10 Must-Read Tips for Planning the Perfect Potluck
I’ve shared on here about my love for potluck meals – they really are one of the best gatherings to connect with others in a relaxed setting and in a meaningful way! For years during and after college, I participated in and then hosted weekly potluck meals with a hodgepodge of people – friends from church, neighbors, friends from school/work, you name it! Aaron and I kept the same weekly tradition when we got married until we moved towns.
Soon after I started grad school, we adopted a similar tradition and hosted a regular potluck twice a month for the students in my political science graduate program.
We now participate in a weekly potluck with my small group from church.
It would be safe to call me a potluck enthusiast.
Because I’ve personally witnessed, time and time again, the power of building relationships over good food, especially when the meal is a team effort, I want to share tips I’ve learned as I’ve hosted and/or participated in these zillions of potlucks through the years! I want everyone to experience the joy of potluck meals!
If you’re wanting to host a potluck in your home, with your church, at your work, within your neighborhood – you name it! – these 10 must-read tips for planning the perfect potluck will be so helpful! (You know, perfect as in delicious, fun, and meaningful. ? ) Some of these tips will apply to all types of potlucks, and others will apply to more of one kind than another (i.e. a large, corporate potluck at church or work vs. a smaller gathering in your home), but hopefully all will be helpful!
Come up with a theme for the food.
Potluck themes are so fun. Try to think outside of the lasagna box for this one! Most people, even those who aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about experimenting in the kitchen, have a lot of fun with fun potluck themes. Especially when a meal is a team effort, it really is fun to have an excuse to try out a new dish or resurrect a unique recipe you haven’t tried in a while. We did this all the time, especially when we had our weekly potlucks in/post college, and I cannot even tell you how much fun we all had with it. But let me try: Y’ALL, THE CREATIVE THEMES WERE SO FUN!
For instance: picnic foods, southern fare, everything (including dessert) must contain a veggie, dishes that all start with the same letter, country cuisine (bring a dish from a country you’ve visited), home state plates (bring a dish from your home state – this worked out well when I was in grad school with people from all over the US), food that makes you think of your alma mater (Gig ‘em, Aggies! Whoop!), etc. If you need some inspiration for creative themes, head here. I have several ideas for you, most of which we did at least a couple of times during our years of hosting potlucks!
Cover your bases.
This is going to look differently depending on what kind of potluck you’re having, but I found that when we were hosting our weekly potlucks, especially if I didn’t know on any given week how many people were coming (sometimes it was 5, and sometimes it was 16!), I tried to make sure we had at least a main dish and a side dish. Worst case, if we didn’t have a dessert, I could pull ice cream out of my freezer. (Like resolving to have ice cream is ever a worst-case scenario…)
I often took responsibility for the main dish when we were hosting our regular potlucks (see the tip below as a follow-up on this), but often times I didn’t, and I just made sure we were going to have one. When we were hosting our weekly potlucks, there were some people who we knew were coming just about every week, so we’d often team up and make sure the main bases were covered.
Trade Off Planning.
This is more of a newer strategy – now that kids are part of my equation and I have less time, and the same is now true with so many others that I’m around – and it has been so helpful! We have a potluck each week with our small group from church, and instead of the small group leaders deciding each week what the theme/main dish is going to be (and then being responsible for making the main dish each week), we have a sign up where we trade off taking charge of the main meal. This helps immensely! It helps with cost – so that someone isn’t responsible for the brunt of the meal cost each week, it helps with time – so that someone isn’t having to take the time to decide on the theme/coordinate what others need to bring/make the main dish, and it is also fun to trade off because then you have everyone contributing to the decisions of what food we’re going to have each week. Variety is fun!
Make it easy for everyone to see what everyone else is bringing.
When we hosted our weekly potlucks, we always coordinated through a Facebook event. I just created a new event each week to post the week’s theme, perhaps offer suggestions on what to bring to go with the theme, and then we could all coordinate/collaborate and see what we were all bringing, that way we could make sure the essentials were covered and also make sure we weren’t doubling up on things we didn’t need. I mean, I love me some dessert, but sometimes instead of having 3 desserts, it’s nice to have a salad thrown in there! ?
For our weekly potlucks with our small group, the person in charge of the main meal for the week creates a new post in the private Facebook group that we have, and then we all comment on that post. So helpful so we can see what everyone else is bringing!
I’m sure there are other ways to coordinate this than through Facebook, but it is very helpful for everyone if the group can see what others are bringing and what needs still need to be met.
For really large potlucks, have specified sign-up sheets with designated food needs.
This tip piggy-backs off of the previous one, but this tip is really only for large potlucks – perhaps ones that are church-wide, organization-wide, or ones hosted at your work. I hadn’t really considered this before, but this is really a genius idea! My church hosts a Thanksgiving potluck each fall, and the lady in charge of coordinating the meal stands at the sign-up table in the church lobby with several sheets of paper for people to sign up; each sheet of paper has something specific at the top (i.e. “Mashed Potatoes,” or “Dessert,” or “Salad”) with a designated number of sign-up lines on that sheet of paper. She’s anticipating a certain number of people to attend (i.e. A LOT – it’s a church-wide potluck!) and wants to make sure we have everything covered. She’s learned that we need a certain number of each dish. So, when people go to sign up for what to bring, they can see there are X number of slots available for each dish, they sign up on a line, and then it’s easy for those who are continuing to sign up to see what needs still need to be met. Such a good idea!
If necessary, specify what needs to accompany the main dish.
This isn’t going to be a hard and fast rule, but if you’re in charge of the main dish and others can bring things to go along with it (i.e. think of food bars: baked potato bar, taco bar, nacho bar, etc.), make sure to specify what all others can bring. It’s helpful for everyone to have a suggested list! For instance, one time I was making the meat for gyros for our small group, so I made a list of toppings for others to consider bringing to go along with them, that way people knew what options they should choose from. If you’re making burgers, make a list of condiments/toppings people can bring. If you’re making taco meat, make a list of ingredients people can bring to go along with the meat. You get where I’m going with this. ?
Consider Food Allergies and Controversial Ingredients.
While I really enjoy experimenting with recipes, depending on the potluck and who I know will be attending, I might be a little more conscientious of what I’m making. It just depends! Sometimes I avoid making “controversial” things (i.e. like really spicy foods), but other times, if I know everyone coming to the potluck enjoys a certain type of food, I may just go for it! I also try to accommodate allergies. My best friend in grad school was allergic to gluten, so I always tried to make sure that there was something at the potluck that she could eat. She never asked to be accommodated, but it was definitely easy enough to do so, so we did what we could!
Consider kids when deciding on food.
When we had our potlucks in college and right after, this wasn’t something I needed to consider, but now that we have kids and a lot of our friends have kids, this is definitely a topic that’s at the top of my mind when I’m prepping for a potluck! Let me be clear: I’m an advocate for encouraging kids to try foods, and I really try not to let my kids be very picky. But, we all know how that goes sometimes. So, when coordinating a potluck, if you know young kids are going to be eating, consider having a couple of the dishes (either main dishes or side dishes) kid-friendly. By kid-friendly, I just mean somewhat easy to eat. This isn’t one of those “must do” rules, but it’s certainly worth including on this list, just so you can keep that thought in the back of your mind.
Don’t be afraid to have someone sign up for plasticware/paper goods.
If you’re preferring to use regular plates, silverware, and drinkware for your potluck, go for it! We often did that when we hosted potlucks just depending on how many people were coming. However, if you’re having a group of people, it might be easier to use disposable items, especially plates. Your call! When we hosted our potlucks for years, when we made a list of suggested items to go along with the main dish, we’d often suggest that someone bring plasticware/paper goods that week (instead of a dish). The disposable items were their “contribution” for that week. That stuff adds up! Having this option was really helpful, too, because sometimes if someone didn’t have time to cook on a given week, they could be the one to bring the disposable items and still feel like they were contributing.
Consider meals that are easy to “portion out.”
Unless you know you’re going to have a specific number of people at a potluck, consider having main dishes that are easy to “portion out.” Casseroles, soups, large main dish salads, etc. are easier to divide up – some people can take more, and some people can take less – than main dishes like chicken fried steak, burgers, pork chops, etc. I’m not suggesting it’s a bad idea to do a dish that is just a “one-per-person” serving, but if you don’t know how many people are attending the potluck – if the attendance could range from 5-15 (like it often did for us when we hosted our weekly and bi-monthly ones), just consider having a main dish that you can more easily divide up, that way if more people attend than you expect, you can accommodate for that in portion sizes. I have a rule at my house: I don’t want anyone to go hungry!
I’m sure there are more tips I could include on here. What have you learned from hosting or attending potlucks that I can add to this?!
Be sure to snag your free Perfect Potluck Blueprint to help you plan your potluck!
Don’t forget to check out this post if you’re looking for some fun and creative potluck theme ideas!
Want to remember these tips for later? Pin this to your favorite Pinterest board to refer to every time you’re planning a potluck!