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10 Reasons You Should Host a Potluck

Despite the guest list and volume of food, hosting a potluck is easier than you'd think.
Despite the guest list and volume of food, hosting a potluck is easier than you'd think.
Aaron McCoy/Getty Images

It's your turn. You've been to quite a few dinner parties, but you haven't given one yourself. Or maybe the kids' soccer team, your church group or book club wants to have a get-together with a meal -- and you're in charge. If you're on the spot for a gathering involving food, don't despair. There's a way to have a dinner party that's fun and filling without breaking the bank or tearing your hair out. It's the old-fashioned potluck dinner.

Potlucks weren't always the group efforts they are now. The dictionary tells us that the word "potluck" has two meanings, both reaching back into history. One has to do with a traveler or other unexpected guest showing up at mealtime and sharing whatever's in the cooking pot. The other -- the one we know today -- involves people bringing various dishes to a communal meal, and everyone sharing in the luck of whatever is provided. Potlucks developed for practical reasons -- think of everybody bringing a dish or two to a funeral, a barn raising or a church dinner on the grounds. The result is a varied, ample buffet.

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Not convinced? Read on for plenty of reasons in favor of a potluck.

The idea of a potluck is that everybody brings a dish that can feed several people. As host, your jobs are to invite, organize and provide the basic necessities such as plates, flatware, napkins and glasses. Unless you ask someone to bring drinks, you'll need to serve them. And you'll want to add your food to the "pot," just as your guests do.

There are various ways to organize a potluck. Some people assign guests dishes, or at least categories, such as salad, vegetable, bread or dessert. Others just trust luck. If you're worried about having a sufficient main dish, you might want to provide ample amounts of, say, fried chicken, or a sizable roast or a main-dish casserole. Some people grill a meat and let everybody else bring the side dishes. In any case, you should not feel responsible for a lot of cooking.

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But if you've been wanting to try a new dish, now's a good time. Read why on the next page.

Use a potluck as an opportunity to try new dishes.
Use a potluck as an opportunity to try new dishes.
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The usual advice is to take a favorite, tried-and-true dish to a potluck. But even if you're the one throwing the party, a potluck is also a perfect time to try out a new recipe or two. The beauty of a potluck is that there will be lots of dishes, and no one is depending on just one or two for the entire meal. If you try a new recipe and it's not all that you had hoped, you might be a little disappointed in how it turned out. You might wind up with a lot of that dish left over because people didn't eat much of it. But no one will go home hungry. And if you're quiet about it, most people won't even know you're the one who prepared the flop.

One of the best elements of potluck is the luck. Read on about how that figures in.

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Some people aren't willing to trust the "luck" part of a potluck, so they assign guests dishes (or at least categories of dishes) to contribute. That strategy may foster peace of mind for the hostess, but it also can cut down on the fun. In the old days, when folks gathered for a barn raising, a church dinner or other excuse for a potluck, they brought whatever they had on hand or whatever struck their fancy. The result might not always have been a well-balanced meal, but the spread usually was tasty and interesting. A modern-day potluck can work the same way. Leave a little to chance and you might be pleasantly surprised at what your guests concoct.

A potluck can be a real adventure in eating. Read on to find out more.

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A little of this, a little of that -- that's the point of a potluck.
A little of this, a little of that -- that's the point of a potluck.
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With the possible exception of dining at a huge buffet restaurant, a potluck dinner may be your best (and least expensive) opportunity to sample lots of different dishes at one meal. The idea is that no one dish -- with the exception of a primary meat, if you decide to serve that -- needs to provide a full serving for everyone at the gathering. People can take small samples of lots of dishes. This approach is especially fun with desserts -- a sliver of this cake, a thin slice of that pie, a little dab of pudding, half a brownie. Surely there aren't many calories in such small portions, right?

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It can be fun not only to allow the luck of the draw at a potluck, but actually to take advantage of it. Potlucks were in great vogue in the United States in the 1950s, and back then they often turned into occasions when people shared recipes as well as food.

You can ask your guests to write or print out the recipes for their dishes and leave copies beside the dish. Seeing the ingredients might be handy for anyone with food allergies. And having the recipe available can make things easy for someone who wants to try a new dish that hit the spot.

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There's no doubt that the food is central. But keep reading to learn more about another important ingredient of a potluck: socializing.

If nothing else, a potluck is a great opportunity to hang out with friends.
If nothing else, a potluck is a great opportunity to hang out with friends.
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A potluck is an easy way to serve a crowd when you need to feed a group for one reason or another. But don't wait until you have to throw a dinner party to try your luck. A potluck can be a perfect excuse to have family or friends over for that party you've always meant to throw whenever the time was right. With the simplicity of a potluck, you don't have to wait for the stars to align. Just invite everybody to bring a dish, provide the basic necessities and enjoy seeing what happens. You'll be able to sample everyone's cooking and play host without knocking yourself out.

The next segment tells how this can solve problems on special occasions, too.

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Do you dread big holidays because you have to cook so much that you can't enjoy the festivities? Wish you could invite the family to your place but fear that you can't do justice to the holiday meal? A potluck can save the day.

Invite all the relatives and friends you want, asking each to bring a favorite dish for a potluck dinner. Make sure you provide the dishes, utensils, napkins and drinks if no one will be bringing them. Then see what materializes and enjoy the celebration. Or assign categories to make sure you don't wind up with all desserts.

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Depending on the holiday, you might choose to provide a traditional main dish and let others fill in. For Thanksgiving, you might roast a turkey or buy a smoked one, tell everyone you're doing that, and ask guests to bring a side dish.

The next segment tells why you'll probably enjoy the holidays more than ever.

Too often, the person throwing a party enjoys it least. That's especially true of a dinner party when you're rushing around at the last minute, trying to get all the food ready at once, and then worrying about whether everyone's getting enough.

Making the party a potluck can give you the opportunity to enjoy your guests and the food that's offered. If you've provided the plates, utensils, etc., made sure people understand that they need to bring food, fixed your own dish and set up placers to eat, you've done your job. For once, you can have time to chat, circulate and enjoy your guests with a minimum of stress. And you can try all those mouth-watering dishes that you didn't have to do a thing to prepare.

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Read on for another fringe benefit of potlucks.

Potlucks don't just spread the work of food preparation among all the guests. They also spread the cost of the food. When planning a dinner party, especially for a crowd, the cost can be daunting. A potluck provides a fine feast for a crowd without making anyone spend a lot of money.

The host usually provides the plates, flatware, napkins, glasses and maybe the drinks, although any of those items can be assigned to guests. Many hosts choose to provide one main dish, perhaps a meat dish that will serve quite a few people. But that's not always necessary. And even if you do shell out for chicken or a roast, you're still saving a lot if other people bring the appetizers, side dishes, salads and desserts.

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When the party's over, there's one more reason to be glad you threw a potluck. Read on to find out what that is.

The best part of a potluck is the ease of cleaning up afterwards.
The best part of a potluck is the ease of cleaning up afterwards.
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One of the least pleasant tasks after a dinner party is figuring out what to do with the leftovers. You'll have a bit of this and a dab of that. You don't want to throw food out, but it can be hard to fit everything into the refrigerator. You may not have enough storage dishes. And then all those empty serving dishes must be washed.

But with a potluck, guests take home what they brought. If their food is all gone, fine. If there are leftovers, they deal with them. If they brought food in a disposable dish, they throw it away. If they brought food on a plate or in a casserole, they take it home and wash it. Just as there's not a lot of cooking or expense for any one person, there's not a lot of cleanup.

Do we need any more arguments in favor of potlucks? If you'd like more information on food and entertaining, see the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Card, Matthew. "How to host a potluck." Culinate. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/holiday_potluck_party
  • Carrus, Emily. "How to Host a Potluck Dinner." Food & Wine. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/how-to-host-a-potluck-dinner
  • Food Timeline. "Pot luck" (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq7.html#potluck
  • Good Housekeeping. "Recipe Ideas for a Potluck BBQ." (Nov. 3, 2011)http://www.goodhousekeepingcom/recipes/seasonal/best-bbq-recipes
  • Remer, Jay. "Potluck Etiquette: some tips from the Etiquette Guy." Mien Magazine. Nov. 4, 2010. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.mienmagazine.com/social/potluck-etiquette-some-tips-from-the-etiquette-guy/
  • Von Anders, Rachelle. "Potluck Etiquette – Something not to be Left to Luck! Etiquette Guide. Feb. 4, 2011. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://etiquette-guide.com/potluck-etiquette-–-something-not-to-be-left-to-luck/
  • Williamson, Suzanne, with Linda Smith. "Entertaining for Dummies." Wiley Publishing. 1997.

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