5 Great Tips to Make Affordable Local Food for a Crowd

by Elizabeth Figgie, Durham Co-op Marketing Associate

Durham Co-op's $3 Dinners. Photo by Durham Co-op.

Durham Co-op’s $3 Dinners. Photo by Durham Co-op.

Who doesn’t like an affordable meal?  Nobody!  That’s who.  In Durham, the proof of that fact is seen every Thursday evening at Durham Co-op Market’s $3 Dinners.

Every Thursday, the co-op (1111 West Chapel Hill Street) puts out a spread where customers get a plate of good food for just three bucks.  Just last week the menu was Barbecue sandwiches with classic coleslaw.  Customers got to choose from BBQ pork or tofu on a bun and all the slaw they could eat.  And they liked it!  Over five hundred attendees come every Thursday.  And they leave with smiles on their faces and good food in their bellies.

What makes these nights so special?  It’s not just the price, it’s the community. Anyone can go to a fast food restaurant and eat cheap food. The co-op is offering affordable, simply-made dinners with real, wholesome ingredients, in a setting that celebrates diversity, fun and community. And, as it says over the entrance of the store, everyone is welcome.

Summer gives us the chance to combine lots of things we love: local produce, healthy food, and affordability. A bounty of local organic cabbage last week led to delicious coleslaw and happy customers. The volume needed to make dinner for 500 allowed us to support a local farmer with more product than he could sell, and offer really high quality ingredients to our customers.

$3 Dinner customers take of advantage of the deal for all sorts of reasons.  It’s a fun night, featuring live music when the weather is right, local food and beer demos, and lots of happy people. Groups of friends make it their thing, meeting every week to enjoy a meal together. Other customers come in to get to-go meals for their families, some buy ten or more dinners at a time. And others still, come in because there’s always a vegan friendly option.

While the reasons for their attendance vary, $3 Dinners customers have at least one thing in common; they’ve got Thursday night covered.

What about the rest of the week?  Read on for some tips on affordable ways to make food for a crowd!


Go Veggies

This time of year, the produce can be the star! No need to run up the bill with expensive proteins when veggies can be a tasty and wonderful crowd pleaser. Local yellow squash and zucchini are fresh and affordable for the summertime.  If you’re cooking out, try coating chunks of them with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Once grilled, they’ll be a little sweet and a whole lot of good. Great veg means you can keep the proteins simple, maybe something like chicken thighs in a spicy marinade.

Have you ever tried grilling peaches?  Local peaches are too good to miss these days, and a little fire makes an impressive presentation. Peaches Foster anyone (see recipe below)?


Couscous is Your Friend
When you’re entertaining on a budget, you want to choose foods that fill folks up without emptying your wallet.  Couscous is absolutely one of those choices.  It can be served hot or cold.  It can be combined with just about anything you have in your kitchen. It’s easy and quick to make. And it’s a more unique starch than just plain rice. You can also buy it in the Bulk section at the co-op to get only what you need at a much lower price than the packaged version. Mix in chopped nuts, dried or fresh fruit, or sautéed onions.


Be a Doctor
Don’t be afraid to doctor up simple items to make remarkable dishes!  You can take all-beef hot dogs, add some roasted veggies and Moroccan seasoning and people will think you’re fancy!  Mac & cheese can be a perfect platform for a certified food M.D. You can add everything from crumbled sausage to sautéed spinach to turn a basic meal into a treat for everyone!  Sweet corn on the cob is a seasonal summer treat that can be doctored all sorts of ways.  Try grilling it and making a seasoned butter with cilantro, lime juice and cumin!


Have fun!
No one needs a formal meal when it is this hot out. Keep it fresh, pile on the produce, and be sure to thank a farmer!


Peaches at the Durham Co-op. Photo by Durham Co-op.

Peaches at the Durham Co-op. Photo by Durham Co-op.

Grilled Peaches Foster with Gelato


1/4 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 fresh local peaches, halved (on sale at the co-op for $2.99/lb)
1/4 cup dark, spiced rum
4 scoops Talenti gelato (on sale at the co-op 2 for $7)


Cut peaches along the seam all the way around and twist halves off the pit. Brush cut sides with coconut oil or vegetable oil.

Cook cut-side down on a hot grill until fruit has grill marks, 3 to 4 minutes. Brush tops with oil, turn over, and move to indirect heat. Cover grill and cook until fruit is tender, 8-10 minutes.

While the peaches are cooking, scoop gelato into serving bowls and set aside (or in the refrigerator)

Stir the butter, sugar and cinnamon together in a shallow sauté pan or frying pan over low heat. Continue stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully add the rum. Return the pan to the heat and cook to warm the rum. If you have a gas stove, tip the pan to ignite the rum. If using an electric stove, use a long match or fire starter to ignite the rum.

When the flame dies out, place the peaches over the scoops of gelato and top with some of the pan sauce.

Serve while warm.


You can visit the Durham Co-op Market at 1111 West Chapel Hill Street in Durham, NC or at their website.

Related Articles