Making the Potluck a Success in Today’s World

I love potlucks! I love the different foods you discover. Cooking for a wider group leads to cultural exploration as well as to closer human connections.

Sadly, in my community, these gatherings are happening less and less. The idea of a potluck sometimes causes people to groan. “It’s so much work!” one friend says. “I can’t cook,” says another. Organizers are increasingly concerned about dietary restrictions, from the need to supply low-cal vegan dishes to requests for gluten-free breads or desserts.

Can we reinvent the potluck so it can work in today’s busy, ingredient-conscious world? 

Fortunately, there are alternatives to the hidden rules that haunt today’s potluck. Here are some suggestions:

Share the traditional duties of the host.

In the traditional potluck, the host offers his or her home, coordinates the food mix, and is responsible for cleanup. In addition, the host often provides the main dishes, especially if few other people are willing to bring them (which is often the case). To lessen the burden of responsibility, consider assigning the following tasks to different individuals:

  • Offering a home or venue for the potluck
  • Coordinating the food and assuring there is balance among the dishes and enough food for everyone
  • Cleanup. 

 Allow flexibility in how people contribute.

In many communities, you can still count on people being giving and flexible, with potluck participants acknowledging that “somehow it just works out.” But in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where I live (and in numerous other places if my informants are correct), the following things are happening:

  • People are refusing to coordinate or lead a potluck, because they fear they won't get enough help. 
  • The potluck table has insufficient food or food that isn't nourishing enough for a meal. This may be partially due to the economy. At one potluck I attended, three-quarters of the table was desserts. At another, the table was empty after the first 10 people served themselves.
  • In my own experience, I’ve found that those participants who are less well-off, who are immigrants, and/or who are good cooks tend to bring most of the food—and pay for most of the ingredients. Their generosity is wearing thin. Or, put differently, their generosity is still active—but is this really fair?
  • People turn down potluck invitations because they don’t want to cook or can’t afford the ingredients of the dishes they're expected to bring.
  • Women are still bringing the bulk of main dishes (!?!?!?). Yes, I stand by that observation.

Here are some suggestions to make potlucks work again:

  • If you’re the person leading the first potluck of a group, go ahead and do the traditional hosting job mentioned above. After everyone has had a good time and says they want to do it again, describe the steps you actually took to create the event. Suggest dividing the work and see if people are willing to take it on.
  • Excuse people from bringing food if they have other potluck responsibilities, such as cleanup or coordinating the event.
  • Allow people to make a financial contribution and offer that money to the people who make the main dishes to buy ingredients.

Request, but do not require, that potluck contributors list the ingredients in their food.

Food allergies are on the rise. Many people have strict eating protocols such as vegan diets, gluten-free diets, and religious restrictions. Because these individuals need to know the ingredients in the food they eat, they may avoid potlucks where the content of dishes isn’t clear.

Unfortunately, listing ingredients can be difficult. Some creative cooks aren't reliably aware of each item they put in the pot. They worry about making a mistake. People who bring takeout food might not know most of the ingredients.

Requiring people to list ingredients may exclude some people from participating. But it’s a good thing to encourage. You may also want to announce that it’s okay to bring your own special food and participate in the potluck without partaking in the rest of the dishes.

Bring an attitude of gratitude.

Each of us makes different decisions about our participation in the local food movement, our nutritional choices, our contributions to the environment, and our willpower to stick to our ideals. Let’s learn from each other and avoid scolding or preaching about “how it should be done.”

Be generous.

If you bring food and can afford it, bring as much as you can. Bring food you like and take home the leftovers. Try to bring twice as much if you're part of a couple. If bringing food is burdensome for you, make an offer to the potluck organizer. Say, “I can’t cook a contribution this time, but would love to stay and clean up until the kitchen is sparkling.” You could also bring a less expensive contribution, like a huge bowl of popcorn.

If you don’t have the time or skills to cook for the group, you can offer to buy the ingredients for another participant. Offering money can be awkward, but you can offer ingredients tactfully. You could say, “I have a bunch of chicken in the freezer that I can’t use—I was wondering if I could bring it over and you could make that great dish you brought last month.” Or, “I’m going shopping on Thursday and I thought you could let me bring you the ingredients for such and such.” Be prepared to humbly cajole and persuade them. “We loved your XYZ—can’t you let us bring you the items you need to cook it?”

Consider how your experience as a consumer of food influences your expectations.

Eating out and ordering takeout have become increasingly common. Some people bring their own expectations as food consumers to their social lives. Do you get irritated if the activity is disorganized, or if the meal starts late? Are you hesitant to cook for a potluck because you’re afraid the food won’t be as good as what you get in restaurants or see on cooking shows? Do you think you shouldn’t have to help clean up, because you never have to when you eat out? Let’s reclaim the lost art of hospitality and of offering our gifts.

Organize potlucks and enjoy them!

Many of the “old” potluck traditions are based on an earlier time when women were responsible for cooking and didn’t work outside of the house full-time. People who lived closer to one other and knew one other for longer were confident that their efforts today would be returned tomorrow. But in today’s busy, transient, and increasingly “me-centered” world, we may need to define monetary and work contribution more explicitly. By rethinking our approach to potlucks, we can continue to enjoy the age-old tradition of sharing good food and good company.

What do you think? Does your community share many of the problems discussed here—or not? If you participate regularly in potlucks, what works? Do you have additional suggestions? Feel free to provide your feedback in the comments section below.

Dale S. Brown works on a portfolio of projects that empower people both in personal growth and political power. She lives in Washington, D.C. and is a guest blogger for the Center for a New American Dream. She blogs about how frugality financially empowered her, enabling her to take an early retirement at age 50 and live on her income.  

Earlier posts from Dale S. Brown:

My Story of Frugality: Breaking My Economic Dependence on My Job

Spending Strategies: How Frugality Helped Me Cut Costs and Gain Freedom from Work

Are You Being Frugal, or Just Plain Cheap?

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Thank you all for your comments. I appreciate Sunny and Meg who came up with an idea that I hadn’t thought of- a theme such a tacos where the hostess supplies the lettuce and asks people to bring ingredients such as taco shells, tomatoes, etc. That seems more of a joint meal than a potluck, but I think it could really work beautifully. I also was glad that Kathy Jentz pointed out the positive attitude I should have had with my potluck that had almost all deserts- Yep, we shoud all eat desert first!

Posted by Dale S, Brown, Geust Blogger, Center for A New American Dream at April 21, 2012 at 10:40pm

Potlucks are a great way to have a gathering while allowing everyone to feel like they contributed something. And they’re fun!

Posted by Becca at March 28, 2012 at 5:35pm

For a while, my friends and I had weekly “family dinners”. Every Monday night, we would alternate hosting and the host would cook. It was a lot of fun but it teetered off because people got sick of the imbalance each week. Some people would put a lot of time, effort, and money in on their week and then the next week, the people would do something cheap and easy. It was fun while it lasted and I would love to bring it back! These tips are good ways of balancing things out and decreasing stress.

Posted by Liz at March 26, 2012 at 10:18pm

I love potlucks! I have to go to so many for all my events/clubs but sometimes they can become quite tedious, everyone seems to bring similar kinds of dishes based on simple/common recipes. I think a fun variation would be to go all Iron Chef on everyone and have a specific ingredient (coordinated with the season) that everyone has to include in their meals. It gives everyone a chance to be creative while also using in season and local products!

Posted by Michaela at March 26, 2012 at 9:23pm

It’s really great to see that this sort of thing is on the rise again. However, as someone with a rather obscure (or rather, “newly common”) allergy, I can attest that “labeling” home recipes is often insufficient. For instance, there’s a woman at my local winter farmer’s market who makes the most amazing crepes with local eggs and milk. But when I asked about the ingredients for the chocolate sauce, she told me one of the ingredients was “good chocolate”… which in itself is a recipe, with multiple ingredients, one of which is soy lecithin (which I react to). Insufficient labeling is almost worse than no labeling, since there’s always those people who’ll see nothing specific they’re allergic to, make themselves sick (sometimes to the point of going to the hospital), and then blame the person who didn’t label well enough.

(The woman with the crepes and I had a happy ending, by the way; I gently educated her about common allergens and how pervasive they are, and now she not only brings complete ingredient lists for everything with her, but remembers who I am and what I’m allergic to. And her crepes really are amazing! We’ve made it a habit to skip breakfast on market days to go have crepes instead.)

Posted by Kat Parks at March 26, 2012 at 8:42pm

Great way to connect the community, and fill an empty belly or two of someone that really needs it. Shows a sense of care and love for the community when the potluck brings everyone together.

Posted by Tyler at March 26, 2012 at 7:38pm

I love this! I love potlucks, too. My group of friends at home tries to do one as often as we can. We are all college age but summertime is when we feel the most financially stable, and we all feel great about contributing. I think that if people start to view it as a way of being together, and if everyone contributes equally like you said, potlucks could come back on the radar. Even something inexpensive like baked mac & cheese is always a hit, and a great contribution!

Posted by Sophie Yingling at March 26, 2012 at 11:24am

All your tips were great for fostering a better outlook on how Potlucks can be successful. Potlucks can be invaluable to providing a sense of community and also learning about other cultures. Cultures are sometimes defined in an interesting way through their cuisine. A community feeling is also great to have because it makes for a better quality of life if those around you are bound by location and familiarity. Community is something that is many times missing in today’s society so something like gathering the community for a potluck is a great way to bring that back to your area in which you reside.

I loved the way you outlined for people that do not want to cook to help contribute to the pot luck.

Posted by Cameron Legge at March 25, 2012 at 8:59pm

I think this is a great idea! there is always so many leftovers!

Posted by Kaitlyn at March 21, 2012 at 12:05pm

Potlucks are a great way of bringing the community together and reconnecting all while eating different styles of meals. It’s a win-win.

Posted by Devin McDonald at March 15, 2012 at 3:28pm

I think pot luck meals can be a lot of fun especially when you do them right. My neighborhood loves doing them over the summer. We switch off from houses and try to incorporate bbq styles. Try to make it into a fun event were we can all go for a swim, enjoy the sun and have a good time with great people. Pot lucks help bring people together and allow everyone to try different types of food. In the end you can come away with a handful of new recipes to try at home. What works for my neighborhood is that we don’t make it into a huge event. We only have 4 houses in our area so its a small knit group but everyone brings the best food. If someone likes something in particular then people will go out of there way to make it for them. A great suggestion would be start of small and assign everyone small tasks and then work your way up. You will soon figure out what works and does not work for your pot lucks as a whole. I believe if you have people bring appetizers, parts of the big meal and dessert then you will be all set. Sometimes it can be a little expensive but if you can splurge once and a while then you will have a great time. Like my grandmother always says “Don’t worry about the money, if you have your health then do it”. I live by this every day and feel that we need to stop caring about money and start caring for one another. Hope this helps and lets bring pot lucks back!

Posted by Michael T at March 14, 2012 at 9:09pm

I find hosting a themed potluck works well to keep it simple and manageable i.e. taco night-the host makes the beans & rice guests are assigned the rest toppings, chips, tortillas, etc. Keeping the barrier to attend low, accomplishes the goal of building community. Thanks for inspiring me to host a potluck soon!

Posted by Meg at March 6, 2012 at 10:27am

For the last 4 years we have held “farm dinners” here in VT for about 20 people once a month. I organize it loosely with themes, Asian, Italian, Mexican, and sometimes a more remote cuisine such as Australian or Newfoundland. People have fun researching the food and then we suggest they use as much local food as they can in their creations. We use the A-Z last name system to organize who brings apps, main course etc.

Posted by Rebecca at March 5, 2012 at 8:42pm

“At one potluck I attended, three-quarters of the table was desserts.”

And this is a problem how? Sunds like my dream potluck!
Seriously, I live in DC area and go to about 6-10 potlucks a year – I see no shortage and actually think they are on the increase.

I totally agree with encouraging labeling – esp. for common allergy items like nuts and if you have added something “unexpected” to a dish like beets to a choc cake – no one wants an emergency room trip.

Posted by Kathy Jentz, Washington Gardener Magazine at February 26, 2012 at 9:49am

Another concern with potlucks is food safety. I know someone that has routinely gotten sick from eating at potlucks (colds, flu; not food poisening).

Posted by Emily at February 24, 2012 at 2:08pm

I do this once a month with a group of friends. I suggest a theme like, salad bar, nacho bar, potato bar, waffles. I provide the main part like the lettuce, chips, potatoes, or waffles and just have folks bring something to go on top. Quick and easy for all of us. It’s more about our time together than anything!

Posted by Sunny at February 24, 2012 at 2:02pm

I agree with your great tips for making potlucks work. I think another aspect is if the food is associated with another endeavor and not the whole point of the gathering. E.g., there’s some sort of special occasion (Super Bowl, Easter, birthday party, bible study, neighborhood meeting). I also think this is linked to organizational skills. Someone has to direct everyone else and make a list and follow up or you do end up with insufficient food. Guys who don’t cook can be asked to bring things, like chip and dip, or cookies with coffee or paper goods. Party on!

Posted by Jenifer at February 17, 2012 at 1:33am


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