The Pros and Cons of the Potluck Dinner

Photo (cc) by Marshall Astor - Food Fetishist

This summer, I traveled to Alaska, where I attended a potluck held in my honor. After we had gorged on goodies like ginger-marinated salmon and mesclun salad with chicken and grilled sweet potatoes, someone suggested that potlucks are a great frugal hack.

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 and/or vegetable plates, cookies, and pies.
  • If you’re lucky, somebody will bake a ham.

Best of all, you can eat as much as you want, and the host will invariably send you home with some leftovers. If you’re really lucky, you can score the ham bone and make a big pot of soup later.

And it’s all for the cost of one dish. 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.” But don’t misunderstand me: 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 at potlucks. 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 for a few cents more.

In Alaska, the hostess didn’t want me to bring anything, but she finally agreed to let me contribute soft drinks. These cost me nothing at all: I used 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.

Neither sodas nor lemonade mixes are particularly healthy. But do you want to go to this potluck or not? You’re broke, remember?

Get fed with stale bread

Deviled eggs are always a big hit because everybody loves them but 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.

Now 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.

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, and a little dried oregano and basil.
  • Bruschetta: Like garlic bread, broil with (if possible) a little chopped tomato, cheese, or whatever you have on hand. You can even use canned tomatoes if you drain them really 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. The national unemployment rate in August was 9.1 percent, and plenty of the jobs that are available don’t pay very well. Young adults are particularly hard-hit if they have lots of student loans.

So organize a monthly community feed with close friends. The more fortunate among you might bake that ham, or pick up a rotisserie chicken on the way home from work.

Others might be bringing deviled eggs and crostini, or toting pitchers of lemonade. But everyone will be fed, both physically and emotionally. Breaking bread together is important. Even if it’s slightly old bread.

More stories from Donna Freedman:

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
What Is Umbrella Insurance, and Do I Need It?
What Is Umbrella Insurance, and Do I Need It?

Umbrella insurance picks up where car and homeowners insurance leaves off. Do you need it? Here’s how to know.

Have You Heard of This Best Place to Retire in 2020?
Have You Heard of This Best Place to Retire in 2020?

The best place to retire in America is one you likely are not familiar with.

9 Genius Storage Solutions for Your Home
9 Genius Storage Solutions for Your Home

These creative products on Amazon will hide unsightly clutter while saving space.

It’s Worth Paying More for These 7 Things
It’s Worth Paying More for These 7 Things

Sometimes, the difference in quality makes it worthwhile to open your wallet a little wider.

15 Ways Retirees Can Make Their Savings Last Longer
15 Ways Retirees Can Make Their Savings Last Longer

Study these strategies to make your golden years gleam.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

8 Tips for Retiring Comfortably on Social Security Alone
8 Tips for Retiring Comfortably on Social Security Alone

It’s never too early to start learning how to live well while living on less.

Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?
Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?

Can an adult daughter tap into her late mother’s benefit?

The Next 5 Groups Who Will Get the COVID-19 Vaccine
The Next 5 Groups Who Will Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

The CDC has unveiled a schedule that likely will determine who gets the next doses.

11 Generic Products You Should Buy at Costco
11 Generic Products You Should Buy at Costco

Not all generics are worthwhile, but these are among the best from Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia
This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia

Nearly half of U.S. residents may face this threat.

Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds
Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds

Resolve to be clutter-free in 2021 with these secondhand purchases.

This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers
This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers

For the second straight year, a growing number of Americans believe they’ve fallen prey to this scam.

11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It
11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It

Seriously? Fibbing about the weather is a crime? This and other little-known legal traps await the unwary.

These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy
These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy

These vehicles boast reliability, safety and long-lasting value.

6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have
6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have

Few retirees have all of these documents that are crucial to their golden years — especially during a pandemic.

13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free
13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free

There are many ways to get cheap or free services and goods after reaching a certain age.

Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore
Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore

Starting this month, your ISP no longer can bill you for this fee.

Can a Divorced Widow Claim Her First Husband’s Social Security Benefits?
Can a Divorced Widow Claim Her First Husband’s Social Security Benefits?

The rules are complicated when it comes to eligibility for survivors benefits.

9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry
9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry

Keep more of future paychecks by eliminating these budget-busting unnecessary expenses.

15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021
15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021

Follow these tips to save, so you’ll have money for things that really matter.

11 Huge Retirement Costs That Are Often Overlooked
11 Huge Retirement Costs That Are Often Overlooked

Does your retirement budget account for all of these costs?

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.