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What Could Mess Up a Perfect Potluck Party and How to Prevent It

Whether you’re throwing a potluck for friends at your house or going to attend one as a guest, or maybe your office is having a potluck-style holiday celebration, it’s really easy to get stressed about making a good impression. Here’s your essential list for everything that could go wrong, all the do’s and don’ts, ideas, and more.
Anna at SideChef
Content Specialist. Bitten by curiosity bug. Obsessed with words. Fuelled by coffee. Powered by Google. Love cheese, chocolate, and cherries. Don’t judge your taco by its price.
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Anna at SideChef
Content Specialist. Bitten by curiosity bug. Obsessed with words. Fuelled by coffee. Powered by Google. Love cheese, chocolate, and cherries. Don’t judge your taco by its price.

I remember being invited to my first ever potluck party. It was almost sixteen years ago, and I had no idea what a potluck even meant. Potluck was entirely unfamiliar to me; being raised by Russian parents, I knew not to bring any food to a dinner party unless I wanted to insult the host. My family just never hosted or been a part of anything similar to it. And there I was, outside of my cultural comfort zone and totally freaking out about what dish to make, how big of a portion to bring and how to conduct myself at a potluck gathering in general. So I researched everything potluck-related as if it was my science project. Long story short, in the end, I made an artichoke dip, and it was fun.

I love potluck parties now. They are low-effort to host (if done right) and always fun to be a part of. Such a great way to share and enjoy various dishes and a good time, be it with friends, family, or coworkers. Many years and a few dozen potluck events later, both as a host and a guest, I know exactly what to do, how to make sure everything runs smoothly, the best dishes to make and bring, and how to be ready for any potluck emergency.

Assuming I couldn’t be the only one with a light PTSD from my first potluck experience, I’d love to share the essential do’s and don’ts, little things to remember, and some fun ideas to have a perfect potluck party—fun, stress-free, and delicious.

How To Plan and Host a Potluck Gathering

If you have ever thrown a dinner party or any gathering where you were the one in charge of all the food, you must know how challenging it can be. That’s why potlucks are so popular, especially during the holiday season. It’s a perfect way to take some pressure off and enjoy celebrating with friends and family, knowing that everyone contributes a dish to the table.

Now, even a potluck, actually, especially a potluck-type party, requires some planning. Otherwise, you might end up with five green bean casseroles and no dessert, disappointed guests, and possibly a trashed kitchen. Here’s what you should remember and do to prevent it.

1. Have a detailed guest list and make it specific.

To make sure everyone is on the same page, make a potluck sign-up sheet. You may think it’s too official for a friendly party, but it will actually make everyone feel more included and leave no room for confusion. You can create an invitation via Facebook or use one of many online resources like evite or punchbowl.


  • Make sure to find out about any dietary restrictions and food allergies your guests might have.

  • Provide a list of non-food items needed for those who are not great chefs or don’t have time to cook anything.

  • Allow some types of dishes to overlap in case of some last-minute emergencies.

2. Confirm if anyone will need to use your kitchen.

After everyone has signed up and chose what dish they will be bringing to the potluck, it’s good to double-check if any guests will require the use of any kitchen appliances. Someone might want to use the oven, microwave, or blender for finishing touches, and it might get a bit chaotic.

3. Confirm if you need to provide serving utensils.

If it’s a large potluck party and you need to provide a serving spoon, tongs, or ladles, you might run out pretty quickly. So to avoid another possible moment of chaos, just check in with guests and best ask them to bring a serving utensil if needed.

4. The host is responsible for the main dish.

As an unwritten rule of potluck, if you’re hosting, you are making the main course.

5. Have some extra food containers ready.

Be prepared to have some leftovers by the end of the party, and make sure to
have some Tupperware around for your guests to take home.

Also, people might want to take back the platters and bowls they brought the dish in, and it will save you some trouble having those food containers ready just in case.

6. Don’t assume everyone must help.

People might volunteer to help with serving or cleaning up, but it’s not guaranteed. And there’s no reason to get upset over it.

If some guests do volunteer to help, don’t take it for granted.

Idea: To make it easier to coordinate your potluck dishes and give your guests some cooking inspiration, choose a theme for your gathering. It can be absolutely anything. Here are some ideas for your next potluck:

How to be a good potluck guest.

I’ve always been a bit neurotic about being invited to parties even when I didn’t have to bring something I cooked. The stress of choosing the perfect potluck dish and making it almost gave me an eye-twitch. There are many articles and blogs on potluck etiquette for guests, but the ‘10 Potluck Etiquette Rules’ from LA Weekly is still my favorite one. But on top of that, here are some basics to make sure you get invited again.

1. Steer clear of the kitchen area.

Save the host some trouble and have your dish ready to be served as you walk through the door. Avoid making something that you’ll need to reheat, chill, or finish making at the host’s kitchen. Just choose a dish that can be enjoyed at room temperature. Or use a thermal bag if you must. If it’s something that needs to be cut, like a sheet cake or brownies, cut it beforehand and not when you’re already at the party.

2. Bring everything you need with you.

If you need to use utensils for serving your potluck creation, make sure you bring
that as well. Try to avoid any last-minute panic trying to find an extra pair of tongs or a ladle, just bring those with you, and you’re all set.

Also, bring a food container if there are leftovers, and you need to take your dish or bowl back. I know I also said that the host should have those ready, but it’s nice to come prepared.

3. Make your dish speak for itself.

If you know some members of your potluck crew have dietary restrictions or allergies, make sure they know if your dish is ok for them to eat. You can make a sticky label or a note to place next to it, just providing some general information - gluten-free, vegetarian, contains peanuts, etc.

4. Know your crowd.

Unless the potluck theme is calling for it, don’t bring anything that could be considered strange by most of the guests. For example, I wouldn’t make my pickled herring and beets salad (even though it is absolutely delicious) unless I was specifically asked for it.

Stay away from overly fragrant dishes as well. You may love that durian mousse, but chances are it’s not going to be the potluck favorite.

5. Don’t flake out at the last minute.

Flaking out on a potluck party at the last minute is the worst thing one can do. There are justifiable reasons and emergencies; of course, we are human after all. But in that case, communicate your situation to the host clearly and preferably at least a few hours before the potluck starts. Don’t just decide not to show up and assume no one would notice.

6. If you can’t cook, just don’t.

If you have never successfully fried an egg in your entire life and get assigned a casserole dish, don’t just accept the task and then a)flake out (see rule 5), b)make an abomination of a casserole that’s impossible to eat, or c)come in with a bag of tortilla chips and assume it’s the same as bringing a casserole.

There are plenty of non-food items needed at any potluck, and if you communicate your skill set (or a lack thereof) to the host clearly, together, you can decide what items you could take responsibility for.

7. Keep it classy.

This one dish is always all the rave, but it doesn’t mean you can pig out on it and leave nothing for the other guests. The general rule is to take sampling-size portions of everybody’s dish and only go for seconds if there’s plenty available.

8. Don’t be “that one vegan friend.”

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with being vegan, staying away from gluten, or only eating organic. But please don’t make it all about you when you agree to be a part of a potluck where most guests don’t follow the same lifestyle.

You can make it known in the planning process and make your dish fit your dietary requirements. But don’t get upset when “Jenny’s mac’n’cheese is not dairy-free,” or act appalled when “Ben is not sure if the fried chicken he made was free-range organic.” Just don’t be that person.

9. Don’t leave a mess.

You don’t have to, but it’s always nice to help the host with cleaning. You don’t have to wash all the dishes and vacuum the living room, but you can help to tidy up. And don’t leave a dirty serving dish with the host; rinse it off and take it back with you at the end of the potluck.

And one last thing for both a potluck host and a potluck guest. This one is probably the most important one to follow.

Relax, have fun, and don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s a potluck party, not a Master Chef filming set.

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