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How to Host a Holiday Potluck

Don't put all the pressure on one cook; let everyone help out. See more pictures of holiday table settings.

One of the easiest ways to host a holiday get together is with a potluck meal. Potluck sounds like a disorganized pitch-in arrangement fraught with potential pitfalls, but it doesn't have to be that way. With some planning and organization, you can host a holiday potluck that shows your guests' cooking prowess as well as your hospitality to advantage.

Have a Plan

Get and stay on target by creating a plan. The best first step is to start far enough in advance of the date you have in mind that almost everyone you intend to invite is available and has time to do the necessary preparation. Five weeks isn't too early, especially around the holidays.

Don't leave the details to chance. Break the meal into easy to manage categories, like appetizers, side dishes, breads, desserts and so on. Ask participants to choose a group to cook for, and make sure that all the groups are well represented. Having extras in case of no-shows is a good idea. Give your guest cooks a variety of choices, and include options for friends who aren't that into cooking. Leaving room for someone to bring chips, soda or cookies is a kindness that will let folks off the hook who are too busy to invest quality time in the kitchen. Have plenty of menu options on hand as suggestions, but be open to the ideas of others. If Aunt Mary wants to bring her signature chestnut stuffing, encourage her to do so. One of the great things about potluck meals is that you get the opportunity to explore new recipes.

Start early eliminating duplication. Around the holidays, dishes like fruit salad, green bean casserole and apple pie are big favorites, but avoid too much of a good thing by gently pointing out other options from your list. If you set a theme for the potluck, like "fall color," or "winter wishes," you may inspire some creative contributions that will keep the meal classic, but with a few tasty surprises that get around the problem of multiple guests vying to make the same dishes. [source: Card]

Send Invitations and Follow Up

Having something solid to refer to will help keep your potluck fresh in the minds of your guests. Mailing an invitation is always a nice gesture, but even if you just opt for dashing off a quick e-mail, state the date of the party, provide directions to the location, the approximate number of guests attending, and reiterate the theme of the potluck and any discussions you've had about the food.

This is also a good time to mention some strategies for party management. If you have limited microwave, refrigerator, freezer or oven space -- and who doesn't -- suggesting that guests precook and bring dishes in a warmer or cooler will help sidestep bottlenecks on the big day.

A week or two before the potluck, get back in touch with guests with a reminder. Invariably, there'll be a few changes, but that's okay. Someone who'd planned on making pies may have lost the urge or fallen prey to the dreaded time crunch. You can adapt to any changes you know about, so be sure to stay informed.

Do Your Part

As the host, your job is to create the ambiance and make sure everything runs smoothly. You might also consider cooking the main dish yourself. Transporting a ham, turkey, tofurkey, leg of lamb or turducken can be a challenge. When you handle the meat dish yourself, you'll also know that it's cooked to temperature and that there'll be enough to serve everyone.

There are some other host duties that shouldn't escape your notice. Make sure you have adequate seating and tableware. Have extra serving pieces on hand in case you need them. Create a clear path around the space to make movement easier for everyone. This includes making a spot for people to place their coats, stage their dishes and place any extra containers they've brought with them. If you plan on providing everyone with leftovers, you'll also need some extra containers and an area in which to perform a little last minute magic.

Potluck dinners can be a pleasure around the holidays. They give us an opportunity to share time and the bounty of good food with friends and relatives in a way that doesn't overburden any one person or family. And, since most of the hard work is in the planning, the big day can be surprisingly relaxing and enjoyable for everyone.