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
33 Home Upgrades That Cost Less Than $100
33 Home Upgrades That Cost Less Than $100

A little money goes a long way with these imaginative projects. You can do most of them yourself.

If My Spouse Dies, Can I Get Her Social Security?
If My Spouse Dies, Can I Get Her Social Security?

If a spouse dies, will the survivor collect the other’s share in addition to his or her own?

8 Key Steps to Planning for Retirement as a Couple
8 Key Steps to Planning for Retirement as a Couple

Ready for retirement? Not so fast. You might be surprised at some of the issues that come up for couples when they plan.

10 Times You’re Right to Be a Cheapskate
10 Times You’re Right to Be a Cheapskate

Sometimes, clever shoppers can save money without sacrificing quality. Here are some great examples of how to do it.

5 Simple Steps to an Awesome Retirement
5 Simple Steps to an Awesome Retirement

The path to your dream retirement begins with these five steps. How many have you already taken?

View this page without ads

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

Get Started

Most Popular
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco

This leader in bulk shopping is a great place to find discounts in the fixed-income years.

Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines
Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines

Fall is the time to schedule vaccines that can keep you healthy — and even save your life.

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.

11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older
11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older

There is no need to wait until you’re 65 to take advantage of so-called “senior” discounts.

8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies
8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies

In this age of higher-priced drugs and complex health care systems, a trip to the pharmacy can spark worry. Freebies sure do help.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America
The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America

A new model parks atop the list of vehicles that thieves love to pilfer.

11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous
11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous

When you get the impulse to stockpile these everyday items, pay close attention to their expiration dates.

7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast
7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast

Your financial security might soon depend upon the strength of your credit score.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

These jobs pay more than the typical job in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62
10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62

If you can, here are several good reasons to retire earlier than we’re told to.

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.

14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare
14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare

These services could save you money and help prevent costly health problems.

5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles
5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles

Pushing your car to 200,000 miles — and beyond — can save you piles of cash. Here’s how to get there.

26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income
26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income

These states won’t tax any of your Social Security income — and in some cases, other types of retirement income.

5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees
5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees

Retirees agree: These are the things that give them purpose and fulfillment in their golden years.

10 Things You Should Never Do With Bleach
10 Things You Should Never Do With Bleach

Does the pandemic have you reaching for bleach more than ever before? Learn the ins and outs of using this powerful disinfectant.

15 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now
15 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

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.