A potluck can be a great way for friends and family to get together without a single host being saddled with a lot of cooking. Everyone brings a favorite dish, a bottle of wine, or both. What can possibly go wrong?
Well, a few things, it turns out. Everyone might show up with tortilla chips and guac. Maybe one person makes enough of their dish to feed an army, and you end up with quarts of leftover dip. It’s possible that most guests eschew cooking for a stop at the bottle shop, which means that there’s not enough food to soak up the wine.
Or, perhaps most tragically, you end up with the right number of appetizers, entrées, desserts and wines, but they don’t really go together well: The dishes don’t complement each other, the pairings are lackluster. As host, you worry that people aren’t having the best meal they could.
We’re here to save you from that fate. Use this guide to help facilitate a potluck where everyone has a delicious dinner and gets a chance to express their gastronomic creativity or show off their pairing prowess.
Pick a Theme
You don’t need to have a full-on theme party, but it’s a good idea to pick a style of cuisine or a main dish to act as centerpiece. Then, direct guests toward categories for other contributions. This leaves them room to prepare a favorite recipe, yet ensures that the meal will feel cohesive.
- You roast a chicken.
- YOUR guests bring roasted vegetables, salad, bread, a light-bodied red wine.
- You make pulled pork.
- YOUR guests pack a picnic with cornbread, coleslaw, pickles, a deep-hued rosé.
- You prepare a salad loaded with protein and toppings like avocado.
- YOUR guests supply chips, dips, hors d’ouvres, sparkling wine.
- You make dough balls for personal pizzas, with tomato sauce and mozzarella on hand.
- YOUR guests provide their favorite pizza toppings, plus bubbly or a textural white or orange wine.
Chances are, there’s someone in your circle who’s not a great cook or doesn’t have a lot of time on their hands. “Bring your favorite bottle of wine,” is always a friendly directive. Also, it can often serve as a conversation starter: What makes this bottle special to you? How did you discover it?
As with the food, though, it’s your duty as host to make sure that there’s enough wine for everyone, and that it will complement the meal.
Cha McCoy is a certified sommelier and hospitality professional who founded Cha Squared Hospitality, which organizes a series of wine-pairing dinners called The Communion. She has a few food-friendly suggestions to help keep guests happy.
“Gamay is my go-to grape for hors d’oeuvres,” she says. “It can handle all the flavors at the same time and still remain elegant. It also goes well with fish, rare cuts of beef, turkey or steak, or tuna tartare.”
On the lighter side, “Everyone loves sparkling wine. You can’t go wrong with Champagne,” or other traditional-method sparkling wines, McCoy says. “Fried dishes go well with bubbles, too.”
Avoid the temptation to turn your home into the school gymnasium or church basement of your youth. The ideal number of guests is 6–10. There will be enough food for everyone, even if couples bring a shared dish. Plus, not everyone has to cook, and no one has to make a huge quantity.
Yes, this is a joint effort, but as the host/organizer, you have some responsibility to make sure that everyone is fed. This includes having allergen-free options to suit any guests with restrictions, as well as backup food in case there’s not enough. Leela Cyd, author of the cookbook Food With Friends, looks to store-bought items to cover her bases.
“I’m a connoisseur of always having the little nubbins of cheese,” she says. The small cheese ends and samples are an affordable way to stock your fridge, and they allow you to put together a cheese plate at a moment’s notice.
In addition to the recipe to the right, Cyd recommends Marcona almonds, hummus dressed up with a swirl of good olive oil, or a dollop of good fig jam on a cheese platter. These can add a feeling of fanciness without a whole lot of prep.
She also advises to have ingredients on hand so that you can put together a big, meal-size soup or salad. Sometimes, people get busy and can’t bring their dishes, but this can round out a meal so that everyone leaves satisfied. And if you don’t need it, you’ve now taken care of lunch for a few days.
Buy, Baby, Buy
If there’s one guest who should not, by any means, bring a home-cooked dish, find a gentle way to break the news. Try saying something like, “You have that great bakery near your house. Would you mind picking up bread?” or, “Any chance you’d be willing to dig into your cellar? I don’t think I’ll have time to find a bottle of wine as interesting as anything in your stash!”
Is This the End?
Not everyone enjoys dessert, nor is everyone a dessert maker. Bear in mind that potlucks tend to be a bit more leisurely than a standard dinner party, and people often eat a little more so that they can taste everything. You might find that guests are too tired or full for dessert.
Have coffee, tea and a digestif that you love handy (Amaro Meletti, with its dessert-like caramel flavors, is a good bet). If someone wants to bring a dessert, urge them toward something that’s easy to parcel out and take home, like pastries, cookies or cupcakes, versus a large, sit-down affair like cake. That way, guests can eat dessert together or have a sweet reminder of the evening later on
We’ve given you all the tools to throw a great party, here’s how to spread the word.
You’re invited to a potluck!
I’ll be hosting it on [date], at [time], at [address].
Let’s all get together and eat!
I’m planning to make [main course], and I’m hoping you guys can cover side dishes, appetizers, wine and dessert.
Please RSVP by [date] and let me know if you have ideas about what you’d like to bring, as well as any dietary restrictions. And feel free to bring a take-home container. With this crew, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of delicious leftovers.
I hope you all can make it!
Courtesy Leela Cyd, author, Food With Friends (Clarkson Potter, 2016)
- 1 cup Castelvetrano olives
- ¼ cup Marcona almonds
- 2 smashed cloves garlic
- 1 wide strip lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- sea salt
- black pepper
In small saucepan, combine Castelvetrano olives, Marcona almonds, garlic, lemon zest, olive oil, oregano, red pepper flakes, and sea salt and black pepper, to taste. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes to heat through. Toss and serve immediately in shallow bowl. Makes 1¼ cups.
Last Updated: May 4, 2023