So your son's bringing the whole softball team home for dinner. Don't panic. Take a cue from a 1950s mom. June Cleaver knew the value of a good casserole for feeding a large group. Any meal that combines a base food, such as rice, potatoes or pasta, with sauces, vegetables and meat is a good choice for stretching a meal.
The key to stretching a meal is keeping the pantry and freezer stocked with basic staples such as pastas, chicken broth, cream soups, frozen vegetables and canned beans. Keep dried dip and salad dressing mixes on hand as well as herbs and spices. Buy bread, flour tortillas and hamburger buns in bulk at warehouse stores and store them in the freezer. Keep a few jars of spaghetti sauce or salsa on the shelf for last-minute meals for a big group. Meat is usually the most expensive ingredient in any dish. Use it sparingly, cubed or shredded, rather than as whole cuts. Substitute shredded cheese, eggs or beans for protein.
Serve pasta when you need to fill a lot of hungry tummies without breaking the bank. One box of pasta feeds six to eight people, depending on serving portions, but cooking two or three boxes isn't any more trouble. Think big trays of lasagna and heaping bowls of spaghetti and meatballs when you've got to feed a big group fast. Don't limit yourself to tomato-based sauces. Fettuccine Alfredo and pasta salad tossed with ranch dressing are crowd-pleasers.
Soup is one of the best dishes around to stretch a meal quickly. Start with a base of chicken broth, onions and celery. Add hamburger, stew meat or diced, cooked chicken and dried seasoning mix to make a delicious, savory soup. To stretch a soup, simply add another can of chicken broth, pasta or rice, and a few more vegetables. A dollop of cream gives chicken soup some richness. Taste the soup after adding more broth and adjust the seasonings if they seem diluted. Add variety with ethnic spices. For example, chicken soup becomes Chicken Tortilla soup with cumin, chiles, corn and tortillas. Make an Asian chicken soup by adding cilantro, soy sauce and ginger.
Make a menu for the week and plan ahead. For example, if you're using shredded chicken breasts for two or three meals, throw several chicken breasts in the crock pot on Monday morning. Shred the chicken and refrigerate it for all three meals. If you're washing salad or cutting vegetables for one meal, cut a few extra for the next night's meal. Cooking for a large family or extra dinner guests doesn't seem as overwhelming if some of the prep work is already done.