Potlucks are tricky, especially for anyone who wants to have a cohesive menu. A lot of the potlucks I’ve attended are just free for alls, which seems great, but often ends up just resulting in a weird and unappetizing mishmash of a bunch of side dishes. I think in order to have a really good potluck you’ve got to make a plan because if you don’t give people guidance, you’ll end up with 4 pans of brownies and 1 veggie tray.
Even though they can sometimes be all over the place and require a little extra communication, they can also be great! One major reason that a potluck is a good option is they take pressure off of the host of the party to provide all the food. Especially if this gathering is something that is happening regularly, it can drastically reduce the amount of investment (both time and financial) that the host is expected to put in. Another key reason potlucks are great is because they allow everyone to take ownership of their little piece of the dinner. People love feeling that contributed in a meaningful way!
Here are the 4 ways that you can effectively host a potluck:
The Assignment: This is one is pretty straightforward. You’ll tell everyone what they should bring. Avoid getting too specific in your requests and keep people’s categories open to interpretation. I find that broad categories like a salad, dessert, a vegetable side dish, and etc. work best. This strategy tends to work better if you have a least a basic knowledge of the people coming to your dinner, so you can make sure dishes are assigned appropriately based on skill level, dietary restrictions, and interests.
You’ll want to map out all the different types of side dishes you think would work for the dinner. Then figure out what your assignments will be for each person. It’s okay to double up on some of the broader categories. Send out the assignments at least a week prior to your party, so people have sufficient time to plan, shop, and prepare their dishes. Make sure to also include how many people their dish is expected to serve, so they don’t show up with way too much or too little. The biggest pro to this style of potluck is that it can work for almost any size group!
Choose your own adventure: Similar to assigning all the choices, this strategy does let you know ahead of time who is bringing what, but instead of you making that call, everyone has a say in the matter. For this potluck strategy you’ll have a list of things that need brought and people will let you know what they want to bring. I typically do this first come, first choice, so the last people to speak up get stuck with whatever is left.
You can do this one of two ways. In the first way you will post a list of all the dishes that need brought somewhere everyone can see it. I like creating a private Facebook event and having people sign up there, but you can also do a group message or email chain. The other way is with you as the keeper of the list, where people need to reach out to you to reserve their category. It gives you a little more control of the situation. This strategy works best if everyone knows each other, because sometimes it can cause some tension if people get stuck with a dish they don’t want.
Everyone brings the same thing: I love this style of potluck because it is so simple to coordinate. Essentially, you’ll have a very specific theme and everyone will bring their version of the same thing. For example, if you have a soup potluck, everyone would bring a pot of their favorite soup. This allows you to try a little bit of a bunch of different things and everyone gets to share something they love.
You’ll want to make sure to send out the theme early, so people have time to plan. People don’t need to bring enough to feed everyone, since you’ll have so many options, but having an easy way for people to tote home leftovers of their favorites can be a fun touch. These parties tend to work best with a smaller crowd so the quantity of food doesn’t get out of hand. Other themes that work well might be salad, wine & cheese, or even macaroni & cheese. You want something that could be a meal by itself and also has enough diversity so you won’t just end up with 6 of the exact same thing.
Not-really-a-potluck potluck: This style of potluck has many of the pros of a traditional potluck, but takes most of the pressure off the guests. It asks guests to bring their favorite version of the same thing. Unlike the prior potluck style, you don’t want them to bring a whole dish, but just an accessory like a favorite salsa for a taco party or a favorite pizza topping for a DIY pizza party.
This is an easy ask for even the least capable of cooks. Make sure to send out your request with the initial invitation and maybe a quick reminder text the morning of your dinner.