As fulfilling as it is to gather loved ones together for a holiday feast, planning one requires much time and effort and can be stressful during the frenetic holiday period. One strategy many people use to avoid this stress is to throw a potluck party.
With this type of get-together, everybody brings something -- a dish, drinks or supplies -- and this takes a great deal of pressure off the host while allowing the guests to take an active part in the festivities.
As host, your role is to provide a venue and to organize and coordinate the event. In addition, you'll want to prepare any dishes, such as the holiday turkey, which would be difficult or unsafe to transport.
Before you consider a potluck dinner, though, make sure you have adequate room to store dishes that need to be refrigerated before being served, and that you'll be able to reheat or finish any dishes that require further baking or microwaving before being eaten.
Here are some suggestions for a successful-and safe-holiday potluck dinner:
Your duties as host
- You provide a main course, such as turkey or ham. Ask what each guest would like to make, or assign each guest a dish to bring (appetizer, side dish, or dessert), especially if they have a specialty everyone enjoys.
- Coordinate contributions to prevent an overabundance of one course and the lack of another, and to make sure there will be enough servings. Traveling guests can contribute nonperishables, such as chips or dinner rolls. Those who don't cook can bring ice, beverages, or paper products.
- Clear space in the refrigerator for cold dishes and determine ahead of time which dishes need to be heated or finished in your kitchen.
- Make sure you have plenty of serving dishes and utensils, beverages, ice, plates, napkins, and silverware on hand. (Buy small disposable containers too; they're great for packing up the leftovers for guests to take home.)
- Tasteful decorations and quiet background music will help set a festive mood.
- When guests arrive, refrigerate cold dishes immediately. Before serving, reheat hot dishes on the range, in the oven, or in the microwave.
- Keep the food clean. Make sure everyone knows where the sink is and set out antibacterial soap and paper towels so guests can wash their hands before handling the food. (Set an example by washing your own hands frequently.)
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold: 140°F or more for hot foods and 40°F or less for cold foods. Use chafing dishes for the hot foods, if you have them, and set cold foods in bowls of ice. Throw away food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
Bringing a potluck dish
- Finish cooking your potluck dish just before you leave for your host's home, or make sure cold dishes are thoroughly chilled before packing.
- To help prevent bacteria growth, transport hot and cold foods in separate insulated containers. Wrap hot dishes in several layers of foil, then overwrap them in a thick towel to minimize heat loss. Pack cold dishes in ice and place them in a cooler. Beverages also should be packed separately so they don't affect food temperatures.
- Slow cookers are great containers for foods that need to stay hot. Overwrap the slow cooker during transport, and plug it in as soon as you arrive.
Serving the meal
- The easiest way to serve a potluck meal is buffet-style. Place plates at the beginning of the line and put the silverware and napkins at the end. Leave room on the table for guests to set plates down in case they need both hands to serve themselves.
- Set up a separate area for ice and drinks so the main buffet line can keep moving.
- To prevent spoilage (and potential food poisoning), put out only small portions of perishable items, such as meats, and replenish them as needed. Use a new serving dish each time or wash the empty one before refilling it.
- Keep the buffet area mess-free for cleanliness and ease of service. Place garbage cans in convenient locations for disposal of paper plates, cups, and other trash.
A great dinner party means hungry guests. Learn how to make appetizers on the next page to satiate their grumbling stomachs before the main course.
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