The Potluck Dinner Decoded: Rules, Etiquette, and Everything In-Between

Updated 08/17/19
potluck dinner
Mirella Cheeseman for MyDomaine

Entertaining can be so much fun—you get to set the menu, pick the décor, and create a playlist to fit the mood. On the other hand, doling out that much money for food, drinks, and decorations can be costly and often limits how often you can host, which is where a good potluck dinner comes in. If you're unsure about the idea because you don't think you should be asking your guests to bring something, realize that they'll just be so happy having someone else play host or hostess. The real thing you must navigate is having the right assortment of summer food and beverages (you want to avoid having three quinoa salads because that can happen). Below, we've rounded up all the things you need to know before hosting a potluck dinner—plus, how to navigate tricky situations. Get scrolling, and then start planning your next soirée.

Choose a theme

One major difficulty that often comes with a potluck is that the meal ends up being a mishmash of everyone's "favorite" dishes. Just because one person loves to make chicken parmesan, another likes to make tacos, and a third likes to whip up chow mein doesn't mean that's the dish they should bring. You can avoid the random assortment of food by choosing an overarching theme. It can be a fiesta filled with tacos and guacamole or Memory Lane, an assortment of comfort foods from childhood. You can get as creative as you'd like, but make sure you include the theme on your invitation, whether you decide to go digital or old-school paper.

Oversee who is bringing what

Once the RSVPs start rolling in for your potluck dinner, send out a confirmation email to guests along with a Google Doc with suggested dishes they can sign up for. (We like Google Docs because people can see what everyone else has signed up for). Make sure to include a miscellaneous spot where non-list items can be added, but do exercise veto power if the item is completely off-theme or doesn't go with the other dishes being served. Another decision you should make is whether you want to handle all the beverages, or if you want to assign large batch cocktails and other beverages to some guests (this can be a perfect option for those who aren't as comfortable in the kitchen).

Consider oven time and kitchen space

Before making a list of food options, think about having a mix of hot and cold items. This will eliminate the need for every item to be heated up in the oven (you should also take the size of your oven into consideration). It's also completely appropriate to ask guests who live nearby to bring their dish heated. Do have several chafing dishes ready if possible to keep food warm throughout the party (there's nothing less appetizing than cold macaroni or artichoke dip).

Ask about dietary restrictions

There's nothing worse than having a guest attend and not be able to eat half of the items on the menu. Kindly ask any guests with food allergies or dietary restrictions to indicate that on the Google Doc far in advance. Since you won't be making all of the dishes, ask your guests to bring an index card with the ingredients included in their dish that you can simply lean against the bowl or serving plate. This way, there won't be any questions about what each dish includes and there won't be any instances where an Epi-Pen makes an appearance. A week before your potluck dinner, scroll through the menu and see if there are too many items a guest can't eat. At this point, you still have time to switch up a few dishes or ask guests to leave out a few of the "pesky" ingredients in order to accommodate.

Realize everything may not be perfect

There's always a risk involved when others are responsible for bringing food and drinks. If so-and-so arrives late with hors d’œuvres, don't let that ruin your day. It may be a little packed in the kitchen at times, and someone may want to serve their dish a particular way, so just accept it. Take a step back and let everyone help out. Remember that this is a group effort, and you are by no means meant to orchestrate everything yourself. The moment you relax and enjoy yourself is the moment your guests will, too.

What are your go-to tips for hosting a potluck dinner? Up next: fun summer party ideas

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