Saturday Throwback: Picky, Picky - Frugal, Healthy Menu Ideas for a Fussy Crowd

Every Saturday, we post a sweet little piece from the CHG archives. This week, we journey back to September 2007...  

Recently, my old roommate R and I had a few friends over for dinner and Game Night. (Apples to Apples! It’s the funnest.) Problem was, we didn’t know what to serve. Here’s why. (This is not a joke.)
  • H is a vegetarian, and was pregnant at the time.

  • F is mostly vegetarian, with some exceptions. He hates ginger, cake, and honey.

  • D loathes vegetables, and eats pasta almost exclusively.

  • S won’t touch an endangered animal. (This actually rules out a lot of fish.)

  • R is allergic to dairy and was on Weight Watchers.

  • K (that’s me!) was also on Weight Watchers, and in descending order of disgustingness, will not eat/drink: mayonnaise, anise, figs, scallops, cauliflower, radishes, ginger ale, sloppy joes, or any casserole with crunchy onions on top.

  • J and M are easygoing, normal people who will generally consume anything, up to and including dolphins.
Planning a thrifty, nutritional meal for this crowd was harder than listening to a Yoko Ono album, but we managed using a few hard-learned, easily-executed strategies. From classy dinner parties to impromptu barbecues, here’s how you can too:


Start with starches. Inexpensive, versatile, and low in fat, pasta, rice, potatoes, and noodles can be the starting point and main component to hundreds and hundreds of dishes. Relatively flavorless, they’re not too scary, either. Make a big, plain pile and give your guests three different sauces/broths to choose from. And on that note …

Sauce it up. Whether it’s penne, pork, or potatoes, sauces make everything infinitely more delicious. Cook a single base food, like chicken, and present your friends with multiple sauce options. Maybe a tomato concoction? Or a low-fat pesto? How about something a little more lemony? Pair it with a starch and a simple veggie, and voila! Victory.

Needless to say, have a buffet. Make five big plates of food, including at least two main dishes. They can be as simple (mashed potatoes, honey-roasted carrots) or as complicated (Basic Beef Stew with Carrots and Mushrooms) as you like, and friends can pick and choose their favorites. Planned carefully, it’s a please-everybody healthfest for a nominal price.

Sweat the small stuff. Main course add-ons like bread, olives, cut-up vegetables, and small blocks of cheese can round out a plate and fill guests up without putting a massive dent in your wallet. Since they’re relatively free of seasonings and fancy preparations, finicky diners will be less afraid, too. In fact, if you’re big into finger foods, maybe …

Try a tapas-type meal. Instead of a few large dishes, give a bunch of smaller ones a shot. This way, you can satisfy your cooking jones, appeal to the Choosy Ones, keep several dishes in the Healthy Zone (not unlike the Twilight Zone), and blow as little or as much as you like. Some suggestions: bruschetta (the real stuff), melon wrapped in prosciutto, fruit skewers, finger-sized sandwiches, chicken mini-bites, or slices of turkey or chicken sausages.

Get fruity. Even the pickiest of eaters might go for a banana. Serving melon salad, homemade applesauce, or fruit salsa is a low-risk, high-reward venture, like sleeping or swimming in jello. Buying in season keeps it under budget, and it works wonders for dessert, too.

Set out some soup. One of the easiest, classiest, thriftiest ways of sating a battalion of visitors is ladling soup into their gaping maws. For choosy eaters, keep it simple or provide a selection of two. Butternut squash soup and egg drop soup are just a pair of delectable, low-priced ideas.

Load up on condiments. Ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, brown sauce, fat-free mayo, relish, soy sauce, wasabi, teriyaki sauce, fat-free dressings, chutneys, honey, honey mustard, peanut butter, hummus, duck sauce, and dipping sauces give guests an inexpensive range of options without forcing them into a decision. Really, it’s like supporting democracy.

Make breakfast. Maybe it’s not the classiest meal option, but a morning-themed dinner could excite less demanding taste buds. Eggs, omelets, healthy muffins, light casseroles, toast, hash browns, turkey bacon, and fruit salad are healthy building blocks of a growing boy/girl/hermaphrodite’s diet. (Nix on the cereal, though. There are limits.)

Tell them it’s BYO (Build Your Own). Whether it’s Sandwich Night, Pizza Night, Salad Night – really, any Night – people like food better when they have a say about what goes in it. Have a Burrito Night and pretend you’re Chipotle. Put out bowls of chopped tomatoes, diced green peppers, shredded lettuce, refried beans, low-fat shredded cheese, crumbly meats, salsa, rice, mole sauce, and let partakers construct their own repast. Everyone will think you’re a genius.

Cook crappy foods differently. “Many picky eaters choose high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and little else,” say experts. If your guests are fans of cheap, fatty foods like pizza, french fries, and hamburgers (see my friend D), try making healthier versions. Baked fries, lean burgers, and coal-oven style pizza are delicious, easy, and frugal.

Win points with creativity. Whether it’s planning a theme (Oscar Night), giving your foods silly names (Dame Judi Dench’s Supporting Rolls), or making a special drink (Roberto Benigni-tini), simple imagination can jazz up a frugal meal and goad finicky company into trying new things. Sound ridiculous? Maybe it is, but what works for kids often works for adults. Check out In Style Parties or Amy Sedaris’ I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence for ideas.


Try a potluck. Friends and family will bring their favorite foods, and it doesn’t cost you a dime. Make sure to coordinate the menu items though, or you’ll end up with five plates of brownies and no main dish. For a healthy twist, have a make-your-own salad station to go with everything.

Have guests bring the wine. For me anyway, alcohol is fundamental. When Trader Joe’s is closed and you haven’t thought far enough in advance to use, there’s no shame in asking attendees to provide the booze. If there’s a concern about health issues, make a non-alcoholic alternative or read this article: Researchers Say Pigments Make Red Wine Helpful to Hearts.

Do a Progressive. Really, this is more of a group effort and significantly easier for folks who live within walking distance, but if each participant hosts a course (appetizer, soup, main course, dessert, etc.) everyone saves cash and eats something they like. Plus, it’s a neat experience and your dish can be as healthy as you want it.

Remember: ordering out is not a sin. In some cases, it defeats the whole purpose of frugality and cooking. In others, it’s a valuable crutch for when you don’t have the time, inclination, or extra ingredients lying around. Go ahead and grab a quart of wonton soup. Don’t fear (the reaper) the pound of edamame. Embrace the take-out naan. As long as it’s within reason, it’s not cheating.


When in doubt, don’t mention it’s healthy. While the Weight Watchers fans will love you for it, choosier folks automatically equate nutritious food with having a mouth enema. If you can pass off tofu cheesecake, tomato guacamole, or tomato sauce rife with pureed bell peppers, for the love of god, keep quiet.

Look for sales. Devising a group meal around sales in Supermarket Circulars can save you a bundle of cash, and the produce section is particularly helpful for economically-priced seasonal dishes.

Start planning early. Last-minute smorgasbords for selective people are incredibly difficult to pull off without spending a bundle. It tends to be when health concerns go out the window, as well. The sooner you map out a menu, the better. If your company has religious or allergy-related food restrictions, this is a helpful guide from the Butler’s Guild (!).

But don’t go nuts. Picky and special-needs eaters are used to having low-to-zero dining options, so any effort made in their direction will most likely be welcomed. When push comes to shove, your pregnant vegan friend can make do with a fruit salad, and the onion-hating cousin is just fine with roasted sweet potatoes. Making 46,000 different dishes to satisfy an equal number of tastes is expensive overkill. However, remember …

Be frugal without being a cheap bastard. Frugal is passing on the caviar while looking for a deal on the pork. Cheap is buying coal grey meat packaged during the Carter Administration. While saving money is admirable, cutting too many financial corners will have a negative affect on both your food and your friends’ regard for you.