Anyone who has invited a group of people over for a meal understands that doing it by yourself can be a heavy lift. A potluck party allows friends and family to share the load. “During the holidays especially, a potluck takes some of the pressure off a host and makes it easier for them to celebrate with the people they want to hang out with,” says Shira Bocar, editor at large, food and entertaining at Martha Stewart Living.
But a potluck faux pas could lead to a frazzled host, angry guests and a trashed kitchen.
Although these gatherings are by nature casual affairs, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an unwritten code of proper behavior in the world of seven-layer salads and zesty meatballs. We asked food and entertaining insiders for their do’s and don’ts.
n Do arrive with your dish ready to serve.
Walk in with your chilled shrimp or hot chili ready to put on the table, without having to be heated or chilled. Hosts are usually busy, and squeezing another item into the oven may be annoying or even impossible. “If I’m a guest at a potluck I try to steer clear of the kitchen area and bring things that are delicious at room temperature,” says Bocar, adding that salads are always welcome on calorie-laden tables. “If I’m doing brownies, I always cut them at my house and bring them ready to eat.”
There are plenty of great coolers and thermal bags that can keep your food cold or warm on the way to a potluck. Seeing the need for a good-looking potluck carrier, Deb Johns, chief creative officer of Scout Bags, created Hot Date, a casserole tote that keeps a 13-by-9-inch pan warm or chilled for several hours.
And don’t forget to bring a hot pad, a leftovers container and serving utensils for your dish; your host or hostess may not have eight serving spoons.
n Do be considerate of others’ dietary restrictions.
It’s nice to bring an index card with the name of your dish and possibly the recipe, marking clearly whether it is vegan or gluten-free or whatever. Johns says posting a list of ingredients will save you from answering questions about your dish all night.
n Don’t leave dirty dishes.
It’s so much nicer to take home a clean platter than one caked with the remnants of chicken parm. But Bocar doesn’t make a big deal about washing her casserole dish or platter; she usually just quietly takes it away. “Just give it a quick rinse and take it home to finish cleaning it,” she says, so you’re not crowding the kitchen.
Alternately, Johns suggests having multiple guests get together at the end of a potluck to wash dishes as a team. Then everyone goes home with a clean plate and the host isn’t left with a dirty kitchen. “It won’t take long, but everybody wins,” Johns says. Above all, don’t leave your dish there and rely on your host to scrub it and return it to you. That is really rude.
n Do keep it classy.
How often have you seen that enormous Costco black plastic platter of turkey roll-ups at a potluck? The food may be passable for an office party, but for any other gathering, if you can’t cook something yourself, at least rearrange the sandwiches on a nicer platter on top of some lettuce leaves. If you are going to party with a group of foodies at someone’s home, take a stab at making something at least semi-homemade, and arrange it on a nice serving dish. Ask your host in advance how many people are coming, but bring a little more. The worst thing is to run out of food, Johns says.
n Do communicate your plans in advance.
Hosts should indicate clearly what dishes they are making and what else they need and for how many. “If you’re a guest, contact the host immediately and find out if there is an online sign-up list. Sign up right away,” says Jessica Hylton Leckie, who pens the blog Jessica in the Kitchen from Jamaica and Florida. It’s considerate so the host can plan out the evening.
n Don’t pig out.
You may love the creamy mac and cheese, but don’t keep going back and taking more before others have had a chance to dig in. “It’s rude to corner an entire dish for yourself,” Leckie says. “Don’t show up at a party starving; other people want to taste the food, too.”
n Do acknowledge your host.
Even if many people are contributing to the gathering, Johns says it’s important to bring the host something special. “Don’t just show up with your food item. They have done a lot of work to make the event happen,” Johns says. She also says its polite to give them the right of first refusal on the leftover pumpkin cheesecake in your pie pan.