How to Be a Good Potluck Attendee — A Great Big Meal

by in How-to, September 15th, 2011

potluck bowl
In my early twenties, I moved from my hometown of Portland, Ore. to Philadelphia. It was a big move, made even more challenging by the fact that I only knew one person my own age in the entire city (as lovely as it was to be near my 86-year-old grandmother, eating dinner with her at 5 p.m. did not constitute a social life). I knew that my success in Philly was going to hinge in large part on finding friends as quickly as possible. So I got involved.

I hooked up with a cycling club (though my skills on two wheels were shaky at best), joined the Unitarian church down the street and started attending a book club. The reason I was most drawn to these particular gathering points? They all included regular potlucks.

And my plan worked. Gathering with people over food gives you an immediate starting place. Even if you have nothing obvious in common, you can talk about what you brought and how good Sarah’s pasta is. Soon enough, conversation starts to flow and suddenly, you’re building a community over a plate of carrot sticks and hummus.

Here are some of the things I learned about being a good potluck guest during those early Philadelphia days.

  • Always bring an appropriate serving utensil for your dish with you. It means that you can easily put your contribution down on the table without pulling the host away from their own conversation.
  • Potluck dishes should be ready to eat upon arrival. Don’t show up with a dish that needs tons of assembly or oven time, particularly if you don’t know the host well.
  • No soup! Potluck food should be plate-based. Unless you plan on bringing a stash of disposable bowls and spoons, it’s best to stick to food that can be eaten off a plate with a fork.
  • If you don’t have time to cook, there’s a world of store-bought food that is acceptable to bring to a potluck. Cheese and crackers, a veggie tray from the produce section or a box of cookies from the in-house bakery are all good options.
  • Make a label. In this age of rampant food allergies, it’s best to quickly jot down the ingredients of your dish so that people can determine whether it’s okay for them to eat it.
  • Finally, always make the first cut. I have found that bread, cakes and pies will sit uneaten on the potluck table if they haven’t been precut. However, if you cut that pie into wedges before adding to the buffet, it will be noshed on in no time.

Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. She grew up attending weekly potlucks and even had a potluck wedding. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her first cookbook will be published by Running Press in Spring 2012.

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Comments (18)

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  2. Jane Doe in College says:

    Who chose the photo? I really believe I recognize that bowl!

  3. luvcookin says:

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  4. Zoe says:

    Some great tips there! And thank you so much for mentioning the importance of labels!! There has been many a time when I have passed by a very tasty looking item because I wasn't sure if it contained any of my triggers.

  5. el pea says:

    I don't know about no soup–sometimes soup is just the right thing!

    A golden gazpacho in the summer, a smooth butternut squash soup in the fall, a spicy sambar…just make sure that it is liquid enough to be sipped from a cup; the soup can also be brothy but don't prepare a soup that has a lot of things that fall to the bottom of the bowl because then you really would need a spoon. Think about whether the soup you're thinking of tastes good warm/room temperature as opposed to needing to be hot or cold.

    Do provide sturdy paper or disposable plastic cups and remember to bring a serving ladle of some sort. Rather than serving from a pot, consider bringing the soup in a pitcher so that it can be poured into cups (I have several inexpensive insulated plastic ones that I get at discount stores). And don't forget to label the pitcher!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Soup does sound good, especially if someone goes around with trays offering it to the seated people so no one has to juggle plate and 2 cups on way back to seat. Sometimes dessert plate too , depending on set up.

      We do a chili potluck every December at church with Nescos set up with 3 kinds of chili. For thiis we bring only desserts to go along with the chili.

  6. Alejandra says:

    Love the first cut tip. People always seem to get suddenly shy around food (not me!). Although I do also love the first commenter's tip of bringing soup in a pitcher if you do!

  7. Montannie says:

    What about…

    - Try really hard to bring something homemade. It helps the whole "potluck" atmosphere so much.
    - Get recipes from aunts/great aunts/grandmothers – there used to always be potlucks back in the day and these women have (oftentimes) refined recipes for great dips, sides, etc.! And sometimes they need only a little modernization…
    - Don't stress! Everyone's bought a flopped dish to a potluck at least once! Just bringing SOMETHING and showing up is what people want! Next time, you'll know better…

    • Elizabeth says:

      I have my grandmother's recipe box and is full of hand scribbled cards filled out probably while eating as there are usually no measurements and just vague lists of ingredients with notes of whose recipe it was and from where. Some she made more notes on like 'good', or 'double' etc, and some she elaborated on, probably after making herself a couple times. Family history is fun.

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  9. eileen says:

    Although I'm most empathetic toward people with food allergies, the day I have to list all the ingredients in my potluck dish is the day quit attending them, period. I need to be able to say that.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Love potlucks. Our church thrives on them, I think many churches do by the number of great church cookbooks I have collected over the years. We usually have a "recommended what to bring" depending on the first letter of last name, either dessert or salad or entree. But it can be flexible. Our last potluck fed over 300 that were in town for the EAA (Experimental Air Assoc) .

    All the tips are good. I get asked to bring specific items often that the guest knows they want and that I can do well. I have brought homemade hummus and chips, baklava, taco dip (that layered cream cheese thing) too many times to count, and numerous vegetarian entrees to wedding, shower, birthday etc potlucks. We just had a potluck at our house for a wedding reception for my oldest daughter…in this instance is was a partial potluck. His mother and I did 75% of the dishes and the rest were brought by people that asked and offered. It was not a requirement.

    Label everything with masking tape or sharpee pen if you can. Especially at church your utensils and dishes will probably be picked up by the cleanup people and if empty, usually washed and set aside.

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