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A big meal (plus leftovers) for less than $1

Hint: Let others do most of the cooking.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 30, 2010 11:02AM

A former co-worker hosted a potluck for me during a recent visit to Alaska. I was the guest of honor but gently urged the hostess to tell me what I might contribute. It wound up being deviled eggs and two 12-packs of Diet Coke.

Someone suggested that potlucks would be a good subject for a frugality column. I laughed. Then I realized that she was right. If I were unemployed or underemployed, I'd be attending or hosting potlucks as often as I could get away with it.

Consider that:

  • A whole lot of filling dishes get brought to potlucks: lasagna, casseroles, pasta salads, etc.
  • So do a whole lot of last-minute supermarket grabs: sliced meats, fried chicken, cheeses, fruit or vegetable plates, cookies, pies.
  • If you're lucky, somebody will bake a ham.

Result: You can eat as much as you want of the above-mentioned foods. The host will invariably send you home with some leftovers. And if you're really lucky, you can score the ham bone and make a big pot of soup.

All for the cost of one dish -- and the food you bring doesn't have to cost very much. It could even be free.

Frugal, not cheap

You may be thinking, "What an illegitimus frugalis that woman is." Understand: I'm not suggesting you show up with a 99-cent bag of potato chips, especially if you can afford to bring something better.


But if you're hurting for cash, you have two options: Spend more than you can afford, or get creative.

For example, beverages are often in short supply. The soda I brought cost nothing at all: I got coupons for two free 12-packs from the My Coke Rewards program. In fact, the store was running a "buy two and get one free" special so I wound up with three gratis 12-packs.

Soda is a frequent loss leader (e.g., less than a dollar for a 2-liter bottle), so check supermarket and drugstore sales. Watch for inexpensive drink mixes, too. I buy Wyler's sugar-free lemonade for a buck at Walgreens, which works out to 33 cents per 2-quart pitcher. Add the juice of a lemon (or lime) to improve the flavor, if you like.

Neither sodas nor lemonade mixes are particularly healthy. But do you want to go to this potluck or not? You're broke, remember?

Deviled eggs are a big hit because everybody loves them and nobody likes to make them. Get the cheapest eggs you can; they're frequent loss leaders, too. Boil eight of the cackleberries. Cut them in half and whomp the yolks together with a little mayo, a squirt of mustard, and some salt and pepper.

You've got a dish that makes people happy. You've also still got the makings for a couple of scrambled-egg sandwiches later in the week.

Get fed with stale bread

When I was really broke, the food bank I visited always had tons of bread (including some very high-end varieties). Assuming you have even a few pantry basics, here are a few ways to turn slightly stale bread into potluck fodder:

  • Garlic bread: Slice, butter, sprinkle with minced garlic and fresh herbs, heat in oven. Unemployment version: soft margarine, garlic powder, a little dried oregano and basil.
  • Bruschetta: Like garlic bread, only broiled and, if possible, with a little chopped tomato, cheese or whatever you have on hand. You can even use canned tomatoes if you drain them well.
  • Crostini: Like bruschetta, only small and thin. Toast small rounds of bread until crispy, drizzle with olive oil and add kosher or sea salt, cheese, chopped tomatoes or whatever. (For more ideas, search "crostini recipes" or "bruschetta recipes.")
  • Pita chips: Cut pita into strips. Toss with a little oil, sprinkle with herbs or salt, and bake in a low oven until crisp. (Variation: Check your fridge shelves for stray packets of Parmesan cheese and red pepper from back when you used to have pizza and breadsticks delivered.)

There's also bread pudding, either sweet or savory, but that takes eggs, sugar, milk, and vanilla or cinnamon. If you don't have these items, stick with the crostini, et al.

Survival tactics

Remember the old story called "Stone Soup"? A whole lot of people contributed one item each and pretty soon there was a big meal for everyone.

It might be time for stone soup in real life. Unemployment stats are pretty grim, and plenty of the jobs that are available don't pay very well. Young adults are particularly hard-hit if they have high student loan debt.

Try organizing a monthly community feed with your close friends. The more fortunate among you might bake that ham or pick up a rotisserie chicken on the way home from work. The rest will be bringing deviled eggs and crostini.

Everyone will get fed, both physically and emotionally. Breaking bread together is important. Even if it's slightly old bread.

P.S. Don’t forget your Tupperware.

Donna Freedman is the MSN Money Living With Less columnist and also blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.


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