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Pick up a few Potluck 101 tips so that you can have fun, try lots of dishes, and not kill anyone with food poisoning. 

May 08, 2017

Potlucks are literally the best. No one has to do too much, no one has to do it all, and everyone knows there will be at least one thing at the party they can eat. While there's almost nothing easier than throwing a potluck, "almost" because ordering take out is decidedly easier, there are a few general guidelines to ensure that your potluck doesn't turn into a tale for your coworker Monday morning. 

Related: 28 Perfect Summer Picnic Recipes

Don't feed an army.

If 30 people are invited and bringing a dish, your dish does not need to serve 30. Plan to fit the serving size to half the guest list, assuming that not everyone will try it and those who do will want a taste, not a proper portion.

Do have a portion plan.

Sample and savor the dishes you want to try, but don't load up on the ones you can get every day. Store-bought fried chicken? Sure, it's delicious, but it's always available. Instead, try the chilled noodle bowl or tahini-flavored potato salad to see if you can suss out a new favorite dish.

Related: How to Save 900 Calories at your Next Picnic

Do be prepared to take your dish home.

Don't expect that your host will want the leftover salad bites you made. Again, there are 30 dishes in her kitchen, maybe five of which she plans to squirrel away in her fridge. If you're so inclined, offer to leave the leftovers for your host and, if she declines, take them home in your dish.

Do make the most of the season.

We love a good cheese ball and rum cake, but, when picking a potluck dish, be mindful of the season and the weather. Fresh produce is never better than during the summer, so take advantage and make a dish that highlights the produce of the season.

Don't forget beverages.

If your host didn't send around a sign up for courses (which is a good idea, by the way), then ask if anyone has signed up for the basics: ice, non-alcoholic beverages, paper products, and extra coolers are all great options. One suggestion we like is to have each guest bring a bottle of wine or six-pack of a craft beer to share with the group.

Do consider your surroundings.

If it's an outdoor event, definitely bring a container with a lid or invest (at a dollar store) in a net food cover. Nothing is less appealing that everyone swatting flies while serving themselves, or more infuriating that seeing the salad you're dying to try serving as a buggy pit-stop.

Photo: Jennifer Causey

Don't forget things that crunch.

Everyone uses potlucks to bring their favorite indulgent dishes, like pasta salads and macaroni and cheese bakes, but don't be afraid to bring something fresh. A crisp veggie tray, vibrant tomato salad, or bright, refreshing green salad is a welcome addition to a spread that features mostly comfort foods. Leave dressing on the side to prevent soggy greens.

Do set a time to eat during the party.

Bring something that will stand up to the test of time. Potlucks usually involve going back for second (or third) servings, so don't make something that will wilt like salad or spoil fast (looking at you, mayo). After an hour or so, store items indoors (if outside) or in coolers for those who might arrive later. As a host, don't plan to have your party (and all that food) last from "5pm until". Plan to time it so guests eat closer to arrival, reserving desserts for later in the evening.

Related: 5 Summer Food Safety Tips

Don't forget serving pieces.

Your host likely has a handful of serving spoons, but not a dozen. Bring one that suits your dish.

Photo: Jennifer Causey

For the love of all that is good and holy, Do have a theme.

Some of the best potlucks we've seen have been DIY bars, where the host creates a base (like baked potatoes, chili, spiral ham, burgers, or hot dogs) and the guests all bring toppings and sides to amp things up. This prevents the nightmare mish-mash of overnight breakfast casseroles commingling with seven-layer dips and Sandra's delicious, albeit out of place, sushi donuts.

Don't make it unwieldy. 

We love nachos. We love towering layer cakes. We love gorgeous trifles. We don't love things that are impossible to cut, serve, or enjoy without making a disaster area of your plate. In general, most potlucks aren't seated dinners; they're opportunities to mix and mingle. Serve dishes that are easy to sample and serve with one hand. When serving a cheese plate, slice the cheeses for easy sampling.

Do keep it fun.

As a host, it may help your guests to send around a sign up list for what you want to bring so others can see and adjust accordingly. For friend groups of smaller sizes, it may be obvious that Deb is bringing the chicken salad because it's Deb, and Deb is Miss Chicken Salad, but when social circles begin to overlap, you run the risk of a chicken salad showdown which leaves you salad less and Deb mourning her loss of the crown title.

Don't miss an excuse to party.

Potlucks are great last-minute party ideas. If Saturday's weather looks gorgeous, send out a group text and get the party plan going. Summer is all about making the most of the outdoors; invite friends and enjoy great picnic food while the weather is perfect.