How to Organize a Successful Potluck, According to Chefs and Entertaining Experts

The secret to planning this party type? Staying organized.

A potluck party is the purest form of casual, laid-back entertaining. What could be simpler than asking your favorite people to show up at an appointed hour, delicious dishes in hand? Still, there's a difference between a free-spirited potluck and a free-for-all. Pull back the curtain and you'll discover that it takes a little work to carry out a seemingly effortless party—potlucks included.

While you can't control aspects like the weather, you can oversee the planning piece of the potluck puzzle. We spoke to several expert hosts and cookbook authors to glean advice on pulling off a successful potluck feast. Here's how to get the party organized—which is the key to getting it started.

friends bringing food to potluck
The Good Brigade / GETTY IMAGES

Create a Potluck Sign-Up Sheet

No matter how last minute your party is, organization is vital to its success—unless you're all good with an unappetizing jumble of dishes. That's where a potluck party sign-up sheet comes in handy.

These sheets provide structure, but still allow for culinary creativity and flexibility, says Ronda Carman, the author of The Art of Pantry Cooking: Meals for Family and Friends and Entertaining at Home: Inspirations from Celebrated Hosts. "I don't like to assign a particular dish, as it takes away a bit of the fun and spontaneity," she says. Instead, she offers attendees categories (appetizers, main dishes, salads, side dishes, desserts, and beverages) to choose from. "If you don't, you'll get six pasta salads and six trays of brownies," she says. She follows up with a text or a phone call a few days prior to ensure everyone stays the course.

For larger parties, a shared Google sheet allows guests to choose their assignments without micro-managing, but a group text may suffice for smaller potlucks, says Shaheen Peerbhai and Jennie Levitt, chefs and co-authors of the cookbook, Paris Picnic Club: More Than 100 Recipes to Savor and Share. "It's definitely necessary to have some type of communication [to keep things organized]," says Peerbhai. Encourage guests to bring serving utensils for their dishes, too, adds Levitt. (No slouches in the planning department, Peerbhai and Levitt spent a year making picnic-style meals for friends before pivoting to a pop-up restaurant with locations throughout Paris, culminating in their cookbook.)

Make Sure You Have Enough Food

Having enough food is paramount for any party—but with a potluck, you are not responsible for providing all the food. This is good in some ways (less pressure on you, the host), but it can also be challenging: You still need to make sure attendees bring enough and that you have diverse dishes to round out the menu.

Offer Multiple Options Per Category

So, how many dishes will you need? "People love trying different things at potlucks, so it's best to offer two to three dishes of each category (appetizer, salad, main, dessert)," says Levitt. 

Carman agrees: "I never like anyone to leave a party hungry, so I encourage everyone to bring a bit more food than they think is needed to feed everyone," she says. It's also smart to ask guests—particularly those who aren't keen cooks—to bring wine, beer, and store-bought snacks like chips and nuts.

Casseroles Are Best

There's one dish in particular that always wins at potlucks—and is perfect if you're hosting a sizable group, says Carman. "Maybe it's being raised in the South, but in my opinion, you can never go wrong with a casserole," she says. "They're simple to throw together, can be filled with your favorite meats, grains, or vegetables, and can easily feed a crowd." Leftovers can be packaged into to-go bags—an added bonus.

Accommodate Food Restrictions

Don't assume that everyone is an omnivore. Some people are dairy adverse or suffer from food allergies. Ask guests about food restrictions ahead of time and make note of dietary constraints at the top of your potluck party sign-up sheet; ensure that everyone has something to eat within every category, from appetizers to dessert.

You shouldn't, however, rely on others to accommodate these needs—as the host, it's your responsibility to ensure everyone has something to eat at your event. "If you're hosting the party, offer to prepare a small dish to accommodate the guest(s). Another idea is to print 'contains dairy, meat, wheat, etc.,' on small cards, and place them next to the dish," says Carman.

Think About Seating When Making Your Menu

Potluck choices should also take the setting (and seating) into consideration. "If you're going to be eating on the ground or standing, avoid dishes that require more than just a fork," says Peerbhai. And if you're dead set on making a particular dish? "Try to reimagine it so that it's edible in bite-sized pieces. Finger foods or skewers are great for outdoor gatherings," she says. A table with place settings allows for more solid dishes, like moussaka, or larger pieces of chicken or meat, Peerbhai adds. Temperature and seasonality matter, too: If it's going to be as hot as blazes, nix dishes that will wilt or spoil if left out in the sun.

Speaking of seating: If you're short on chairs for your al fresco potluck, ask guests to bring extra picnic blankets or folding seats—you don't want people in white pants sprawling on the wet grass.

Try a Theme

Can a themed potluck be a recipe for success? "Sign me up. Polynesian chicken salad, cheese balls, fondue, salmon mousse—bring on the '70s," says Carman. A theme can act as an icebreaker and an organizing principle, so long as guests can find relevant recipes they're comfortable preparing. "After all, potlucks are every home cook's time to shine, so people typically like bringing something that they know and are good at making," says Levitt. 

Take your guests' culinary chops into account, too. "A particular cuisine or geography, or even working from a single cookbook, could be great inspiration for a group of ambitious cooks, but broadening a theme to a festivity (summer solstice, Fourth of July, etc.) might be more fun and render better results for everybody," says Peerbhai.

Potluck Etiquette

If you're a potluck guest and you signed up to bake a coconut cake, don't go rogue and bring brownies or a dip. You risk leave a gaping hole in the offerings. "Just a friendly reminder: When you agree to make a certain dish, don’t show up with something different," says Carman. "You should stick to the choice you made or were assigned."

And if guests assigned to bring appetizers show up mid-meal? Well, maybe that's the time to practice your yoga breathing exercises. "In the end, potlucks are about letting go of a lot of the work and stress related to a traditional dinner party, so try not to fret too much about people coming late," says Levitt. Next time around, just make sure those stragglers bring dessert!

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles