Quinoa Black Bean Chili

Photo: Alison Gootee/Studio D

Idea #1: Plan a Meal You Can Easily Stretch
Personal chicken pot pies seem elegant, as do fish fillets cooked in their own individual packets. But these main courses are actually pretty pricey, since you use more of each ingredient (e.g., pie crust, olive oil) when you make many small dishes instead of one big dish. You'll feed many more people with a one-dish workhorse such as a chili, soup, stew or pasta, says Jessica Fisher, author of the new book Good Cheap Eats: Everyday Dinners and Fantastic Feasts for $10 or Less. And if the main includes vegetables, you can forego a salad and just serve bread on the side (whereas flounder in parchment would probably entail making a veggie and a starch). This quinoa, black bean, broccoli and pepper chili costs less than $3 per serving and the recipe can be easily doubled.

Get the recipe: Quinoa Black Bean Chili
Cost per serving: $2.67
Vegetable Tacos with Chipotle Sour Cream and Smoky Black Beans

Photo: Christopher Baker

Idea #2: Know the Cheese Tricks
Buying a block of cheddar instead of the preshredded bag is a good way to save, but you'll get even more for your money by using your grater's finest setting (now's the time to pull out the Microplane, if you have one). Think light, feathery and fluffy instead of big and chunky, and you'll fool everyone into using less than they ordinarily would (this works for Parmesan, too). Fisher also has a good way to extend sour cream when you're serving Mexican food. Instead of dolloping spoonfuls onto tacos, place a few tablespoons in a small, zip-top plastic bag. Cut off a corner and then drizzle it over the dish. You'll get better coverage, add visual appeal and use a lot less.

Get the recipes: Vegetable Tacos with Chipotle Sour Cream and Smoky Black Beans
Cost per serving: $3.43
Lemon Pepper Parmesan Crackers

Photo: VeselovaElena/Thinkstock

Idea #3: Build Your Appetizer Spread from Scratch
Even when we're making a homemade meal, we often rely on (pricey) store-bought conveniences for cocktail hour. Yet, throwing some canned chickpeas, lemon, olive oil and garlic in a blender for hummus is not only cheap, but fresher-tasting than the premade kind (you can eyeball the quantities, but here's a guideline: one 15-ounce can of drained chickpeas, a garlic clove, the juice of a lemon, a quarter-cup each of tahini and water and a spoonful of oil). Crackers, too, can add up, especially if you want to put out something more special than saltines. Make your own and you can tweak the recipe however you like it (more Parmesan, less lemon, whatever herbs you have on hand).

Get the recipes: Lemon Pepper Parmesan Crackers
Cost per serving: $.30

Cost per serving: $.48
Hip to Be Squares

Photo: Rachel Been

Idea #4: Go Big on Desserts
The same concept that applies to the main dish goes for dessert: Skip the individual portions and make something in one large pan. Brownies may be a go-to, but if you want to serve something unexpected, there are tons of other options, such as these fudgy squares. The recipe literally makes 100 (happily, they freeze well), and you can use any kind of chocolate you like (translation: no artisanal, $6 bars required).

Get the recipe: Hip to Be Squares
Cost per serving: $.22