Cheap Graduation Party Food Ideas (Menu for 100)

Are you looking for unique grad party food ideas?

With 6 kids in our family, we have to stick to a very tight budget. So, when my oldest daughter was graduating from our homeschool, we knew that we would have to be very creative in our choices for the venue, food, and decorations.

While it's very common for people in our part of Nebraska to grab frozen finger foods from Sam's Club, or a meat and cheese tray from the grocery store, we had only about $125 to spend total and many out of town relatives coming for the entire day. We had to feed them a full meal if we expected them to make the drive.

(Note that this budget was created and met by shopping in bulk with my Sam's Club membership in 2017. Prices will vary, but I was able to get many items on sale or when they had their Instant Savings events. I planned ahead for a month or so to get the best deals!)

No Sam's near you? Try BJs!

The first thing that crossed my mind was pasta. It's what we eat when there is more month than money in our own home. It's filling, and you can customize it with a variety of sauces. It's also one of the few dishes that you can make the day before and it actually tastes better over night in the fridge and rewarmed in the oven!

Here's how we put together our menu:

1. We planned for our number of guests. We had 150 invitations go out. Many were not coming because they lived so far away (but we wanted to be considerate.) Many others would be bringing their entire families. We prepared for 100 people to come eat with us.

2. We did the math on the pasta. I read that it takes 3 ounces of dried pasta to feed one person. That's with sides, like the fruit, bread, and green beans we would make. Since there are 16 ounces in a pound, I figured 1 pound of pasta would feed 5 people. We prepared 20 total pounds of pasta, expecting to feed around 100 people. This was a very generous estimate, based on the type of pasta dishes we chose.

3. We chose our recipes. We decided on a red pasta and a white. While we were on a budget, we knew that we needed to cut some corners with prepared ingredients, as well as fresh. I picked an easy baked Cavatini recipe and a chicken alfredo.

Here is the shopping list for each recipe:

Chicken Alfredo (feeds 40 - 50 )

  • (2) 2-lb large rotisserie chickens from Sam's Club
  • (3) 3-packs of prepared alfredo sauce from Sam's Club
  • (10) pounds of dried penne pasta
  • (5) cups whole milk
  • Optional: 2 cups dried spinach flakes (I use these)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
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Begin by cooking the pasta according to directions, but stop cooking 2 minutes before it is done. The pasta should very firm but not hard or chewy in the middle. Immediately remove from heat, drain, and set aside. (You can add some olive oil to it to keep it from sticking while you do next steps, if you like.)

Remove chicken from the bones of the rotisserie chickens. You can also remove skin, if you like, but I like to leave a little on around the chicken breasts for flavor and color. (You should get rid of any thick or jelly-like skin, though.) Cut the chicken into small cubes and set aside.

Now, spread 1/4th of the the pasta out into a large aluminum baking tray. (I get them in an 18-pack from Sam's and use them for batch cooking.) Sprinkle the chicken (1/2 cup dried spinach flakes, if using) over the top of the pasta, being sure that you only use 1/4th of the chicken. Mix 2 jars of sauce and 1 cup of milk together in a bowl, then pour over the pasta. Mix well.

If you really want to make the sauce go further, you can pour out the sauce, then add the 1/2 cup milk to the empty jar, replace the lid, and shake it. You'll get the rest of the sauce out of the jar that way. Pour them milk into the bowl and mix as directed.

Cover the dish with foil and set into the fridge until serving. 

Baked Cavatini
  • (1) 1-lb bag of round, sliced pepperoni
  • (4) pounds ground beef
  • (2) 4-lb jars of sauce (I use Prego)
  • (10) pounds of dried penne pasta
  • (8) cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Optional: 2 cups dried green or red peppers (I use these)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
Begin by cooking the pasta according to directions, but stop cooking 2 minutes before it is done. The pasta should very firm but not hard or chewy in the middle. Immediately remove from heat, drain, and set aside. (You can add some olive oil to it to keep it from sticking while you do next steps, if you like.)

Ground the beef, drain, and set aside.

Now, spread 1/4th of the the pasta out into a large aluminum baking tray. Sprinkle 1/4th of the ground beef, and about 16 pepperoni on top. Pour 1/2 of each 4-lb jar of sauce on top. Mix well.

Finally, sprinkle 2 cups of the cheese on the top, then put 8-10 pepperoni on top nicely. It should look polka-dotted!  Cover with foil and set into the fridge until serving.

To serve, preheat the oven to 350, and place the trays inside with the foil still on top. Bake for 45 minutes, or until heated all the way through. You can remove the foil during the last 5 minutes to make the tops browned, if you wish.

Our food was a hit! While I had all kinds of catering ideas for a graduation party, we did NOT have the money to hire someone to make food. 

We didn't get the number of guests we had expected, but that meant lots of yummy leftovers that went into the freezer when we got home. The pasta dishes froze well and could be taken out to thaw, then cook as directed for a large family meal or entertaining.

We served the pasta with 15 pounds of frozen mixed fruit that we thawed out the morning of the event. We also served garlic bread, and bacon green beans. Cupcakes were provided by our favorite chocolate shop and bakery in town, as a graduation present to my daughter (who works there.)

My daughter and her friends helped decorate, using plastic bowls and utensils, chalk markers, and cardboard, to make everyone look fancy! A friend of mine lent me her sun tea jars with spouts to put lemonade in. I used my Ninja Coffe Bar to keep hot coffee made all day and stored in a carafe I had.

It was an amazing event, and I can't believe we pulled off so many graduation party foods on a budget!

While this is a great idea for graduations, you could use it for any party. Retirement, weddings, birthdays, or any time you want to entertain a lot of guests!

Get the menu for 100 that we used with our daughter's graduation party The food was less than $125 and worked perfectly for a budget! Very cheap and delicious!

(Note: We had our event at the beautiful day-use cabin at Lewis and Clark Park in Onawa, NE. It was a bit out of the way, but near a beautiful lake full of fish and room to run. Our guests were amazed at how breathtaking it was. The best part? It was just $75 to rent for the entire day and evening!)

What ideas do you have for affordable graduation parties food and drinks?


  1. We did pasta dishes for my daughter's wedding but we did the meat separate (meatballs, veggie meatballs and pork tenderloin) because my daughter, her fiance and half the guests are vegheads, and one of our pastas I made was gluten free for our several gluten free friends. Served it with salad and garlic bread and cupcakes. The menu was a hit for us too, and quite the bargain! In fact, the gf pasta dish was so popular that people ate almost twice the gf pasta dish as either the marinara sauced or the alfredo sauced pasta!

  2. Love your ideas and the affordability of your party. Two questions - it sounds like each recipe made four pans? Is this correct? Also, do you think this could be frozen before being cooked? I'd like to cook ahead of time, not the day before. Thanks so much!!

    1. You can definitely freeze it, but consider cooking the pasta a little more al-dente (reduce cooking time by 2-3 minutes) so that it doesn't get too mushy when it freezes. You will end up with a softer pasta this way.

  3. I like the idea for a graduation party food on a tight budget because I was shocked at how much everything would cost for my daughters party, especially when my son's was a breeze. I've got a question about the chicken alfredo When you say "spread 1/4 of the pasta then 1/4 of the chicken" it pasta, chicken, pasta, chicken......then sauce or pasta, chicken, then 2 jars of the sauce, then pasta, chicken......and then the other jar?

    1. You can spread in any order, just be sure that you only use 1/4 of your total sauce and chicken for each pan -- so you don't run out!

  4. Where did you get the pans & how many did you use total?

    1. I bought a 2 sets of 4 pans from Sam's Club. I'm sure you can find them at any big box or warehouse store.

  5. You didn't say but I'm assuming each recipe makes 4 pans? And could I make this the day before and then bake in day of party?

    1. Yes! Each recipe makes that much, and you can certainly make it the day before. That's what we did!

  6. I love this idea! How did you keep everything hot?

    1. We kept one pan of each out for guests to eat, and the rest stayed in an oven on the lowest heat setting (covered) until the needed.

  7. So you mentioned other sides like green beans. Can you post your full menu please?


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