It's Your Party

Dinner for 20—for Under $100? It Can Be Done.

An elegant, budget-friendly party menu anyone can pull off.

November 29, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

We're highlighting clever tips and tricks for pulling off any holiday get-together without breaking a sweat. It's Your Party, after all, so you might as well enjoy it!

I may live in a tiny shoebox apartment in Manhattan, but that's never stopped me from inviting friends over for dinner. In addition to snowboarding in the winter, trout fishing in lakes, and letting my dog lick my face while I read a good book, throwing parties is one of my favorite things to do, especially around the holidays. I supply the food, my guests bring the wine, and everyone stuffs themselves silly because, well, let's face it—it's sweater season.

Space issue, sometimes. But it's not a deterrent. Where parties are concerned, there are two scenarios in my 250–square foot studio: 1) I keep things very intimate with one or two friends, and the "party" involves us sitting across from each other on stools at the kitchen island, or 2) I go all out and make it a 20-person soirée—no table settings, just drinks, soup shooters, and delicious bits and bobs you can eat with your hands.

The truth of the matter is that entertaining doesn't need to be a stressful affair, whether you're hosting a single person or 20. My method is to keep things easy with the food and the cooking so that I can enjoy the party, and catch up with my friends. I've listed below a few simple, savvy strategies I follow to ensure dinner-party success, with my go-to menu that feels at once hearty and welcoming, thoughtful and refined. And best of all, it all costs just under $100.

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Top Comment:
“I used to feed crowds by spending too much money and then realized most people don’t even care about the expensive ingredients, they just want to have fun. I need to try that toffee pudding, the technique sounds so interesting. ”
— CameronM5

Here's how it all adds up: The numbers below are based on market prices from FreshDirect, an online grocery delivery service. Staples like salt, pepper, and olive oil haven't been included in the cost breakdowns, as I'm assuming you already have those on the regular. Some of the jarred spices and herbs you may have in your pantry right now, as well; if you don't, then these recipes may inspire you to keep using them throughout your holiday cooking. (E.g., ground sage—it's good!)

OK, let's go:

1. Rely on recipes with short ingredient lists & BIG impact

I take a page out of Genius columnist and Creative Director Kristen Miglore's book and serve my favorite dip with bitter, crunchy radishes—cleaned, trimmed, and salted (a simple but very important step to making them taste their best). Her "dip" of choice is Alex Raij's two-ingredient vanilla butter (can you guess the ingredients?). But for my dinners, I like to serve this Nori Sour Cream Dip because it makes people go, "Hmm? Mmm!"

It's a sour cream dip all the same, but Korean-inflected. Instead of Lipton onion soup mix, that deliciously desiccated "maraca-shake of onions rattling in a paper packet," as Amy Thielen once called it, mine calls for a couple packets of those roasted seaweed snacks that I grew up eating, and that have been in vogue among the Trader Joe's generation as of late. It's the secret ingredient in much of my cooking, gives everything a savory note that hits all the pleasure centers of the brain.

This dip is salty, creamy, and umami-rich, and pairs beautifully with bitter vegetables, especially radishes (which are totally affordable, by the way). But you could just as easily serve it with other delicious crunchy things like carrots, cucumbers, endive, and radicchio. Most importantly, a crudités platter is prime finger food—and when you don't have tables or place settings, you want your guests to be able to eat while standing. Here's how much (or little!) it'll cost ya:

$3.49 worth of sour cream (a 16-ounce container)
$3.99 worth of roasted seaweed snack ($5.98 for a couple 3-packs)
6 cents' worth of garlic (roughly 2 cloves from a 51-cent head)
10 cents' worth of rice vinegar ($3.49 per bottle)
10 cents' worth of sesame oil ($3.99 per bottle)
$5.98 worth of radishes ($2.99 per pound)

Appetizer Course Total: $13.72

When you're entertaining a crowd as large as 20, it helps to use recipes that let their ingredients do all the work. Take, for instance, Recipe Developer Emma Laperruque's four-ingredient carrot soup, which relies on charred sheet-pan vegetables to give it depth: a simple but aromatic mirepoix of carrot, onion, and celery. It also features a secret, umami-rich ingredient to bring it home: miso. And as she once said to me in the kitchen while heating up this soup, "Carrots by the pound are so cheap."

This caramelized carrot soup is a lovely, affordable way to add something warm, comforting, and so flavorful to the menu, without having to hover over a soup pot all day. As for serving, I like to ladle it into little soup shooters, which are very elegant and easy to drink while standing and mingling. You could also serve it in handled mugs with or without spoons, which makes everything feel even cozier and more casual.

$3.38 for 2 pounds of carrots
$2.99 for 1 pound of celery
$1.19 for 1 pound of yellow onions
$1.58 worth of white miso (especially the “mellow” kind Emma likes)

Soup Course Total: $9.14

Photo by Julia Gartland

2. Focus on one hands-off dish you can scale to feed a crowd

Rather than preparing various smaller courses, and risk one of your guests not being able to try something, it's nice to gather around that one big, impactful main dish and just really do it right. And when you're on a budget, a cheaper, fattier cut like pork shoulder (aka, "pork butt") does a lot of work to feed a group deliciously and effectively.

I recommend a slow braise for a cut of meat like this, to really get it soft and succulent. And you can flavor it however you'd like. I've taken the uber-popular Crock-Pot Brown Sugar & Balsamic–Glazed Pork Tenderloin recipe and repurposed it with boneless pork shoulder, which gets super tender when slow-cooked like this. In addition to making the recipe totally hands-off, the slow cooker is also an insurance policy against the tenderloin drying out—exactly what you need as you're running about the house, taking care of the other important things before the guests arrive (cleaning, bathing the dog, putting away laundry under the bed, if you're me).

A few tips: I double the recipe here to feed 20 (you could even triple it if you wanted leftovers). Also, I like to carve the roast (as opposed to shredding it), as then I'm able to better portion the meat out among my guests. You might be thinking: How will anyone eat that pork shoulder standing up? Well, the tender meat is fantastic in between warm, toasted potato buns. The cost breakdown below is for one recipe:

$13.16 worth of boneless pork shoulder ($3.29 per pound)
12 cents’ worth of garlic (roughly 4 cloves from a 51-cent head)
30 cents’ worth ground sage ($2.99 per jar)
17 cents’ bay leaves ($1.29 per jar)
96 cents’ dark brown sugar ($2.19 per pound)
85 cents’ worth of balsamic vinegar ($3.59 per bottle)
52 cents’ worth of soy sauce ($2.59 per bottle)
84 cents’ worth of mustard powder ($3.49 per jar)
8 cents’ worth of cornstarch ($2.49 for a 16-ounce container)

Which comes out to $16.98. But for a double batch of this recipe, you're at $33.96 for the meat alone. And when you add the bread for $11.97 worth of soft potato buns (three bags at $3.99 each), then...

Main Course Total: $45.95

(If I have any vegetarians coming over—which I often do—I like to turn to the ever-useful, ever-versatile cauliflower. Spiced, whole-roasted, braised, it's always a great option.)

Photo by Julia Gartland

3. Keep dessert low-key—something warm & gooey to serve with ice cream

Nigella Lawson's Sticky Toffee Pudding dessert from her cookbook, Nigella Bites, is one of my favorite things to make for guests during the colder months. I love this cake because it's one of those things I'm able to throw together when it seems I have nothing in my pantry and fridge. All it needs are the usual suspects, things like brown sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and milk—plus chopped dates. I often make this without the dates, which keeps costs even lower, but they're the ingredient that gives the dessert its signature flavor and squidge.

Best yet—my version of the cake gets baked large-scale on a sheet pan, which is nice for serving crowds. Sure, this is the one dish that's not handheld, but if you serve the pudding on small plastic plates or even in cups, with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream and a plastic spoon, then it's perfectly manageable as cocktail party fare.

The important thing is to trust in Nigella's technique (it's a quirky one!): Once you spread the very simple batter out onto the sheet pan, you dot the cake with brown sugar, blobs of butter, and pour hot water (yes, hot water) all over the top. As this water-filled pan bakes in the oven, the liquid mixes with the butter and sugar and amalgamates into a luscious sauce. The sauce also inverts with the cake, so the batter bakes up into a tender cake on top, while sticky toffee ends up on bottom. It's a very satisfying thing to watch happen, but requires a little faith.

$2.99 worth of salted butter ($3.99 for a 2-stick pack)
$2.89 worth of dark brown sugar ($2.19 per pound)
$1.16 worth of eggs ($3.49 for 1/2 dozen)
$1.61 worth of pure vanilla extract ($6.99 per bottle)
66 cents’ worth of flour ($2.49 for a 2-pound bag)
40 cents’ worth of baking powder ($3.99 per can)
40 cents’ worth of whole milk ($1.59 for a quart)
$4.48 worth of chopped dates ($5.79 for an 8-ounce container)
$5.69 for a 1/2-gallon tub of vanilla ice cream

Dessert Course Total: $20.28

See? You don't have to break the bank to host friends (all 20 of them!) over the holidays. This delicious, budget-friendly dinner party menu proves that an affordable meal doesn't have to mean bland austerity. There's a second way. Because at the end of the day, it's really just dinner. (And you do that all the time!) With these smart tricks and solid recipes under your belt, you can have your party and eat well, too, for a...

Grand Total of: $89.09!

That leaves you with $10.91 to spare. Maybe buy a couple heads of cauliflower to pad out the main course for your vegetarian friends. (And a chocolate bar for yourself.)

How do you feed hungry crowds on a budget? Let us know in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • judy
  • Linda Ireland
    Linda Ireland
  • CameronM5
  • Eric Kim
    Eric Kim
Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.


judy June 5, 2019
This looks great. I would add some type of a green side dish, though. buttered green beans, or Brussel sprouts, or sautéed kale and cabbage. And maybe some homemade rolls that compliment the meat.
Linda I. December 3, 2018
What is the sauce on the dinner plate under the meat?
Eric K. December 4, 2018
Hi Linda, it's from this carrot recipe:
CameronM5 November 29, 2018
Love this! The price breakdown feeds the OCD person in me. I used to feed crowds by spending too much money and then realized most people don’t even care about the expensive ingredients, they just want to have fun. I need to try that toffee pudding, the technique sounds so interesting.
Eric K. December 1, 2018
Thanks Cameron. Same here!