme!
I’m always a fan of hummus with veggies. Make the classic chickpea hummus, or get fancy without any extra effort or cost by switching up the beans.
This creamy white bean hummus recipe sounds delicious and has a 5 star reviews.
This creamy edamame and avocado hummus from Erin Cooper, RD at Cashews and Quinoa looks interesting too. “It’s light, fresh, and simple! Perfect for a last-minute party, it can be thrown together in fewer than 10 minutes. Plus, it doesn’t need any chill time because it’s delicious right out of the food processor.” Check it out.
As with veggies and dip, fruit dip is great to serve at pretty much any occasion. I especially like to serve it with brunch, but it’s always good to have some fruit with any snack or appetizer spread.
Keep it affordable and on-theme by choosing seasonal produce. Think melons and berries in the summer, stonefruit and pears in the fall, citrus and grapes in the winter.
Pinwheels, sometimes also called spirals are simply a flour tortilla spread with cream cheese, deli meat and flavorings. Then you roll them up and slice them into little rounds. I find these to be such easy foods to make, but they look and taste great!
I like to do festive turkey and cranberry pinwheels around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and simple ham and cheese ones the rest of the year.
The price of a cheese/charcuterie board can easily get out of hand, but there are lots of ways to make a fancy cheese board on a budget.
One way is to pair store bought things with homemade things. Make sure to pre cut cheese into thin slices. This is a subtle way to reduce how much people eat!
I know when you have those little cheese knives with each cheese, some people end up cutting the cheese soooo thick and it just doesn’t go as far that way. Plus they are less sanitary and definitely contribute to kitchen clutter. Definitely not necessary.
Another is to fancy up plain foods with simple garnishes to add that extra pizazz with virtually no extra effort or cost.
“These Italian Marinated Mozzarella Pearls are only 5 ingredients and make for a simple but festive appetizer or a colorful addition to a cheese board!” says Whitney Reist at Sweet Cayenne.
Try marinating your own olives. The benefit is you can buy plain olives at the store for a better price than pre marinated olives, then dress them up with simple herbs and oil to impress your guests on a budget. Here is a good recipe for warm olives with lemon and rosemary.
Caprese bites are simply a toothpick with bite sized mozzarella or bocconcini, a cherry tomato, and a basil leaf. They can be served as is, or with a drizzle of pesto for extra flavor.
I love these because they’re so light and easy to make. They’re great to serve in the summer when tomatoes and basil are in season, but can also be great at a Christmas party due to their festive red, green, and white colors.
These 3-ingredient Everything-Bagel Devilled Eggs are a modern twist on a classic devilled egg (like this one), come together in just 30 minutes and can be made ahead using the instant pot and stackable egg steamer.
I feel like popcorn is so underrated! A batch of buttered stovetop popcorn probably costs like $0.50 or less.
Add a seasonal topping to match it to the occasion. Think: caramel corn, pumpkin spice seasoning, crushed peppermint, etc.
Crackers & Dip
This healthy spinach artichoke dip only contains five ingredients! It’s super easy to make, prepare and travel with. It can be made in the slow cooker so it’s really hands off!
Pair it with these delicious sourdough crackers for a super affordable and impressive spread!
Erin Hendrickson, RDN founder of No Waste Nutrition says “Sourdough discard crackers are a crowd favorite! They pair perfectly with your favorite dip or add them to a holiday charcuterie board.”
I’ve made these crackers so many times and they are so good! I definitely recommend making a double batch!
Nachos are so easy to please a crowd and require very little prep. It’s easy to make a fresh batch on demand by having some of the ingredients prepped in advance. Then simply spread out the nachos on a sheet pan, add the toppings, and bake!
Sweet Potato Bites
Chelsea Jackle, MFN, RDN, LD says “Sweet potato bites are a fun and customizable recipe you can make with almost any ingredients you have on hand!”
These yummy finger foods can be made with just 3 or 4 ingredients like pear and goat cheese or avocado & tomatoes! So simple! Get the recipes here.
These 4-ingredient sweet potato bites are even more budget friendly being topped with baked beans!
Bracha Kopstick RD says: “sweet potato bites make a filling snack while presenting like an elegant appetizer. They’re quick and easy to make- no baking skills required! “
Simple, Budget Friendly Party Desserts
Squares and dainties are great party desserts because they can be made ahead!
3 ingredient peanut butter cookies: These peanut butter cookies literally just include peanut butter, brown sugar, and an egg. You can’t get much easier than that! You could easily sub the peanut butter for a different nut butter if needed.
No-bake apple cinnamon oatmeal cookies: These cookies look yummy, so easy to make, and use simple ingredients we always have on hand. Recipe by Alena Kharlamenko, RD and recipe developer at Alena Menko Nutrition
Banana bread, lemon poppyseed, or chocolate zucchini loaves are so easy to make in advance and serve after a casual dinner party. You could even make and freeze them days or weeks in advance and simply thaw before the party.
Cakes are also great party desserts. They are so simple to make and don’t need to be fussy.
The best kinds of squares are SIMPLE! Think: no-bake, have few ingredients, freeze well, and hold well at room temp.
Colleen Christensen, RD, founder of @no.food.rules recommends these no-bake peanut butter scotcheroos. She says: “These are my go-to sweet treat! They’re so easy to put together, travel well and can sit out!”
Place a tray of squares out after the meal for a no-fuss dessert that everyone will enjoy!