Our Seniors Program program at church regularly feeds 30-60 people monthly on a very strict budget: basically on what the seniors contribute and other people donate. That isn't much -- generally $50-100 a month for $$ donations. (One regular visitor's estate just gave the Senior Luncheons program $500 --it will be put to good use.)
So how do you do it?
I'll use our January menu to illustrate.
Three types of chicken wings: Barbecue
Lemon and garlic
Three soups: Split pea and ham
Loaded baked potato
Carrots and celery sticks (to go with the ranch dressing for the buffalo wings)
Cake (different kinds) and whipped cream
Coffee & Tea
*Happily accept donations. Does one of the local farmers raise beef for sale? Ask them for a few pounds of beef -- you can stretch it in a soup or stew. Is the apple crop ready for picking? A quick mention, and the willingness to pick the fruit yourself, will easily get you a bushel for applesauce or apple cake. (Or apple, onion and sauerkraut with sausage.)
In our case, the church donated coffee, tea and a big bottle of ranch dressing for the relishes. (Gotta have it for dipping buffalo wings, too.) The biggest 'give' this month was cake. Lots of it. (Leftover cake went to the Sunday meal at Open Door, one of the homeless shelters our church helps out at.)
I also donated spices and bouillon from my personal stash.
*Keep it nutritious. Protein, veggies and fruit, with careful attention to limiting fat and sugar.
(We paid attention to keeping the carbs basic, too.)
*Have options for allergies and special diets. One of the cakes, as well as the chicken wings and a soup, were no-gluten. Other cakes didn't include nuts. If we'd needed to, we could have included a no-egg cake, as well. Several of the dishes fit into diabetic diets.
*Do it homemade, wherever you can -- but use shortcuts, when you can afford them. Canned soups and bouillon cubes give you a jumpstart on gravies and soup. Canned tomatoes still have the color and zippy aroma that fresh ones provide.
*Keep it simple. This is no time for elaborate garnishes -- unless you've got time, can get them on sale...or have them donated.
*Introduce similar flavor 'notes' throughout. Not only does it give your meal continuity -- you won't be wasting leftovers and trimmings. They'll go into the next dish.
Case in point: the soups. A few carrots were diced and added to the pea soup for color and flavor; chicken bouillon in two of the three soups echoed the chicken wings. (If I'd had time, I would have used the celery and onion trimmings, along with a handful of chicken wings, to make homemade broth, instead.) Garlic in the chili and baked potato soups echoed the wing flavors. Minced celery tops went into the potato soup.
*Everything's on sale -- or inexpensive, to start with.
Our month's main protein sources: (prices are rounded up, for ease)
Chicken wings -- 50 cents a pound.
(From the 40-pound special at the Friday/Sat store -- we used about 30 pounds)
Diced ham and a hambone -- $1.49/lb for the ham (about a pound), and the bone was leftover
Ground beef -- $2.99/lb for two pounds
Split peas and Anasazi beans -- three pounds for a buck each
TOTAL: $15 + 1.50 + 6.00 + 3.00 = $25.50
*That means everything, sauces and sides included.
Sauces -- 2 bottles barbecue ($1 each, from my stock)
1 bottle Frank's hot sauce ($4, Fri/Sat store)
1 bottle garlic vinaigrette dressing ($1.50, from my stock)
1 bottle lemon juice, half-used ($3, Fri/Sat store)
garlic salt, chili spices
TOTAL: $2 + $4 + $1.50 + $3 = $10.50
Stuff for the soups --
#10 can crushed tomatoes ($2, Fri/Sat store)
6 onions (10 cents a pound - 50 pound special)
5 pounds potatoes (20 cents a pound - on sale at Safeway)
3 pounds sour cream ($1/pound - Fri/Sat store)
1/2 pound grated Cheddar cheese ($1.88, Safeway)
ready-cooked bacon (half of a $12 pkg from Sam's Club)
4 chicken and 2 beef bouillon cubes (from my stash)
box of mushroom sauce (50 cents - Fri/Sat store)
TOTAL: $2 + 40 cents + $1 + $2 + $6 + 50 cents = $12.00
large can spray whipped cream ($5 at Safeway -- the only item in the entire meal not on sale)*
Veggies -- 3 pounds celery sticks ($3, Safeway)**
3 pounds carrot sticks ($2.50, Safeway)**
*Why spray whipped cream, instead of the much-cheaper Cool Whip-style? Because the spray stuff lasts for weeks. (Cool Whip only hangs in there for a few days before it starts to taste funny.) It's made with real whipped cream. It's easier to serve quickly -- just a quick spritz.
And it tastes great.
**These weren't, either.
Finally -- the cakes. We served carrot, spice, coconut, banana -- all 9 x 13s or 8" rounds.
Every one of these were donated -- a simple matter of asking people who were helping out to bring a cake, too.
Coffee and tea, as well as ranch dressing, were donated by the church.
Grand Total: $58.50
TA-DA! The Brick served 37 people = $1.58 each.
And that included leftovers: at least 2 (large) meals of chicken wings and 3-4 (large) meals each of pea soup and chili. (Some of the helpers took home food, we had some -- and a container of chili went home with Daughter #1.)
The Brick could have easily accommodated 10-15 more people, using what was left over.
If 50 people were served, instead, the grand total would have been a bare $1.17 each.
*Don't forget about decorations. Add some pillar candles (can be used at more than one lunch), a few packages of decorative napkins and a flower bouquet. (Break up and put a bloom or two on each table.) Even if you need to buy cake (5 or 6 boxes of cake mix, a can or so of frosting, plus oil and eggs), you'll still come in under $2/person.
Recipes for the meal are here. Next time you have to feed a ton of people, try some of these ideas. They work!