I had an event coming up and I wanted to leave a lasting impression on my guests, but I knew it would be a challenge to feed a crowd for just $20. Every college event I'd been to had the same options: cheese or pepperoni pizza. Pizza is great and all but my event needed more sparkle. My basic criteria for this dinner was bomb-a** food, cheap, and there could be no dishes afterwards. To plan a huge dinner for $20 or less, here are my best tips. 

Step 1: Decide on a Menu

Jessy Gilbert

What does your crowd want to eat? Where will the event be hosted? The weather here in Houston was finally dropping below 90 degrees so I wanted to do something outside. This crowd was a mixed group of friends and somewhat distant associates, so I also felt that an outside location would give everyone enough breathing room to feel comfortable. 

I heard you could get a dozen tortillas and a bunch of beans from Taco Cabana for like five bucks. I was also pretty sure I could stay within my budget by getting the rest of what I needed to feed a crowd for under 20 dollars at the local grocery store, so I settled on the idea of a taco picnic. Everyone I invited was like, "Yay, tacos!"

Step 2: Dissect the Menu

Cindy Danger Jones

Organization is crucial to planning an event and staying under budget. I made a list of event items and a list of menu items. Event items included: picnic blanket, mini-speakers, cooler, ice packs, and something to carry everything (a wagon would have been awesome). Menu items included: tacos, chips, and salsa. I kept the menu simple because it is better to do a few items really well, plus this was a casual event.

Then you should further dissect the menu by cost and difficulty. Think about how many dishes you will have to clean later. I decided to buy the hot food right before the event, and have cold items prepped and ready to go ahead of time. This meant less rushing on the day of the event, and no dishes to wash.

Step 3: Prep Ahead of Time

Jessy Gilbert

A friend let me hitch a ride to HEB earlier in the week, so I made a list (yes, another list) of the things that would cost more at Taco Cabana or that I could keep in the fridge for a few days. Grocery list included: cheese, sour cream, avocado, salsa, and chips. I could have bought sodas, or made jamaica to be more festive, but that would cut into my beer budget for the week. Priorities, ya know? Grocery store total: $9.71

Restaurants are always so stingy with the cheese, sour cream, and avocado. I can't remember ever opening a burrito and being like, "oh man, there's way too much avocado in here." This is where my strategy made my event awesome, yet affordable. An easy way to serve the avocado is just halve it and stick a knife on top. Guests will take the hint to carve out a slice as needed, and it stays fresh longer in its shell– easy peasy.

Texans are blessed with a myriad of bottled salsas at the grocery store. This is an area where you can make your spread a little more unique. You don't have to buy plain red salsa. I went with a creamy green avocado version to keep things interesting. Salsa is also one of the cheapest parts of this menu, so you could go with three or four types and have a whole salsa station if you have the space.

Mix a can of fire-roasted corn with a jar of chipotle salsa if you're feeling fancy. Blend sour cream into green salsa for a decadent dip. Now your side dish is also a conversation starter. The night before my event, I put the cheese, sour cream, and salsa into wide, shallow storage containers to allow for easier dipping/serving, plus they looked nicer than if I just opened the tub they came in. 

Also, keep your dishes low maintenance. I could have included queso, but it would have needed to be kept warm and required more dishes.

Step 4: Put Your Plan into Action

Jessy Gilbert

At this point, I had done so much prepping and planning that I was feeling pretty relaxed and only had to get the hot food and set everything up. Unfortunately, the Taco Cabana by campus doesn't serve margs until 5 pm. WTF, this totally ruined my plan of pre-party happy hour like they have at all the other locations, so plan accordingly.

The day of the event I put the cold items into a small cooler with two ice-packs, because food poisoning is a real buzz-kill. It only took me 15 minutes to run from campus to Taco Cabana and make it back to the picnic site. Luckily, I had a friend willing to help set up and watch the stuff, or it would have been way too much to carry.

The Taco Cabana list included: 12 tortillas, a pint of rice, and a pint of beans. Plus the free salsa bar: red/green/ranch salsa, cilantro, pico, and jalapeños. Additional free items from Taco Cabana: cutlery, napkins, and plates (I asked very nicely for the plates). This is not the time to be shy, load up on the free stuff, that's why they put it out there. I asked for another bag so I could keep cold items separate from hot items. Don't forget the cilantro, it's basically Tex-Mex glitter that adds wow factor to your dishes. Taco Cabana total: $8.42. 

Step 5: PICNIC SUCCESS!

Jessy Gilbert

This turned out to be a ton of food. People who weren't even part of the event were coming over because they wanted in on what was going down. Tacos are serious friend-bait, and we had plenty to share. Feeding people always gives me the warm fuzzies. Staying under budget and having leftovers were added bonuses.

I would totally do this again at future events, and I hope that you take away some inspiration to think outside the pizza box for your next event. These strategies can be applied to more than just tacos. Know a place that does a killer Caesar salad? Ask if you can buy a pint of dressing, then build the rest of the salad from the grocery store. Usually, eliminating meat can cut your budget in half. Overall, the event was a success. I came out under budget, with lots of leftovers, and we all had that I'm-so-full-of-tacos glow.