The ground rules for this list: It will include a main dish and a side dish — no drinks. We listed desserts separately; many fruit-based and baked desserts are inexpensive and will also keep your budget under $20. We expect that you already have some basics around like salt, pepper, and oil. (If you're picking up those staples just to make a dish on this list, then you will probably go over-budget.) But with those givens, you can make these meals for $20ish and feed a crowd in the process. This list admittedly does not allow for the most high-quality meats. If you are going to buy fresh, grass-fed ground beef, for instance, you will probably go over-budget. But consider this list a starting point, and buy the best-quality ingredients you can afford.
- The Potluck — Let's just get this one out of the way. When it comes to just your own pocketbook, a potluck is the best way to go. Make a batch of cupcakes and a pot of coffee, and invite your friends to bring the rest of the meal. Spread the cost of a party out among a group of friends and everyone gets to feed everyone else. Having said that, the rest of this list focuses on meals that will cost less than $20 total — no matter who's paying.
- Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce + Grilled Vegetable Mix — Great summer eating, vegetarian-friendly, and the most classic dinner party dish of all. Just toss spaghetti with lightly simmered crushed canned tomatoes, along with garlic and some herbs. Grill zucchini and yellow squash (so inexpensive this time of year!) and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. You'll have plenty of cash left over to buy good cream for homemade vanilla ice cream! Recipes: Basic Tomato Sauce, Grilled Zucchini Salad
- Pulled Pork Wraps + Cabbage Salad — You can buy a big pork shoulder roast (pork butt) for very little money. Slow cook it with a little garlic and ginger, and then shred it and serve it with tortillas and simple shredded cabbage salad. Recipes: Slow-Cooked Hoisin and Ginger Pork Wraps with Peanut Slaw
- Homemade Pizza + Green Salad — The key with keeping homemade pizza inexpensive is to keep the toppings simple. Don't splurge on four kinds of cheese and imported salami; make toppings of crushed tomatoes, Parmesan, and perhaps one vegetable. Pizza shouldn't have too many toppings anyway! Recipes: Homemade Thin Crust Pizza, Basic Vinaigrette
- Bean and Rice Burritos + Fried Plantains — Here's another vegetarian option: hearty rice and bean burritos with a smattering of herbs and perhaps some cheese, as well as a side of fried plantains. Bring out a pint of ice cream to serve with the rest of the plantains, and you have dessert. Recipes: How to cook dried beans, Sweet Fried Plantains
- Cheese and Spinach Frittatas + Biscuits — Good eggs aren't expensive; you can buy a couple dozen and make enough frittata to feed an army, as long as you have enough skillets! Fill them with inexpensive ingredients like cheese and fresh spinach, and serve them with fluffy, light homemade biscuits. Recipes: Frittata, Touch-of-Grace Biscuits
- Pancake Bar + Fruit Slices — Like the frittata, this is breakfast for supper. We love fluffy pancakes; what about a big batch of pancakes with a side of seasonal fruit? Ask guests to bring their favorite pancake toppings. Recipes: Golden Oat Pancakes, Fluffy Ricotta Pancakes, Chunky Peach Pancake Topping
- Chicken Thighs in Balsamic Vinegar + Roasted Carrots — Here's a cold-weather meal that's great for fall. Chicken thighs are full of flavor, easy to cook without making them dry, and inexpensive. Our favorite recipe for chicken thighs involves just a little balsamic and Parmesan. Add in a big bag of carrots tossed with olive oil and thyme and roasted. Recipes: Chicken Thighs with Balsamic Vinegar, Roasted Carrots (from Ina Garten)
- Grain Salad with Roasted Vegetables + Miso Soup — Another favorite dish for a big crowd is a grain salad. You can toss it with simple, inexpensive seasonal roasted vegetables like squash or carrots — or baked tofu cubes — and then serve it with a side of basic miso soup for a very filling meal. Recipes: Warm Farro Salad with Roasted Vegetables, Miso Soup, Baked Tofu
Stew + Fresh Bread — One more classic way to feed a lot of mouths: soup or stew and bread. It's filling and so delicious too. Recipes: Classic Beef Stew, No-Knead Bread In a Hurry