Friday, July 15, 2011

Ideas and Tips for Planning the Perfect Potluck

You may like the idea of having company over for a meal, but the fact is, you just don’t have the time to do all the cooking, or you may not have enough money in your budget to buy all the extra food. These days, groceries are expensive, and getting more so every day. The solution can be to host a potluck.

When you host a potluck, you have a lot less “prep work” that you need to do, and far fewer responsibilities during the meal. That means you have more time to enjoy all the festivities.

Potlucks can be very enjoyable for your guests too. A lot of people love to cook up their favorite recipes and share these dishes with others. They just don’t want to have to host an entire dinner all on their own.

Of course, not everyone looks forward to a potluck dinner. For some, the term “potluck” conjures up memories of mysterious casseroles made out of who-knows-what, Jell-O salads, canned baked beans in Tupperware bowls and stale, store-bought apple pies. But potlucks don’t have to be that way.

The key to hosting the perfect potluck is P L A N N I N G. A potluck can be a totally wonderful event as long as you take certain necessary steps ahead of time. Number one, don’t invite people over to a potluck and have them just bring whatever pops into their heads an hour before the meal. If you do, you’re sure to end up with too much of certain types of dishes, or food items that do not pair well together.

Decide ahead of time what types of dishes you’d like to have at the meal. When you invite your guests, give them a choice of menu items to bring. Once they tell you what they’re bringing, that’s their assignment. You don’t need to be super specific with your assignments; most people like to have a little leeway regarding what to bring. Just give them a category—a green salad, a dessert, a bread, a cooked vegetable dish, etc.

You might want to make the main entrée yourself, to make sure there’s going to be enough of the primary menu item. Then plan dishes or food categories that can go with it: cooked vegetables, warm side pastas, casseroles, cold pasta salads, veggies and dip trays, chips and dip trays, fruit salads, desserts, beverages, etc. As people RSVP “yes,” you can assign them one of these dishes. Know how many of each of these dishes you want. So if you’d like three tossed salads, cross that off your list once three people offer to bring a salad.

Evite ( is an easy way to divvy up potluck assignments. You can actually choose a potluck design for their invitations. They have quite a few specifically designed for potlucks. Then there is a feature where you can ask guests to bring something. You then make up a list of what food items you’d like brought to your party (such as main chicken dish, main beef dish, casserole, warm vegetable dish, pasta dish, tossed green salad, dessert, wine, liters of soda, etc.) and how many you’d like of each. Ask guests to choose one to bring. As they do, the total number needed for that food item will be reduced accordingly. It’s a very efficient way to make sure you don’t get too much of any one item.

You could just do a generic or “old fashioned” potluck—where you make the main meat entrée and have guests bring a wide variety of other side dishes, casseroles, finger foods, desserts and beverages. You assign them a general type of food to bring, and they get to choose something within those food categories. Now you may end up with a lot of different types of food—Tex Mex, pastas, fried chicken, meatloaf, casseroles, finger sandwiches, and maybe even hummus, egg rolls, and sushi, if you’ve got friends with ethically-diverse taste buds. These kind of potlucks can really be a lot of fun.

Or, you could come up with a theme potluck and have guests bring foods that fit in with that theme. That way, all of the food is sure to “go together.” Here are some ideas for themed potlucks:

1. Soups and Sandwiches: have guests bring either a crock pot of their favorite soup or stew, or a platter of sandwiches.

2. Italian: ask guests to bring their favorite pasta dish such as lasagna, chicken cacciatore, fettuccini, spaghetti or rigatoni. You could supply the garlic bread, tossed green salad and spumoni ice cream.

3. Mexican: ask guests to bring either their favorite Mexican entrée or sides such as chips and salsa or guacamole, seven layer dip, flan, spicy pinto beans in the crock pot, and maybe a raw vegetable tray with a spicy sour cream dip.

4. Thanksgiving food—everybody brings an item on a traditional Thanksgiving menu. You could do this for a group a week or two before Thanksgiving (such as with friends who will be traveling out of town for Thanksgiving, and won’t be able to come to your “regular” Thanksgiving dinner you may be hosting at your home, or you could do this menu any time of the year—just for fun).

5. Chili Cook-off: guests each make up a pot of chili to share and guests can vote on which was the tastiest, most spicy, most unique, etc.

6. Picnic Foods: Menu items to have guests bring include fried chicken, coleslaw, potato salad, barbecued beans, chips and dip, brownies, iced tea. This is a good one for the cold, winter months when everyone has “cabin fever” and would like a mental “get away” from the winter doldrums with a summer picnic (indoors, of course!).

7. Comfort Foods: have guests bring foods like chicken and dumplings, baked macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, scalloped potatoes, creamed spinach in the crock pot, cornbread, peach or apple crisp, chocolate cake or bread pudding.

8. Favorite childhood foods: ask everyone to bring their favorite main entrée, side dish or dessert that their mom used to make when growing up. (You will probably ask a third of your guest list to bring a main entrée, another third to bring a side dish, and the last third to bring a dessert. You could supply the beverages and an entrée.)

9. Taco salad buffet—each guest brings a different ingredient for taco salad, such as tortilla chips, sour cream, salsa, shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, fresh guacamole, canned black beans, chopped tomatoes, iceberg/leaf lettuce that has been shredded or broken down into salad-sized pieces, sliced green onions, sliced black olives. Usually the host will provide the seasoned and cooked ground beef. Guests can each bring one or two items, depending on how costly their item is. Some invitees might be asked to bring two less-costly items (i., 2 large cans of black beans and two large cans of black olives that have been sliced), whereas another guest might just bring the shredded cheese for everybody. Arrange taco salad ingredients on a buffet line.

10. Salad samplin’ potluck—ask guests to each bring a salad—enough for a small taste for everyone. This is an especially nice get-together for the ladies. We used to do this at one of my former employers. All the women in the office would each bring a different salad for a weekday lunch together, such as fajita salad, pasta salad, Asian salad, fruit salad, Waldorf salad, etc. Before the event, each guest submits the recipe for their salad to the hostess, who organizes all the recipes into a mini cookbook for guests.

11. From the garden—everyone brings dishes made from produce they grew in their own garden. This is an ideal type of get-together if you have friends who have gardens. Ask them to bring dishes made from produce they grew themselves. They could bring everything from homemade pickles, pie made with homegrown fruits, chips and salsa made from their own tomatoes, freshly-picked garden salads, etc. This is an ideal meal towards the end of the summer when you’re doing lots of harvesting.

12. Spa food—ideal if you have a group of ladies who are all “trying to be healthy” or limit calories, but still want to get together and socialize. Ask them to bring foods they might have if they were going to a day spa—salads, iced flavored herb teas, smoothies, whole grain muffins, hummus dips and whole grain crackers, veggie wraps, cucumber and tofu sandwiches, etc. Ask your guests to each bring one of these types of foods. To add to the fun, hire a masseuse and/or a manicurist to come out to your home to take turns doing these treatments on your guests before or after the meal.

13. Cookie party—a potluck with just sweets in mind. Like the salad party, each guest makes up her favorite recipe. Recipes are submitted ahead of time to compile into a cookbook. Guests bring enough cookies for every guest to have one—either to sample there or to take home. Hostess provides coffee, tea and cool beverages like iced tea and sparkling water to go with the cookie tasting.

Some final thoughts:

When you’re planning out your meal, make sure you have dishes coming from every course—appetizers, soups or salads, meat dishes, casseroles, side dishes, desserts and beverages (both nonalcoholic as well as alcoholic). Plan to have at least 2-3 dishes coming from each category. That way in case something happens—one of your guests get sick at the last minute and can’t come, for instance—you’ll still have enough of that type of food out on your buffet table. If you’re providing the main entrée, you may still want to have some extra meat or pasta dishes coming, to ensure that you have enough “main entrée” type of foods available for guests to eat.

Give your guests some guidelines for how much to bring. Don’t assume that if you ask them to bring a salad, that they’ll make the same size bowl you might bring. Spell out exactly how much you want them to bring. For instance, I might ask my guests to bring “enough for 10-15 servings,” or “enough for two families.” They don’t have to bring enough for every guest to have a full-sized serving, but there should be enough that everyone present could at least have a small portion, just to taste it. Plan to have a little extra food coming, just in case unexpected guests show up, or you’re having teenage boys over with a ravenous appetite. I’d rather have more than enough food at a party, rather than just barely enough. People can always take their leftovers home.

Have most of your guests bring dishes that are prepared in advance, don’t need to be heated in the oven, and are ready to serve when they arrive. Most of us have limited oven space, so you don’t want lots of people asking to heat dishes in your oven. If you’re providing the main entrée (such as a meat dish) you may already be using most of the oven space to cook that.

Ask your guests to bring their own serving utensils. Just in case they don’t, it’s nice to have extra serving spoons, tongs, pie servers, etc. on hand. For relatively little money, you can go down to your local store and pick up these items rather cheaply. I bought several large plastic serving spoons from Dollar Tree for $1 each. I have them just for casual parties. If they get lost, it’s no big deal because they didn’t cost that much. But it’s nice to have them on hand “just in case” they’re needed….and they almost always are.

Figure out ahead of time where you want to guests to set their dishes when they arrive. I usually have a table for beverages, a table for desserts, my center island in the kitchen is for main and side dish foods, and then I have countertop areas set aside for salads and bread/crackers/chips. And of course, I have the plates, napkins and eating utensils set out at the head of the food line. It’s better to plan out all this in advance, so you’re ready for your guests when they start arriving.

For my recent luau, here’s a photo from our dessert table. My guests all brought lots of desserts! There’s always plenty of sweets at our parties. I have a lot of friends who like to bake, just like I do.

Potlucks are really a lot of fun…and an easy way to entertain. If you haven’t hosted one lately, you really should!

Happy pot-lucking!!!

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