Stretching Meals for Unexpected Guests

I think I’ve lucked out — plenty of my friends live in my immediate vicinity. One even lives in the next apartment building over. This does mean, however, that people are in the habit of dropping in all the time, since they always ‘happen to be in the area.’

I don’t mind the visits. I enjoy having my friends over. But, as a good hostess, I always seem to wind up inviting them to stay for lunch or dinner, or offering them a snack. This can be a bit of a problem — I generally plan my meals in advance and only have an appropriate amount of meat or another item defrosted.

In general, I try to avoid throwing out my entire plan for dinner. Even if I have to change it fairly dramatically, my goal is always to stick to the same general ingredients. In part, it’s to avoid changing my meal plan, but it’s also due to general stubbornness on my part. I dislike the idea of going out to dinner just to save work for the cook. After all, I enjoy cooking or I wouldn’t have offered.

I’ve had to get creative on how to stretch dinner for two into dinner for four. The obvious solution is usually to divide the main dish into small portions and add another side dish. In most cases, this can work pretty well. I do rely on some other methods for stretching out food, though, especially if I want to serve more of a main dish. How you extend a main dish can really depend on the meal itself. If, for instance, your entrée relies on a heavy sauce, you may be able to get away with just adding to the sauce and tossing in a few more vegetables. I’ve done it with curries quite often.

Slicing can be the key to stretching many ‘one-piece’ dinners. If, for instance, I was serving grilled chicken with rice and veggies, I could slice up the chicken in the kitchen and pile it on top of the rice. Voila! It’s the same meal but the rice is now part of the entrée, making it easy to serve larger portions.

I often use appetizers to stretch my dinner menu. You can treat appetizers as simply the action of a good host — they can entertain guests while you focus on getting dinner on the table — but they’re useful in making sure that a small main course is sufficient. I do try to keep it simple, though. I’ll set out a basket of bread or some fresh veggies and often leave it at that.

It’s important to remember that any meal can be stretched, as long as you’re able to add a little more food into the equation.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

I think many will find this helpful. It can be hard to get creative with these ideas on the fly when you are at the end of a long day.

Now that we are in the middle of nowhere, this doesn't happen to us as often. But when we lived in civilization, it did.  I don't think I'd ever broken it down into strategies like you did, though. Thanks!

Guest's picture

Adding extra vegetables or making an appetizer is a great idea. I've also done things like making pan-gravy from drippings, and then pouring over extra rice or a side of pasta. If there are no drippings (say that the meat entree is grilled), some butter, olive oil, garlic powder and dried parsley flakes will make the rice or pasta look fancy as well. If there's parmesan cheese available, add that too!

Guest's picture

We do an evening dinner of waffles or pancakes as a quick fix for the unexpected guest. A batch of scrambled eggs and some coffee and is so easy and cheap.

I premix my dry ingredients so that they are ready to go for these unexpected times. The kids love it and what adult doesn't love a good breakfast for dinner once in awhile?

Great post!

Guest's picture

Having a bowl of soup first really helps stretch the meal. Just keep some kind of acceptable dry soup mix around and add whatever veggies you have around. Or make Avgolemono with eggs, lemon juice and chicken broth. Easy and filling.

Guest's picture

i REALLY REALLY hate it when people drop by unannounced. i think its one of the rudest things you can do. you might as well show up on the doorstop and say "hi, i wanted to see you today and i just assumed you had nothing more important than me going on."

at least call and give a heads up. who says that the day you stop by is not a day that i am up to my neck with things to do and quickly running out of time? when people show up unexpectedly to my place, i usually make small talk and then say i have to run an errand. of course, 99% of my friends call first anyways.

Guest's picture

I've always been a hater of sandwiches and a lover of leftovers, so I don't think I've ever been in the habit of planning/making enough for only 1 or 2 people. That seems like such an inefficient way to cook, and somewhat awkward, since most recipes are geared toward 4-6 servings. Our unexpected guests these days are in the form of kids' friends (so cute! so much more polite than our own! how could you turn them away?), and it just means that DH and I have to scrounge something other than leftovers for lunch the next day.

Guest's picture

When I was growing up, we had a family friend who dropped in on one friend or relative or another nearly every day. But he had the good habit of - whether or not he called his intended host - ordering a pizza or other food delivered to their house, timed to arrive at the same time as himself. If the host was actually busy, he'd eat in his car and drive off.

Guest's picture

My favorite meal-extending trick is the humble onion. These are cheap, filling, and I've almost always got a bunch of them lying around. Depending on the meal, you can dice them and stir them in lightly cooked, caramelize them and serve separately, stir-fry them in- there really are very few recipes that wouldn't work just great with an extra onion added in, and they're hardly even noticeable. And it adds at least another cup of bulk to the food, depending on the size of the onion.
Carrots and frozen corn are 2 other vegetables that are easily added and do a lot to fill out a dish.

Thursday Bram's picture

I think I'm going to have to print out this comment thread and put it in my cookbook. These are some seriously fantastic options for stretching meals.

And, AlexG, your family friend story has stuck with me all day. I'm sure he was a great guest, but I'm just amazed at his actions!