Easy, Frugal Ways to Have People Over (Even If You Don't Cook and Clean)


A friend once made the observation that people have the time (and inclination) to cook OR clean. Like me, she opted to cook, meaning, then, that she typically had a messy house.

I had never really considered that there were two such types of people. But after doing a mental scan of the homes of friends and acquaintances, I realized she was spot-on. Those with immaculate homes infrequently prepared home-cooked meals whereas those who cook most of the time seem to have, well, lived-in homes.

Whatever your personal capabilities, lacking one or the other skill shouldn’t prevent you from having people over. There are easy, cheap ways to entertain, even if you are not amazing at both cooking and cleaning. (See also: Quick Pantry Snacks for Unexpected Guests)

Let's start with entertaining amidst your mess.

Entertain Cheaply Without Cleaning the House

Friends, acquaintances, and neighbors will appreciate your hosting a get-together, even if the venue is not a formal living or dining area in your home.

Throw a Party in Your Backyard

Your backyard, patio, or deck is a great place for a casual function. Friends with small children will especially appreciate freedom from worrying about their kids making a mess.

Grill burgers and serve with a side item and dessert for a dinner party. Host an ice cream social if you want to have a kid-friendly affair. For either, stash drinks in a cooler and let guests help themselves.

Pull out patio chairs or throw a blanket on the ground for seating. Ask guests to bring a lawn or camp chair if you are expecting a crowd.

Leave most of the house untouched but clean the few areas that your guests might visit inside.

Use the Clubhouse

Many people I know have a clubhouse or common area in their neighborhood that can be reserved at no charge. Such an arrangement is ideal for a gathering.

Food preparation is a bit more complicated than dinner or drinks in your home. But since you’ve saved loads of time by not having to clean the house, you have more energy to plan and prep food and beverages.

For a casual get-together, have your favorite pizzas delivered. For a slightly more formal affair, fix a hot meal using a crock pot and serve with previously prepared cold items, such as a tossed salad with homemade dressing and potato salad.

Plan a Picnic at the Park

You can host a lunch, early dinner, or birthday party at a park inexpensively. Note that facilities vary in their arrangements: some sites are free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis whereas some venues require reservations and charge a nominal fee ($10) or a hefty one ($200 or more).

Free options involve spreading a blanket on an open space or snagging an empty picnic table. There, treat a couple of friends to a casual picnic with fried chicken or sandwiches.

For larger events, reserving a space is helpful. Coordinate a potluck dinner with friends if you want to share a meal. Oversee games or free play and serve ice cream and cake for a kid's birthday party.

Remember to bring your own supplies, like plates, spoons, and napkins.

Invite Your Closest Friends

Your best friends will enjoy your hospitality no matter the state of your house. They’ll understand that you’d rather spend spare moments in conversation, not polishing furniture or dusting around books.

A bit of tidying won’t hurt though. Just clear the main area and take care of tasks like clearing dirty dishes, taking out the trash, or changing the bathroom towels before, rather than after, the visit.

Entertain as simply or elaborately as you want, hanging out over a casual brunch or hosting a fancy dinner.

Entertain Cheaply Without Excessive Cooking

Keeping your space clean and free of clutter can take a lot of effort. As a result, you may not have honed your cooking skills or developed a list of go-to dishes for special events. But you can still have people over with these techniques.

Use Simple Recipes

Spend most of your party prep time planning the guest list and decorating the area to ignite great conversation.

Don't attempt to fix a lavish meal. Prepare a simple-to-make but elegant dish like creamy baked chicken; or try one of these easy recipes for beginners, such as spaghetti with salad and bread.

Serve "Home-Cooked" Meals Prepared by Others

Private catering can be expensive, but you can often buy healthy and affordable items from local businesses.

In my area, there are a few shops with commercial kitchens that make small batches of reasonably priced entrees, side dishes, and desserts. Items can be purchased fresh with prior arrangements or frozen nearly anytime.

Alternatively, buy dishes from the freshly prepared, deli, or bakery sections of a traditional or specialty grocery store. Some frozen foods work well also, such as marinated fish.

If you decide to try one of these techniques, be sure to sample the food before your event. Pay close attention to cooking times and consider adding minutes because multiple items in the oven take longer to heat thoroughly than smaller or single-sized portions.

Practice New Recipes

Just because you don’t have a repertoire of wonderfully exotic meals doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to make a new dish for a special event.

Look for recipes that you can easily master, which typically are those with cooking techniques you understand and ingredients found at most stores. Test them in your own kitchen to be sure that you’ll enjoy the dish. Consider trying one or two new foods and ask your friends to bring additional items if needed.

Throw a Cooking Party

Cooking parties can be riveting and well-orchestrated get-togethers based on what I've read. Find formal guidelines in this article on how to throw a cooking party.

For a simpler event, pick a casual dinner or dessert theme. Ask friends to bring a topping for the pizza, baked potatoes, or salad that you provide. Let your guests surprise you with add-ons or mix-ins for ice cream or plain cheesecake, if you decide to throw a dessert party.

Buy the basic ingredients and be prepared with supplies needed to cook, serve, and dine.

Confession: I am much better at preparing meals than keeping a spotless house. Getting food and drinks together has always been easier for me than readying my house for even the friendliest of gatherings. And although I am far from a perfectionist, I sometimes find the process of having more than a couple of people over a challenge — and I thought you might feel the same way. So, to make things super easy (no matter your strengths and inclinations), mix and match the suggestions (buy home-cooked meals and eat outside, for example), relax, and enjoy.

Do you have frugal, time-saving techniques for entertaining guests?

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Guest's picture

These are awesome tips. Potluck parties work great. you just have to remind them to bring some food for sharing. You can provide the beer and you're all set.

Julie Rains's picture

Good point about reminding others to bring (enough) food to share. I have teenage sons so my idea of what's enough tends to exceed what others may think. And, most of the people I hang out with get that but the idea can be novel to some. It can helpful to supply the basics and let folks bring the extras that spice things up, or just make extra so that there is enough food to go around.

Meg Favreau's picture

When I lived in Philadelphia, there was a community-run park that let you rent picnic tables and a grill for $25, and it was legal to drink there. It was the perfect place for barbecues and beer with a big group.

Julie Rains's picture

Many of the parks in my area have grills also -- those are great if you don't mind arriving early enough to get things going and heated up before you start cooking. Plus, the grill master is often the most revered person at the party. And, as you mention, the grills are often next to picnic tables or a shelter so hosting a get-together for a large crowd is pretty easy!

Guest's picture

My rule of thumb is that I will clean really thoroughly and cook well the first time I'm hosting specific people, and after that when we hang out I try to clean the bathroom/kitchen some but don't worry about the rest of the house as much and cook something simple but yummy. I think that having a spotless home/gourmet food can put a high expectation and pressure on other women, and while I tend to be a perfectionist I'm trying to let go a little more. I heard a great idea from my aunt that "entertaining" (spotless house, amazing food) is very different from "hospitality" (people-focused, and you welcome people into your real life). This helps me understand my priorities in different settings, and while there is a time for each type of hostessing I'm not worried about killing myself to always entertain when what I usually want is fun time with friends!

Julie Rains's picture

I love the distinction between entertaining and hospitality, plus the practical advice to clean thoroughly the first time and relax more on a second visit. Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture

Great ideas! How about having just a dessert party - root beer floats or ice cream sundaes? Super easy, everyone loves it, and it doesn't cost a lot.

Julie Rains's picture

A dessert party is great -- and an ice cream social is perfect. As I mentioned in the back yard party, an easy way is to provide the ice cream and then ask folks to bring their favorite toppings; this can be a great way to have folks over, including kids, in a cheap and casual way. Thanks for reading!

Guest's picture

We had a bbq for my cub scout troupe's families and there were about 45 at our home. I saved money by going to Sam's and buying a box of burgers, a box of hot dogs a ton of buns, chips and sodas. I asked all the families to bring a dessert and that was that! Worked out great. Everyone was more interested in playing the games outside that I had set up in the back yard.

Julie Rains's picture

Outside is definitely the way to go with cub scouts (or any large gathering that involves children). Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture

Making everything pot-luck is my favorite way to have a party and save money! It is fun to see what everyone brings and you can swap some great recipes if there's a dish you really like.

Julie Rains's picture

You never know what people are going to bring -- some folks have a stand-by favorite and others like to experiment. But surprises are part of the fun of a potluck. Great idea to exchange recipes. Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture
NZ Muse

Interesting thought! We're definitely cooks, not cleaners.

Julie Rains's picture

Glad to meet a fellow cook. Thanks for reading!