So you’ve decided to throw a “Bring Your Own Dish” party, aka a potluck party, where everyone brings food and then you all share it. Fun! And kind of easy for you. But don’t make it too easy for you, or you’ll end up where a lot of potluck parties end up—too much of one kind of food, such as salads, and not enough of another, such as entrées or desserts…no food for guests with special dietary needs…a really bland spread of boring dishes that are your guests’ go-too potluck dishes because they’re so easy (or cheap) to make.

That’s not nearly as fun as you envisioned.

Here are the easy steps to take to make your potluck party rise above most others…

  • Make a list of types of foods you’d like guests to bring such as dips…salads…main courses…side dishes…desserts. Share it with everyone who’s invited, and ask each invitee to let you know what he/she would like to bring…whether he has any dietary restrictions…or if he has no preference. Do this in writing, whether by e-mail, e-invite or however you let people know about the party. There’s something about seeing a host’s intentions in writing that says, “This is something I should actually pay attention to.”
  • Your list of guests who say they have no preference of what to bring is very valuable—keep it in your back pocket for now.
  • Keep track of what the other guests say they’d like to bring, and note whether this collection of food, taken together, seems more like a party…or a macaroni salad contest. If the latter (or if your guests are veering toward too much of any type of food), gently guide guests to bring what’s needed based on how you envision a reasonably varied menu.
  • Remember that part of the fun of going to a potluck party for guests is making and bringing a dish that reflects their own cooking, so when you guide guests on what to bring, don’t be too specific. For example, instead of saying, “We could really use some teriyaki chicken,” you might say, “We have a lot of salads coming—would you be able to bring a warm chicken entrée?” Most guests will be happy to oblige and to show off their signature dish of the type you ask for.
  • Ask how many servings each guest’s dish will provide. Each dish doesn’t need to serve everyone, but knowing what’s coming will help you plan well.
  • Make sure that if you have any guests with special dietary needs, the dishes they bring are not the only ones they will be able to eat. You are the host, after all, even if it’s a potluck party—if your other guests aren’t going to bring at least one or two appetizers, entrées and desserts that fit this bill, you should provide this food yourself.
  • Remember that list of guests who said they have no preference of what sort of food to bring? Use them to fill in any gaps that remain after sorting out what all the others will bring.
  • Ask guests whether they will bring their dishes ready-to-serve on platters or in bowls. It’s great if you can encourage them to do so. But you don’t need to insist. If it’s not practical for them, you’ll know how many platters, bowls and serving forks and spoons to have on hand.
  • At the party, provide guests bringing food with blank labels and pens so that they can display the names of their dishes and any allergens (nuts, eggs) they contain or special information such as “vegetarian” or “gluten free.”
  • Once food arrives, keep food safety in mind. If the party is outside on a warm day or in a warm room, put food out just before it is to be served. Do not leave it out for more than two hours.

Editor’s note: Got guests who want to bring wine? Let them know about these delicious, affordable choices—and the foods they pair well with—in this Bottom Line article, “Great American Wines to Drink This Summer.”

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