Crowd Pleasing Meals That Won’t Break the Bank

For the past two years, we’ve been having a (Sorta) monthly open-house style lunch for our church volunteers and their families. We don’t require RSVPs, my husband simply says, “Maria is making this and this, bring something if you want but you don’t have to. If we run out we’ll make ramen or box Mac n cheese”. For the record, we’ve never run out.

We’ve had anywhere from 17-39 people over. (I actually write down who was there for what meal, because I’m a data junkie.) Homemade Tamales in December are our big draw.

My goal for these meals: it needs to be delicious, affordable, and able to be 90% fixed ahead (we usually do lunch, so I need food to be kept warm while I help at church then everyone arrives at 12:30, so I have about 15 minutes of fast prep to do something fresh.) And I also like things that will appeal to picky kids and adults too. Usually something with options or deconstruction-ability.

Dessert is almost always homemade ice cream or cheesecake. Both can be made days ahead and served nice and cold. Most people don’t make their own ice cream, so if you want an easy wow dessert, go for cheesecake. My recipe is so easy and adaptable.

Main dishes- to keep it cheap and able to be kept warm I think about soups or sauces to stretch a small amounting meat (and I’ll make spaghetti or angel hair pasta in that 15 minute window fresh before guests arrive), or our favorite taco beef or a Mexican spiced pulled pork because of toppings people require far less meat than if you were grilling a hamburger for each guest.

Last years’ menu…

French onion soup and Salad and chocolate croissants (Feb 18)

Aranchini with marinara or arrabiata sauce and salad and chocolate cheesecake (March 18) (This was delicious, but I was frying these inside while guests arrived. It’s cheap, but labor intensive. I also made spaghetti noodles.)

Ancho Orange Pork or Ground Meat Tacos with all the fixin’s and Raspberry sherbet (May 20)

Spaghetti and Meatballs and grilled chicken and Alfredo or arrabiata sauce and salad and chocolate cheesecake (Sept 23)

Skyline Chili and caramel apple cheesecake and pumpkin cheesecake (Oct 28)

Homemade Chicken noodle and tortilla soup and cranberry apple crisp and cinnamon ice cream (Nov 11)

Tamales and hot chocolate and homemade marshmallows and gingerbread cookies (Dec 17) (Tamales stretch meat like nobody’s business, but they take a looong time to cook.)

Tonight, I’m serving Beef and Mushroom stroganoff, homemade Mac n cheese, salad with homemade ranch , and Salted Caramel Butter Pecan ice cream.

Actually I think people will come over if invited no matter what you fix. But if money has been the factor for choosing to not host a small crowd, I hope a few of these ideas will help.

How about you? What meal is your go to when cooking for a crowd?


Devotions Starter Kit

My friend Mari Jo and I taught a middle school breakout at church camp on doing devotions and quiet time. In a nutshell: have a time, have your materials, read your Bible, and journal.

During one of our classes, we suggested to these students to ask their parents for a back-to-school or birthday shopping spree to purchase their materials for doing devotions. The next week, a student asked me to baptize her. She’s about to be a 6th grader, so I decided to gift her this devotion starter kit. I love shopping for journals and pens so it was just as much fun giving this gift as I hope it was receiving it.

First, the Bible. The best version of the Bible is the one you’ll read. At our church we encourage elementary students to read out of the NIrV (New International Readers Version), our youth group’s version of choice is ESV (English Standard Version), but I also have begun to encourage middle school students to read the Biblical paraphrase version The Message too. That’s what I purchased for this student. I found a pink one on Amazon, and it was super affordable. Pay a little more and get a super nice leather bound one, but this worked for my purpose.

Then at Target, I found this sweet journal.

And these pens…

They’re erasable?!? Of course I bought a pack for myself too.

That’s all you really need, but Mari Jo suggested to have a drink with you for your devotions. She drinks tea. I figured my 6th grader would like pink lemonade. I bought a country time mix, they have directions to make a cup at a time, and I also got her a cute melamine cup. All hers.

I wrote my student a card explaining the kit and then suggested a place to start. Now, she and I, and my other small group leaders all committed to reading a chapter of Proverbs every day in July. 31 chapters, 31 days. If you have a young adult or an friend who is new to quiet time, this starter kit would be a great gift. Other suggestions to include:

  • Noise canceling ear buds or head phones if a kid lives in a packed house.
  • A camp chair or blanket or cheap tent if the student would do best reading out doors.
  • A beanbag chair or camp chair for inside, or a new fun pillow.
  • Get into reading plans you find on the YouVersion Bible app. So many students are tech savvy. Pick one you can do together.
  • A devotional- books that supplement or lead your devotion time. Buy one you’ll do together. Our elementary students are doing this one.

Christmas in July

We’re heading out for vacation soon. We drive, so my husband wisely buys little dollar store gifts for “on the way,” but we also give gifts just in preparation for the trip.

Because of the timing (leaving in July), and because my daughter missed our church celebrating “Christmas in July” last year because we were on vacation, and probably also because my car wash’s free air freshener was pine scented (aroma inspiration) we decided to surprise the kids and throw our own. My stickler 2nd grader want everyone to know that it was Christmas in June since we did it on the 30th. (Any tips on breaking a semantically-inclined arguer????!!)

We decorated with three outdoor lights we usually put on our play set out back (they’re wonderfully tacky and yes, we saved them from large trash pick up day, so I banish them to the backyard usually).

My husband read the Christmas story with the kids out of the Bible App Kids Bible (any Bible will do or even the actual Bible App for kids).

We streamed a couple of kids worship songs.

Oh What a Special Night

And we watched this… Best Christmas Carol written by kids

Then we opened presents…

Then last night we had family over after church, ate falafel and I made the world’s most epic banana splits (future blog post soon) and the kids opened some gifts from Grandma too (great time to give their patriotic shirts for Independence Day)!

Merry Christmas in July!!!

Less Mess Deviled Eggs

After making easy peeling hard boiled eggs, deviled eggs are a snap. All the times I’ve made deviled eggs, the peeling takes the longest time. I like my deviled eggs savory and sour. You should make your favorite filling but mine is:

Mashed hard yolks from halves of a dozen hard boiled eggs (don’t count in the picture, it’s fewer here), 1/2 c mayonnaise, 3 Tablespoons Dijon mustard, and 2 Tablespoons of relish or finely chopped pickles (whichever you have).

Once your filling mixture is smooth, put into a frosting bag with a tip or a ziplock bag and snip the corner. (It’s kinda amazing that I have a frosting bag. I use it primarily for making deviled eggs. I don’t have a deviled egg plate so I use a pie pan.)

Then pipe in your filling one egg half at a time. If you have frosting skills yours will look better than mine. I just hold the tip near the bottom of the egg half then squeeze until the egg is filled and lift out.

I sprinkle with paprika, but chives or dill would be good too.

Happy Cookout Gatherings!

Cheesecake (The Best 5 Ingredient Dessert)

I am still using the same recipe I first learned in FACS class in high school. Thanks Mrs. Carr! I’ve refined my method and made some fun variations over the years (16!). Homemade cheesecake has great wow factor no matter how simple it is. If you make a cheesecake like one of these and bring it to any event, you will be asked, “Did you make this?” And, “It’s the kind of cheesecake you bake?!”

Yep. And soooo much tastier than any no-bake cheesecake.

The five ingredients…

1. Graham pie crust… I most often buy my crust. This one will be a chocolate and vanilla swirl cheesecake and I had a coupon for Keebler, so I opted for the chocolate graham crust.

2. Eggs

3. Sugar

4. Cream cheese

5. Vanilla

That’s it.


Chocolate cheesecake… Add 1/4 c cocoa powder AND 3 oz melted chocolate (semi sweet chips or Dark or bakers depending on your own taste and what you have)

Key lime… Add 1/3 c lime juice and grated lime zest if you have some (preferably Nellie and Joe’s key lime juice, and preferably eat it with the ocean in sight… ahhh)

Peanut butter… Add 1/2 c creamy peanut butter or to taste.

Back to it…


Cream 2 8 oz packages of cream cheese (softened… like on the counter for hours softened) and 1/2 cup of sugar until well blended, scraping the bowl if necessary (it’s always necessary).

Add 2 eggs one at a time and blend until smooth, scraping the bowl if necessary (always scrape the bowl!)

Add 1 tsp of vanilla and blend.

Voila… vanilla cheesecake/base for all my cheesecakes

Add any variation ingredients or keep it vanilla, pour into graham crust. Place on a half sheet pan and put into preheated 350 degree oven.

Pour warm water in sheet pan for a water bath. (Helps the cheesecake bake evenly)

Bake for 45 minutes then check every 5 minutes. Try not to open the oven during the baking time. You want the top completely set but without brown spots or cracking. (Though when this happens it still tastes very good.) It may jiggle a little.

When done, cool cheesecake completely on a wire rack, then cover and refrigerate overnight.

Cut in 8 slices and serve.

The one I made today was a vanilla and chocolate swirl. I eyeballed 1/2 vanilla cheesecake and put it in the crust.

Then I added 2 Tablespoons cocoa and 2 oz melted dark chocolate to the mixer.

Then I spooned the chocolate in dollops on the vanilla and swirled with an offset spatula.

Submerge your knife blade in hot water between slices to help make clean cuts.

My swirl method needs work, but I’m not turning down this slice and I bet you wouldn’t either.

De-clutter with a Piñata

For the kids’ birthdays we’ve begun having piñatas. If you need a party game and you don’t want to make a bunch of goody bags for favors, this is a great two-birds one-stone.

It’s supposed to be a doughnut and my son’s favorite color is green. This was my first homemade piñata. I’ve always bought them before. I made it following the instructions on this page.

The best part…

I’ve got a use for leftover Halloween candy in December (daughter’s) and Easter candy in April (son’s). Plus, I keep a gallon size bag with the little plastic treat bag junk they get all year in the game closet…

Then, using my favorite jar funnel, I stuff it in the trap door…

Then my husband wraps the broomstick used as a lock on our sliding glass door, puts an eye hook in the beam, strings the piñata and we all back up.