The art of the potluck

J.D. and I love going out to eat, but we also like to cook. And, fortunately for us, so do most of our friends. This allows us to partake in the art of the potluck.

Potlucks are a frugal way to entertain and bring people together to share good food. Even with quality ingredients, making food at home lets us eat well for less. The hosts provide the space, the organization, a dish or two, and perhaps a theme to spice it up a bit. The guests each bring something for the feast, and the focus is on enjoying everyone’s contribution.

This distributes the cost and effort (enabling more people to host), and makes gatherings more group-oriented. If everyone is on a tighter budget, a potluck still feels like a treat — but with a lower bill. The food choices are usually more varied, too!

Despite the name, to make a potluck successful, you need more than mere luck. No one’s happy with a meal composed only of chips and dips. Without planning, you may end up with six meat dishes and no salads (actually, J.D. would be all for that), or five desserts and a bag of rolls.

As the host, you can either assign items based on the cooking talents (or time constraints, or food allergies) of the guests, or arrange some kind of sign-up so guests can pick their own contribution but avoid too much duplication. Online invitation systems are helpful for these events if the group is large. I find that some groups take well to a themed potluck, such as “Fiesta Night”. This sparks the imagination and can help ensure that the food goes well together.

If your group includes families with young (or picky) children or people with specific food requirements, make sure they bring something that they themselves will eat. Another solution is to devise a “build-a-potluck”: The hosts, for example, might provide the chili, or baked potatoes, or cheese pizzas, or taco meat, and the guests bring all the fixings and toppings. For dessert, a brownie sundae bar can serve the same purpose.

For a streamlined potluck, guests should arrive with their food ready to serve. Unless you know the host can accommodate you, avoid being the person who brings a bag of groceries and expects to use the entire kitchen to prepare your bok choy sautéed in sesame oil. If you’re the host, the responsibility falls to you, then, to provide those items that need to be served hot out of the oven or right off the grill.

Guests should always know the size of the group they’re feeding, so that they can estimate how much to bring. And as a guest, it’s helpful if you bring your own serving dishes and utensils so the host doesn’t have to scrounge up 12 serving spoons. If you bring a pot of soup, make sure the host has enough bowls, or provide them yourself. Just be sure to mark your items or otherwise make sure they get home with you.

Tip: My sister keeps on hand a few cheap but plain salad bowls and serving platters for those times when you know you’ll have to leave early; it avoids the hassles of either trying to transfer your food mid-party or having to retrieve your plate later on. Thrift stores are an excellent source for these.

If you have an especially large group — for a family reunion, say — you might even make assignments based on an alphabetical organization scheme, or how far people are traveling, or some other method.

Some of J.D.’s extended family are Mennonites; they have the art of the potluck down to a science — and the food can’t be beat. Last summer, we went to a cousin’s home for roasted home-raised pig and home-grown corn on the cob. The rest of us chipped in with salads, breads, desserts, and pop. We picked the pork bones clean and made a pile of empty cobs!

In our group of friends, potlucks are especially popular for brunch, but they can work for any meal. You can do a potluck picnic in the park, dress up a potluck into something fancy or keep it strictly casual. Among gardeners, potlucks are a wonderful opportunity to share your bounty during the harvest. And BBQ potlucks are always a hit in our grilling season.

What about those who don’t cook? No problem. A cheese platter or fruit salad is often welcome, but these won’t qualify as frugal if they’re purchased pre-made, so if thrift is one of the goals, even the non-cooks may need to get out the cutting board or use the microwave.

If you invite a few guests who are truly kitchen-phobic, they can bring the beer (or beverage of choice), or maybe even the chips and dip. Those of us who don’t often purchase prepared foods may enjoy the occasional guilty pleasure of Ruffles and French Onion dip! And use common sense: don’t have the perpetually-late-guy bring the appetizers. If someone’s driving a long distance to come, don’t assign them something requiring refrigeration.

With a bit of planning to go along with the “potluck”, these gatherings can be fun, frugal and family-friendly. Entertaining doesn’t have to be a huge expense or burden to the hosts. Add some friends to spread the load and share the good times, and you can focus on the people you wanted to see instead of stressing over providing the entire menu.

Thanks to Kris for filling in for me at the last second. I’m confident I’ll finish my manuscript today, which means that I should finally be able to give you a preview of the book tomorrow. Second photo by Roland.

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There are 36 comments to "The art of the potluck".

  1. Nicki at Domestic Cents says 15 January 2010 at 05:23

    We have pot-luck dinners at our church but I haven’t ever had one with just friends. It’s a great idea!

  2. Mrs. Money says 15 January 2010 at 05:25

    How cool that some of your family are Mennonites! I’ve always been interested in being Amish. 🙂

    I love potluck picnics in the summer. Thanks for letting Kris post, JD!

  3. Sam says 15 January 2010 at 05:58

    We’ve done the theme potluck get together with a few friends and always had a blast. Pick a theme, i.e. Italian, the host generally provides the drinks and the main course, the guests sign up to bring the sides. Lots of fun, everyone gets to show off a favorite dish, only one person has to clean (vs. the progressive dinner).

  4. Steven says 15 January 2010 at 06:16

    Brings me back to college, we used to do potlucks once a month, and the host would have leftover food to eat for the rest of the week.

    For potlucks, I like to make foods that are “labor intensive” like lasagne, that I’m usually too lazy to make. If you only make a little portion, it’s a whole lot of work, but you can make enough to feed 40 people with a little extra work. Risotto and paella are also things I like to make for potlucks.

  5. Lyn says 15 January 2010 at 06:18

    We hosted a monthly ‘Soup Night’ for years, always on the first Friday of the month. I provided 2 soups – one meat, one veggie – and everyone else provided salads, desserts, drinks, etc. It was a come-when-you-can, leave-when-you-need to affair. We never knew just how many were coming – sometimes 8, sometimes 30. But we always had enough and always had a great time.

    We moved out of state two years ago and the gang asked for my soup recipes so they could continue the tradition! We were back a couple months ago for a visit – and they’re still getting together every month.

  6. Sara A. says 15 January 2010 at 06:35

    The dollar store has lots of serving trays, utensils, bowls for $1 each. I will usually stock up these for potluck occasions. That way, if the item doesn’t come back, I don’t get upset and the host doesn’t feel guilty.

  7. Leah says 15 January 2010 at 06:42

    Love it! I even hosted occasional potlucks as a high schooler (with my other HS friends, believe it or not). We usually got together once every other week for a big group thing like frisbee and movies. I started out providing all the food but moved to potluck when that got too onerous.

    I just moved to a new town, so I don’t have much of a base yet. I look forward to meeting new people so that I can host another potluck!

    My advice, if you have a potluck in the park: make sure there are enough grills! I had a fabulous potluck a few years ago with 70 people, and we had more than enough food. However, we did not have enough charcoal nor enough grill space, so the salads and chips went much faster than all the shish-kabob supplies I picked up.

  8. Beth says 15 January 2010 at 06:52

    Great post! I usually volunteer to bring a fancy salad. I can buy some greens and cucumber, and then use whatever I have on hand (like raisins, nuts, seeds and dried fruit, frozen peas) to jazz it up.

    It’s the dressing that makes the salad, so I have a few good homemade ones to choose from for a potluck.

  9. Karawynn @ Pocketmint says 15 January 2010 at 06:55

    I like the idea of the build-your-own (tacos, etc.) where everyone signs up for an ingredient. That allows for a bit more cohesion, while still spreading out the burden of cost and prep.

    I was going to explain about a similar tradition I used to have that we called a ‘supper club’, but it ran too long, so I moved it to my blog here.

    JD: if you’re like me and most of the writers I know, something about having a cover makes it ‘real’. 🙂 Congratulations!

  10. EscapeVelocity says 15 January 2010 at 06:58

    Someone I knew in college once attended a church potluck where there were thirteen kinds of baked beans and nothing else. I went to a potluck once that came pretty close to being all chips and salsa, but I’ve never experienced perfect homogeneity.

  11. Ami Kim says 15 January 2010 at 07:10

    I love this idea, especially when I figured out that ‘potluck’ doesn’t have to mean boring or unlimited casseroles. This week I had a mini-potluck lunch with 3 other ladies. We ate some fantastic home made soup, gorgeous fruit salad (in a crystal bowl, of course), sandwiches and spelt chocolate chip cookies. Yum. I imagine brunch or dessert potlucks could be a fun twist on the idea as well.

  12. Rika says 15 January 2010 at 07:13

    What a great topic! Potlucks aren’t common in my part of the world (Japan) but I’m hoping to introduce them to my friends here. I really appreciate reading something like this, that gives me so many ideas.

  13. Meg says 15 January 2010 at 07:41

    I love a good potluck! I agree, some organization is necessary to really make it successful. My husband’s coworkers do an annual potluck, and everyone looks forward to it because it’s a way to show off your skills.

    If you find yourself always hosting potlucks, maybe you could invest in some extra serving spoons, warmers, etc.

  14. Chett says 15 January 2010 at 07:55

    In college I met a Hispanic student who was new to the US. Over the course of a few years our friendship grew and he introduced me to many of his friends from the international club who attended the same college as us. We decided to host an international potluck and it is still one of my favorite memories of college. Each person brought a dish native to their country (and a drink of choice if they pleased). My wife and I, in our small 840 sq ft home, had about 25 guests from eight different countries. I even had two of my college professors attend and they loved it. We spilled into the garage, side rooms, and the outdoors discussing food, culture, school, and politics. I grew up pretty closed minded from a rural area and had little knowledge about other countries and their culture. This experience helped me open my eyes to the world around me and realize how few differences we really have with other cultures.

    Great post Kris.

  15. David/Yourfinances101 says 15 January 2010 at 09:25

    Potlucks are great.

    I have found that establishing a few very “loose” groundrules can help.

    Otherwise, you might end up with some pretty wild dishes.

    Great post

  16. Brianne says 15 January 2010 at 09:50

    This is making me hungry. I’d love to start inviting people over for dinner on a more regular basis, but the cost was a detractor. Potlucks would definitely work.

  17. Little House says 15 January 2010 at 10:22

    Great advice. I went to a holiday party potluck in December, and no one had really organized who was bringing what. We ended up with a lot of desserts! Luckily, a few people brought actual food. I also like your idea of “build a potluck.” Thanks for these tips!

  18. Maureen says 15 January 2010 at 10:23

    Hmmm, 5 desserts and a bag of rolls. Sounds great to me!

    Actually we were once invited to a very fun dessert potluck. That might be nice for Valentines Day. At my husband’s work they hosted a lunchtime chili party. It was a huge success. They used it as a charity fundraiser, but it would be a good alternative to having group lunches out.

  19. Max says 15 January 2010 at 10:28

    But don’t fall victim to the potluck fallacy!

    If you have a group of 12 people, and *everyone* brings enough food to feed 12 people, you end up with 12 times too much food. 🙂 In other words, don’t bring much more food than you/couple would eat at a meal. If everyone does that than waaaay too much leftovers.

  20. J.D. says 15 January 2010 at 10:51

    Thanks to Kris for letting me have this to post this morning. It meant I was able to finally finish the book. I’ve turned in the final chapter to my editor, and now we’ll enter the editing phase, which will last about a month.


    I can hardly believe I did it.

  21. Ken says 15 January 2010 at 10:54

    Congrats JD. Quite the accomplishment.

  22. Patty says 15 January 2010 at 11:46

    Potlucks work great for holidays, too. We do potluck with extended family for Thanksgiving and Christmas so one family isn’t overwhelmed with the responsibility of hosting and cooking everything. I suggested this after spending one Christmas morning and afternoon cooking for everyone else while they enjoyed time with their family! We all have our “specialties” and it ends up being a relaxed, enjoyable time.

  23. Michelle C says 15 January 2010 at 11:52

    Congratulations J.D.!

  24. Debbie M says 15 January 2010 at 12:24

    Congratulations, JD!

    We have various kinds of potluck things at work, too. Some I remember are:

    * pie contest (with pie described as something sweet with a crust) – no organization is done here except for having the contestants choose a number from a hat with which to label their pie.

    * chili cook-off – some people sign up to bring chili (as with the pie contest), and there is a list of other things to bring like cheese, corn chips, drinks, and you can sign up to bring one of these or something else.

    * holiday lunch – the sponsor brings a turkey and each person brings something from their heritage

    * trick-or-treat – bring Halloween treats while a monster movie is playing in the background

    * birthday parties – people bring random treats

  25. chacha1 says 15 January 2010 at 12:39

    This can work on a really small scale, too. For several years now DH and I have hosted regular small dinner parties – from just one more couple to six-to-ten people – and our guests always contribute something. The main hot dish can be as simple as chili or chowder. With a salad or dessert contributed by the guests, easy (and inexpensive) for everyone.

    The host’s dish should never be something that requires too much attention. Lasagna or paella as someone mentioned above – perfect!

    One of the side benefits, for us, to doing something like this regularly is the incentive to get out the good china and actually eat at the dining table, instead of in front of the TV!

  26. Shara says 15 January 2010 at 12:54

    We do an annual potluck at work between Thanksgiving and Xmas for our area with ~20 people. We started the first year I was here and I didn’t realize how much I contributed to starting a ‘tradition’ until this year, which was the best one yet. I don’t do too much organization beyond picking a date and putting out a sign-up sheet. It gets hard to come up with something to bring because it’s got to keep all day long (or the wait for the one microwave winds up an hour long), so we get a number of crock pots bubbling away.

    When we set it up we did so in a way that made sense. We bring tables and chairs out into the hallway/common areas and cram in and have a great time. But from what I understand a lot of groups just put out the food and go back to their offices with a plate.

    I’ve found it gets easier each time. You know how much food to bring, how to set things up conveniently, what kind of food will just be snatched up, and what kind of food you wind up with a lot of (green chile stew is huge here). People often ask me for recommendations on what to bring and experience really helps.

    Another idea I would throw out is encouraging people to form their own sub-groups. Around here two or three people will pick complimentary items: ham and German potato salad, or green chile stew and tortillas.

  27. April B says 15 January 2010 at 13:02

    I would love to do this once a month with my neighbors. A really nice way to build a community as well. 🙂

  28. Cammy@TippyToeDiet says 15 January 2010 at 14:05

    Thank you so much for mentioning the necessity of arriving with your dish ready to serve! A dear friend used to show up at each event with bags of veggies to chop and dips to assemble, ultimately taking over every countertop and generally destroying the kitchen in the process. Just in time for the guests to arrive. 🙂

  29. lane says 15 January 2010 at 14:24

    Congratulations JD. We have a differnt wrinkle on the the potluck idea in my neighborhood. We do periodic progressive dinners. We live within 0.5 miles of each other and walk between houses, usually 3 per evening. So , first house has cocktails and appetizers( which can be potluck), second a main course like soups or chili and breads, then dessert and coffee at the last house. We’ve had up to 30 people participate. The most fun evening was during a blizzard ( this is Maine). A host can ask for help or make the course alone.

  30. Allan Jackson says 15 January 2010 at 14:53

    I love potlucks and having friends over for dinner — typically I’ll just make a main dish and have everyone else bring a side or appetizer. Another fun dinner we had recently was stone soup. Everyone brought an ingredient and we put them all together in a big pot. We also do a Thanksgiving potluck dinner with friends on the Sunday before the real thing.

    In addition to food potlucks, you can do other kinds too. One of my favorites is a beer potluck. Everyone brings 6-12 of their favorite beers, and you put all the bottles in one of those little kid swimming pools. Tomorrow one of my friends is hosing a “record party”. It’s basically a music potluck where everyone brings a couple of records over to play.

    In general, potlucks are a great way to get together without putting too much of a burden on any one member/couple in the group.

  31. KS says 15 January 2010 at 15:49

    I have been hosting potlucks for half of my adult life; I’ve had anywhere from 10 to 50 people. Some things I’ve learned along the way:

    1) It’s often easiest if the host provides the main course, esp. for large parties.
    2) Soup and chili parties are easy – we borrow some stockpots and/or crockpots to keep things warm – and ask people to bring appetizers, sides, salads, and desserts.
    3) Stock up on takeout containers – dollar store, party stores even, have inexpensive ones. I often send leftovers home with poor graduate students :).
    4) If someone tells you they’ll be late and asks what to bring, make sure they’re not responsible for stuff people eat early – chips, salsa, dips, etc. Sometimes they show up with what stuff anyway. Oh well.
    5) Stock some index cards and pens/markers so people can label their dishes vegetarian, contains nuts, whatever.
    6) If people show up with deli containers, transfer the potato salad/coleslaw/whatever to something slightly nicer. It seems to help to get the stuff eaten.

  32. AM says 15 January 2010 at 21:13

    I have been to a ton of potlucks (or whatever you want to call them) in my life. Groups range from 6 families to 60+ families. (Keep in mind that a lot of these families will have 4 to 12 kids.)

    Up until about 25 families very little direction is needed in the circles I am talking about. When it gets below 8 families we tend to get nervous and mention the size.

    Over 25 families it becomes easier to prepare one main dish and then have people bring salads, deserts, etc. The reason for this is serving line efficiency.

    It always amazes me how well balanced the selection is. Very seldom is there an imbalance. But keep in mind, the people I speak of do this thing a lot. My lovely wife and I just came off a 6 month stint being in charge of the potlucks for…

    …our Mennonite church!

    (Well, Quasi-Mennonite might be more accurate. Most of us have deep roots in the Mennonites and we are still a sorta-kinda-Mennonite church.)

    So yeah, this intrigued me.

  33. Not My Mother says 17 January 2010 at 16:03

    We have a set of friends we get together with whenever there’s a Formula-1 Grand Prix race on.

    The dinner is themed around the country hosting the GP. The hosts provide the main, and everyone else does nibbles, entree (appetiser for US), sides, dessert, and drinks. We have a spreadsheet on google docs where we say if we’re coming and put our names down for each course.

    It’s really fun and it gives you a chance to try cooking new things as well.

  34. Crystal says 19 January 2010 at 10:21

    My husband and I are in a board gaming group that meets up about once a month for a potluck/board gaming night. Lately we’ve been hosting it and it’s been a ton of fun.

    We provide the main dish and each of our friends bring a side or beverage.

    Last weekend we provided chili, rice, and iced tea. Our friends brought the rest of the fixings. Everybody had a great time and we gamed until 2am. It cost us less than $20 and our guests spent anywhere from $3 to $10 on their contributions…since most of our friends are having money issues right now, we are more than fine with the balance!

    I’m thinking that next month’s theme will be a frozen pizza party…everybody brings a frozen pizza of their choice and we serve all of them up buffet style. No one should need to spend more than $5 that way…

  35. Jackie says 20 January 2010 at 17:56

    Where I work, we do a potluck for the combined federal campaign, which is a huge fundraiser. We have people bring their favorite dishes, and there is a contest where the office mates can “vote” by putting in change when they really like a dish. The dish that makes the most money wins bragging rights for the cook, and money is raised for charity. It’s a lot of fun.

  36. skillet says 06 January 2014 at 14:48

    Serve in a bowl with a slice of bread and butter on the
    side, and make your family do your dishes afterward since you “slaved” over stew on a weeknight.
    Imagine how much of your time is saved when you cook a nutritious
    meal that does not eat up several hours. A tiny amount of the
    oil used during frying will be absorbed by the cast iron skillet, adding seasoning to the skillet and
    the unique flavoring that cast iron skillets are famous for.

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