“Bring a dish to pass” can be a daunting directive if you’re on a fixed food budget, or perhaps trying to get by on SNAP benefits. But there are ways to stay within your budget while still not seeming to stint on your share of the party contribution.
This can require planning ahead, but it can also be done by carefully surveying all of your local grocery circulars the week of the party in question.
Planning ahead means you really need to set aside a small portion of your food budget for entertainment (in the “entertainment” section of your food budget, you can include birthdays and holidays as well as pot-luck dinners). One way to save might be by bringing your own grocery bags to the store and, when you get home, putting the nickel or dime the store subtracts from your purchase into a jar. Or you could slip a dollar a week into an envelope for anticipated birthday and block parties.
Remember, although there are always people who like to display their culinary creativity on such occasions, and others whose circumstances mean they can afford to spend more, it is always possible to contribute to a party without breaking your food budget. Here are some suggestions:
- Chester’s snacks are a brand owned by Frito-Lay North America. They are often priced at $2 or $3 per bag depending on whether you want the Flamin’ Hot® fries (potato sticks) or the cheddar flavored popcorn, or their butter flavored “puffcorn,” to name just a few varieties. Buy a bag of these, put them into a plastic serving bowl, and you’re good to go.
- When brownie mixes go on sale-- often as “loss leaders,” grocery items priced very low to get you into the store, and sometimes priced as low as 99¢ a box-- buy a box or two to keep in reserve. They seldom require you to add more than a half cup (or less) of oil, an egg or two, and a little water (check in advance to see what you should keep on hand in addition to the mix). If you want to be fancy, dust them with a little powered sugar (if you have it) after they come out of the oven-- or just serve them plain. Cut them into smaller pieces and set them out on a nice plastic or paper plate and your dessert contribution is covered.
- Strawberries sometimes go on sale for as little as $2 per quart. Buy a quart, rinse thoroughly (adding a little vinegar to the water you wash your fruits and vegetables in helps remove contaminants), and set them out on a chip-and-dip plate if you have one (or on a large plate that will accommodate a small bowl as well as the strawberries). Buy a single serving carton of whatever kind of yogurt your store is selling cheaply; choose the vanilla flavored variety, but if that isn’t available, consider peach. Stir the yogurt until it’s smooth and spoon it into a small bowl (or the dip section of you chip-and-dip plate).
- If melons are on sale (sometimes watermelons can be purchased for as low as $3.99 and cantaloupe for as little as $1.99) buy one, wash the outside (often contaminated by sitting in the field or in shipping), and then cut the melon into small wedges and arrange them on a plate.
- Never underestimate the attractiveness of a bowl of grapes. There are times of the year when grapes can be purchased for as little as $1.49 a pound-- and as little as a pound will fill a pretty dish. Wash the grapes and then cut them into little sprigs of three to six grapes or so. Set them out in an attractive plastic bowl or even a colander. (These are an attractive snack if you don’t know the dietary preferences of your hosts. Vegan, vegetarian, kosher, halal-- whatever their preference, you usually can’t offend with a plate of grapes.)
- When eggs go on sale for a dollar a dozen or less (often around Easter, but sometimes during the rest of the year), consider making a plate of deviled eggs. Hard cook a dozen eggs, cool in ice water and then peel. Slice in half the long way, remove the yolks (carefully so that you don’t damage the whites), and mash. Combine the mashed yolks with any or all of the following: mustard (yellow or Dijon), mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, salt and pepper. Then carefully spoon the yolk mixture into the white halves (if you have an icing applicator with a variety of tips, you can use that to stuff the whites). Sprinkle lightly with paprika. This yields 24 egg halves.
There are other things you can do to contribute a pot-luck dish, even if your budget is severe limited. Think creatively, and don’t let the inability to bring a dish keep you from joining the party.