How to Cook for a Potluck Party

How to Host a Potluck Party


The main ingredients for a successful potluck are an organized host, smart dish assignments, and happy partygoers.  Potlucks are be a relaxed event where everyone pitches in for the food, taking the burden off the host, and turning to enjoying time together.  Here are some questions to consider when hosting a potluck:


Will my friends think I'm cheap for throwing a potluck?

Admittedly, some people (us included) used to look down their noses at the humble potluck. I still have vivid memories of childhood block parties featuring meatloaf and Jello molds swimming with canned fruit.  But those days are long gone.  People generally love to bring something and feel like they made a contribution to the gathering. 

What types of food are best to bring?

The best foods to bring are those that keep well and taste good at room temperature.  For example, most pasta dishes and casseroles do well at potlucks.  If you do decide to bring a crock pot or hotplate, plan to bring an extension cord just in case, and make sure the setup is safe in case there are small children at the party.

What is the worst type of dish to bring to a potluck and why?  What other dishes should you avoid?

Avoid dishes that need to be served right away or dishes that are difficult to transport. For a green salad, bring dressing in a separate container and toss with salad leaves right before serving.  Dressed green salads tend to wilt quickly, and no one will enjoy your famous spinach salad if it's a soggy mess by the time the meal rolls around.


Are potlucks by nature a casual affair?  How do you set the tone for a potluck so that nobody shows up with a bucket of chicken if you are aiming for a classier event?

Potlucks are indeed generally more casual than a sit-down dinner.  However, you can set the tone and influence the dishes by selecting a theme.  For example, inviting guests to a Seafood Soiree not only limits the range of dishes that are appropriate, but it also hints at a more upscale event.

 How can you encourage guests to bring a variety of foods so that you don’t end up with six chicken casseroles?

The best way to invite guests to a potluck and assign dishes is to call them about the event.  It's also a great opportunity to ask about food preferences, food allergies, or any other restrictions.  Offer a choice of appetizer, entree, side, salad, dessert, or beverage (or ask if they're open to any category).  Once you've compiled all your information, send out the party details and each person's dish category in an email (or a followup call).  Don't be too specific - it's enough to specify "1 vegetarian entree that serves 6" or "1 nut-free dessert that serves 6".  Another option is to set up an Evite and ask people to pick something to bring, among the available categories.  If your guests don’t respond in a timely manner, however, you may have to call anyway to give everyone enough time to plan ahead for their assignment.

How much food should you bring to a potluck?  Is there a formula based on the number of attendees?

Each person should bring a dish that serves 4-6 people, and that is the average yield of most recipes.  So if 12 people are attending, you will need 2-3 appetizers, 2-3 side dishes or salads, 2-3 entrees, and 2-3 desserts, which is a total of 8-12 dishes.  Some of your guests may be couples and will only bring one dish.  You can also ask guests who don’t enjoy cooking, to bring their favorite beverage.

Traditionally, the host provides the main dish, primarily because you have access to an oven and can serve hot foods.  Chicken or roast beef is easy to pair with any sides.  If you have a large group with several volunteers bringing main dishes, you can opt to skip providing one yourself and instead provide all the bevereages.

Don't forget that the host is also in charge of providing serving utensils, eating utensils, plates, cups/glasses, napkins, and condiments.  Make sure you have a supply of potholders and kitchen towels handy as well. If needed, be prepared to provide a large ice-filled container or cooler for beverages.  Clear out the fridge as much as possible in order to create room for any dishes that do have to be kept cold until served.

What do you do if half your guests are vegan or vegetarian and half are carnivores?

When calling your guests, ask about any dietary restrictions or preferences as well as whether any guests have food allergies.   When you email them with assignments, make the assignments balanced.  For example, if there are 2 entrees, ask one guest to bring a vegetarian/vegan entree.  Ask guests to print out their recipe or list of ingredients and bring it with them.  Place this next to each dish.  That way, people who are allergic to certain ingredients, lactose intolerant, or vegan won't have any unpleasant surprises.  It will also prevent the chaos of people running around asking, "What is this?" and "What's in that?"

Other tips:

People often ask for recipes at a potluck. After the party, it's a fun idea to compile the recipes and make a book to print or email to everyone that attended the party.

Provide Ziploc bags or disposable containers for guests to assemble their own doggie bags to take home.  Chances are you will have a lot of leftovers, and inviting guests to take home leftovers will ensure you’re not stuck with too much food to store in your refrigerator.