Tis the season of the potluck. Potlucks are great if you want to save money and still have a feast, but they can also spell trouble if you don’t organize them properly. To save you from a meal starring ten liters of soda and no dessert, here are nine quick tips for organizing a potluck.

Set a Start Time and an End Time
Potlucks don’t work well as “drop-in” events, because your salad could arrive three hours after the dessert. By specifying a start time and an end time, people are more likely to arrive on time. If you’re really worried, let them know what time dinner starts, just like galas do. Cocktails at 7, dinner at 7:30.

Ask for Volunteers for Courses
If you don’t ask people to volunteer for specific courses in advance, you’re very likely to wind up with too many desserts and not enough sides. Send out a group email or Evite and ask people to choose a dish category in their RSVP. Keep it simple – appetizer, salad, side dish, dessert, or beverage. If too many people volunteer in any one category, ask them to choose something else.

Provide the Entrée Yourself
Just to be safe, assign the entrée to yourself. Then you’ll be sure your guests will leave with something substantial in their bellies.

Stock Up on Fill-In Items
Also to be safe, buy a container of fancy nuts, a bottle of wine, a bag of lettuce, and some fancy cookies. Choose things you like that you’ll be able to eat the rest of the week, but at least you’ll be able to throw something together in a flash if a guest is a no-show or forgets to bring something.

Consider a Theme
If you don’t want to deal with a whole dinner, consider a theme. Last year casserole parties were very popular. You could also do a specific color theme, where all the food has to be that color. If you have a favorite show or movie, focus the food around things you’d associate with it. Check out my ideas for entertaining at home for more themes.

Just Do Drinks and Dessert
People love dessert parties, so make your next potluck a drinks and dessert party. Ask some people to bring liquor and others to bring their best desserts. For this one, just set a start time – no one will mind if a new dessert shows up hours into the party.

Supply Cups, Plates, and Utensils
If you don’t mind dealing with paper and plastic, buy sturdy paper or plastic plates and cups for your potluck. It’s best to use your regular silverware – the plastic stuff is flimsy. If you don’t like paper or plastic plates, hit the dollar store, Ikea, or the thrift store to stock on real plates that you won’t mind breaking. I recommend plain white if you can find them, but a mish mash of different styles is fun for the kitsch factor.

Keep It Low-Key
Potlucks are not formal events. Rather than one large table, consider arranging a few seating areas with seats and small tables so people can mingle. Set out a buffet and let people eat what they want when they want. If you do want everyone to sit at the same table, then make the meal family style – no formal plating or presentation.

Keep the Guest List Reasonable
If you’ll have more than 15 people or so, the amount of food can quickly get out of hand. If you must host a large potluck, ask people to bring dishes that serve 8 or fewer – then you won’t be left to deal with a ton of leftovers in throw-away containers.

I attend at least 8 potlucks a year and they are always a success because we’ve come to know who will bring what. It’s informal, fun, and always a feast.

What’s your favorite tip for organizing a successful potluck?


2 Responses to “How to Organize a Potluck: 9 Easy Tips”

  1. Matt Tavares on April 3rd, 2010 8:06 am

    You can use http://www.potluckcoordinator.com to organize a potluck easily.

  2. Andrea on January 27th, 2013 3:53 am

    you can also try moretoact.com, you can specify the dishes and let people decide what to bring.

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