A big meal plus leftovers for less than a buck. (Hint: Let others do most of the cooking.)

A former coworker hosted a potluck for me on Saturday. Among the goodies we enjoyed: Alaska salmon in a ginger-based marinade, burgers (meat or veggie), dilled potato salad, baked beans made from scratch in a slow cooker, a mesclun salad with chicken and grilled sweet potatoes, rosemary bread, eggplant pate, olives, grape tomatoes, melon and several desserts, including a Ukrainian rhubarb torte that was much classier than the rhubarb cake that I made recently.

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’s 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.

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, 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 two-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. (Google “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 packets of Parmesan cheese and red pepper from back when you used to have pizza and breadsticks delivered.)

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 loans.

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.

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5 Comments

  1. One of my recurring tips has been to PLAN for potlucks, especially if you are in social circles where that is common socializing behavior and / or the kids are known to say “oh, yeah, there’s a potluck tomorrow”.

    When pantry items that are easily convertible to potluck dishes go on bargain prices, you snap them up and put them in your pantry. Examples: cake mix, cupcake decorations, whipped topping mix, assorted flavors of gelatin mix, chocolate chips, mayo, mini marshmallows, pasta, assorted canned beans to make a bean salad, crushed pineapple or other canned fruit, all the ingredients for oatmeal cookies, etc. I had not thought of tea or lemonade mix but you’ve got a good point on that.

    Since the only question about potlucks is WHEN they will happen, the only thing that might throw you off this plan is when the potluck hostess dictates what you will bring. (I’ve seen that done with the intent to “have a good mix of food.” The reality is: I’ve only been to one potluck where the food selections were really limited, and it was a picnic in 90 degree weather where nearly every family thought the most practical contributions would be baked beans and fruit salad.)

  2. Debbie C.

    I enjoyed reading this article very much! Thanks for reviving an old yet great idea! This is not only great for our wallets but excellent for our moral, giving spirits and emotional health too! It encourages Friendships by giving us all a chance to get together and we can save money on a shrink too by discussing our problems with out pals. It also showcases cooking talents ( if we have the time and the Dinero) so it can give those of us who want our ego stroked a little bit a little chance to show off and also practice recipes or try out new ones! Having a Pot Luck is an excellent idea for so many reasons. Your Beverage ideas are good ones too, and Drinks do get over looked. If bringing Kool-aid or a Drink Mix is a bit embarrassing to us, we can always mix in some cut fresh fruit, whatever is on sale of that we have the money for and make a kinda non-alcoholic Sangria, but servr soon after adding the fruit so it does not ferment etc. You can also put it all in a blender with ice a frosty frozen drink is always appealing!

  3. Hi all, I love potlucks and I love deviled eggs (recommendation for really jazzing them up: add a spoonful of pickle relish or mango chutney!) but thought I would share re: stale bread.

    French toast and/or bread pudding are really easy to make, are a great destination for slightly-aged bread and milk, and can be made either sweet or savory. To make a savory bread pudding, mix in some lightly sauteed onions and shredded ham, bacon, or even leftover roast beef or barbecue, and season with herbs instead of sugar & cinnamon.

  4. One year, my husband & I were really, really broke – rent was regularly late & just covering the heating & light bills & buying enough food to eat was very difficult & not always achievable. I was absolutely obliged to go to a potluck for my job – yes, I was working full-time, but at a job paying about minimum wage, & my husband was out of work & his unemployment benefits were gone. I was panicking – what could I bring when I had few ingredients in the house, no money to buy more, & payday wasn’t for 14 days? (I was paid monthly). And I didn’t want to look bad or cheap (as opposed to frugal). Inspiration struck! I happened to have a lot of flour, some yeast, a little honey left in the bottom of a jar, and a few eggs. I made a few loaves of home-made challah (braided egg bread), and brought it in, along with a bit of butter and some home-made jam I had on hand. It cost me no additional cash up front, and the ingredients only cost about $3 anyway, so I think my contribution was one of the least costly. I’m glad I had them on hand, though. I didn’t have the $3 in cash. And it was the most popular item at the party, and everyone oohed and ahhhed over the golden, still warm loaves. I was so relieved! A few hours of careful work not only rescued me from embarrassment, but made me the hit of the evening – everyone either asked fir the recipe or swore they could never bake bread. Desperation & creativity, combined with willingness to put in extra time & effort, can be a life-saver.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Rosa: What a great story. Thank you for sharing it. And you’re right — everybody loves fresh bread.

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