How to Master a Potluck, Whether You're Hosting or Attending One
No one is indifferent to a potluck. For some, the idea of hosting a potluck is the perfect way to entertain, most of the food needs for your party get covered, and all you really have to do is provide a space for the gathering. For some, the idea of letting a gaggle of people bring whatever dishes they like just means a scattershot dining experience that either requires coordination only slightly less complex than the moon landing, or one risks a party with eighteen bags of chips and eleven desserts and no real food.
I know people who get invited to a potluck and immediately hit their cookbook library to find the perfect potluck side dish, and some who break out in a cold sweat, thinking of excuses to not attend, non-cooks who worry that store-bought just isn’t good enough, or unconfident cooks who feel that their best won’t be as good as everyone else’s and that they will be judged.
But like them or not, potluck season is upon us. So, if you are of a mind to host one, or are an invitee, here are some of my tips and tricks to set you up for success. Who knows, for the haters, it might just flip the script!
If You're Hosting, You're Coordinating
First off, unless you are only inviting guests whose culinary skills you are intimately familiar with, choose some sort of theme. It is one thing when you can ask each person to specifically bring “that dish” they are so famous for, but most of us are just opening our home and inviting people we like and trying to assign things can come off as controlling. Picking a theme both gives something of a guarantee that all of the offerings will somehow go together and will likely get you a decent balance or range of dishes. The theme could be cooking from a specific cookbook or chef, in which case be sure that some of those recipes can be found for free online, offer to lend your copy of the cookbook to anyone who need to research, and don’t choose something super obscure. Think Julia Child, Joy of Cooking, Silver Palate and the like. You can also pick a style of food (soups, food on sticks) or a region or country or ethnicity (Middle Eastern, Italian, Thai) or even a time period (1920s, 1950s, 1980s, or even just “retro’ whatever that means for people)
Secondly, request that all of your guests tell you in advance what they are bringing. That way you as the host can adequately fill in. If you are heavy on dishes that include meat, you can add some veggies, not enough desserts, you can augment with some baked goods.
Be sure to have some options for guests who don’t cook: paper goods, ice, beverages both boozy and non, a batched cocktail are all great things for people who either have no time or no inclination to cook. Asking someone to pick up some bread at a bakery is also an easy ask, and a bowl of little tangerines are always a welcome addition to the dessert offerings.
Watch: How to Make Perfect Pasta Salad
Tell your guests what you are providing. “Non-alcoholic beverages and two pots of chili (one meat, one veggie) on hand” or “We’re baking a ham, please bring sides.” Or “We’ve got pre-dinner nibbles and drinks covered.” Often providing some centerpiece main dish is a good way to take pressure off guests and ensure that there is the basis for a meal.
Lastly, be clear in your invite what your place can handle. Phrases like “There will not be any oven space available when you arrive” or “BYO folding chair if you need guaranteed seating” and “street parking limited/requires permit so rideshare or public transportation recommended” are all phrases that will help keep you sane.
When You're a Guest, Ask Questions
Whether you are planning to bring a home-cooked dish or a store-bought offering, plan on bringing it ready to eat, at whatever temperature it should be served at, and in or on the vessel from which it should be served. Do not assume that your host will have counter-space for assembly, oven or stovetop space for heating or re-heating, or serving dishes appropriate for you to use. If your dish needs to be kept warm, ask if there is an open plug near the serving area for you to bring your offering in a slow cooker. My standard for potlucks is to bring a dish that can arrive warm but still be fine as it cools.
Make your serving items your host gift. It is always complicated at the end of a party to have to get your serving piece washed for taking home. Target, Home Goods, and thrift stores are all places to source very inexpensive serving pieces that can then be left behind as a thank you for your hosts. Nothing is a bigger relief to someone with a party at their house than to hand over a platter, baking vessel, or bowl and say, “Please keep the _______ as a gift for your hospitality.” If you don’t know your host’s taste well, stick with basic white. Food looks great on it, and it can work with any existing décor.
If you have dietary restrictions, bring a dish that addresses them and count on that being your only option. If you anticipate an issue, be sure to have a small meal at home before arriving. And if your issue is anaphylactic, be sure the host knows, and BYO EpiPen just in case.
Bring whatever you bring with pride. This is not a competition, and there is room for all sorts of different deliciousness. Don’t apologize for something being store-bought, imperfect, or in any way perceived by you as somehow inferior. I don’t care how many fussy canapés are on the buffet, usually it is the bowl of Cheetos that empties first. It’s supposed to be fun.
Finally, we all know that life can throw a curveball, so if you or your kid gets sick, if the weather is impassable, or an emergency has arisen, reach out to your host as soon as you can, especially if you were being counted on for something crucial like the ice, or the main course. If you have already made your offering, ask if any of the other guests are near to you to perhaps come pick it up on their way.