How Not to Be a Potluck Party Pooper

‘Tis the season of the potluck party, which some of us equate with having our annual physical and some of us anticipate with unmitigated joy. (I’m in the latter category, if you hadn’t guessed already.) Between my upcoming neighborhood potluck on Sunday and our Virtual Holiday Potluck going on throughout December, I’ve got potlucks on my mind. Happy thoughts, indeed!

There are no real rules to a hosting or attending a potluck. The “luck” part of the description is part of what makes it fun. There are, however, some general guidelines that will help ensure the party’s success.

Large-group potlucks (work, church, clubs, etc.) generally benefit from having one or two coordinators who might:

  • serve as a central point of contact for attendees, answering questions and suggesting dishes
  • ensure the room or venue is set up properly and arrange for any special needs
  • accept the dishes as they arrive and arrange them on the table(s)
  • direct the flow of attendees to the serving line
  • keep an eye open for any issues that might arise
  • clear the table and return all dishes (hopefully empty!) to their owners

When I coordinate a large group potluck, I like to use a sign-up sheet divided into categories: salads, sides, breads, desserts, etc.  I don’t require people to be specific, and there are frequently notes of TBD (to be determined) under the different categories. A general sign-up sheet helps attendees know if there are already six people bringing bread or if so-and-so down the hall already signed up to bring a cheese platter and now they’re going to have to come up with another brilliant idea.

Another couple of tips for a large-group potluck:

  • Have a non-food category (paper plates, utensils, cups, ice, etc.) for the non-cooks
  • Have an “entree” envelope for non-cooks to contribute toward a deli platter or other main dish

For an at-home potluck party, the host home determines the tone or theme of the potluck and can decide whether to suggest specific dishes or to rely on the “luck”.  Generally speaking (at least in these parts) the host provides the main dish and the guests fill in the rest. Also, generally speaking but not always true, unfortunately, is that the host home is cleaned like it’s never been cleaned before prior to the arrival of the first guest.

At either type of potluck, it’s a great idea to have cards available to display the name of the dish and who contributed it. You can use fancy name-cards or if you’re in the office, post-it notes (company-supplied) work fine. A handy stash of containers or plastic wrap is also helpful, for anyone who wants to “take away”.

Whether it’s a large group or an at-home gathering, guests are not without their responsibilities.

  • Arrive on time! I once had to spend 10 minutes calming down a co-worker who showed up an hour into the potluck toting a salad and then was upset because no one ate any of it.  By that time, of course, they were tearing into the desserts and/or back at their desks.
  • Bring what you say you’re going to bring! This is especially true for an at-home potluck.  I remember attending an in-home potluck that was delayed while the hostess scrambled to make beverages. One of the two people who signed up to bring beverages changed her mind and decided to bake something, and the other person “ran out of time” and showed up empty-handed. (Scandalous!)
  • Show up with your dish fully-prepared OR arrange with the host(ess) to assemble it on site. A dear friend of mine regularly showed up at our holiday dinners with her fresh-veggie contribution  still in the grocery bag and then proceeded to destroy the kitchen peeling and chopping.
  • Bring foods that are safe to sit out for long periods of time. You want to be remembered for the tastiness of your dish, not for the nasty case of food poisoning guests had to endure.
  • Check with the host or coordinator beforehand if your dish requires “special handling” such as a crockpot to keep warm or freezer space to keep cold.

Those are just a few of the thoughts running through my potluck-obsessed mind this morning. I’m sure I missed a lot, which is where you can help out by “dishing up” your suggestions and tips!

I’ll be offering up my first contribution to the Virtual Holiday Potluck on Monday, with a recap and recipe of one of the dishes I’m taking to the neighborhood Christmas party on Sunday! I’m hoping we’ll see even more recipes on our table as the holiday season kicks into full swing this weekend. Don’t forget, you can bring more than one link, er, dish! :)



14 thoughts on “How Not to Be a Potluck Party Pooper

  1. I agree with you all the way. I have seen the sma sort of problems with pot lucks and with people expecting to cook on site. I especially think it is important o label the foods and list ingredients or offer the recipe so people can feel more comfortable trying new things without worry about surprise ingredients!

  2. I have actually heard of a pot luck party! However, it sounds much like our own Christmas day where we all contribute and share favourite dishes. I agree about bringing your dish fully prepared, also!! Fresh is best for vegies and fruit I know, but it saves a lot of time and hassle if you can bring something that does not require any more attention!

  3. Ooops, my comment was supposed to say ” I have never actually heard of a pot luck party…..

  4. Great ideas – I wish the organizer of last weekend’s potluck had seen this list before the event. We ended up with a lot of the same types of foods and not enough of others. You are such a pro. :)

  5. Always full of great advice Cammy! I am not a big party person BUT I always ask what the host/hostess needs or wants me to bring & I stick to that. I may bring along something that works for me to in addition but always what I was asked to bring first! :-)

  6. Cammy, you really know your way around a potluck table. It takes a patient, committed person to organize one of those things and I can tell you must have done your share in the past. These are all great tips (I love that there is now a column for those of us who are culinary-impaired….can’t mess up cups and paper plates!) lol

  7. I’m in the dentist’s drill department when it comes to potlucks (which is even worse than the annual physical). Maybe if more good potluckers took your suggestions to heart I’d like them better. For me, they’ve always been a time to binge. I’m shy and not good at socializing, even with people I know…. so I hang out at the table and graze ’til I’m totally stuffed, eat a little more and then go home. Despite my aversion, I found your post to be very interesting and worth reading. Thanks!

  8. You know… you should do like a “10 Commandments of Pot-Luck” kind of a thing. You would be good at it.

    I went to my first pot-luck of the year this past Wed night…. you are not going to believe this, but EVERY person brought a desert. I mean- I was planning on eating there. I had one piece of cake and that was all I had…. kind of a bummer. The KEY to the pot-luck is the assignment list.

    Thanks Cammy!!!

  9. Brilliant Post Cammy! I have been to so many poorly organized pot lucks over the years. I am going to copy this post and save it for future use when I have to organize a pot luck.

    I don’t really care for pot lucks myself. I kind of hate the whole mystery food part of it. I guess I am too controlling in the food department. Most of the pot lucks I have attended have had way too many desserts and few main dishes!

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