Entertaining can be fun, but the food alone can cost you a bundle if you're not careful. A potluck is an obvious solution to keep food party costs down, but if you want to lay out the spread yourself, then you have to go a different route. Luckily, it is possible to throw a great party, serve delicious food and stay within your budget.
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A good option for a budget party is to serve snack foods and have everyone bring their favorite beverage. You can add a unique twist to popcorn by making caramel, spicy or garlic-cheddar popcorn. You can also buy different varieties of frozen soft pretzels and serve warm with beer and dipping sauces. Hummus is an easy and inexpensive spread you can make in a food processor or blender: Whirl chick peas, salt, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Serve with fresh vegetables and pita wedges.
Chicken wings are also a popular, inexpensive snack. Buy them in bulk and toss them in a big paper bag with five packets of Thai peanut sauce powder (in the ethnic foods aisle at the grocery store). Bake on a broiler pan at 400 degrees until crispy and brown and then watch them disappear.
Another crowd-pleaser is sweet and savory mini-meatballs. Fill a Crock-Pot with pre-made frozen meatballs. In a bowl, whisk ketchup and a jar of grape jelly. Pour over the meatballs and heat on low until bubbly.
If you want to have a buffet for a large group of people, the key is to serve filling comfort food. One of your best bets is a glazed ham that you slice yourself. If you slice it thinly, you can feed 30 people. Add mustard, sweet pickles and a huge pan of baked macaroni and cheese, and no one will feel deprived.
A pot of chili served with cornbread is another low-cost option that satisfies and can be made in large amounts. Offer scallions, sour cream and grated cheddar as accompaniments. Lasagna and garlic bread are also hearty and can be bought pre-made if you're pressed for time.
For a sweet ending, serve coffee and vanilla ice cream or rainbow sherbet and vanilla wafers if you're feeling nostalgic.
When you're shopping for a party, head to local big-box retailers (Costco, Sam's Club or BJ's). They have good prices on large quantities of meatballs, chicken wings, soft pretzels, fruits and veggies. Shop with a list and stick to it to stay in line with your party food budget.