10 Perfect Potluck Themes That Are Guaranteed Crowd-Pleasers

updated Nov 15, 2019
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Credit: Lauren Volo

Every year, when my husband and I return from the yearly school potluck dinner, we have exactly the same conversation. “I didn’t really eat dinner,” I whine, and he agrees. We stare at each other, wondering which one of us blacked out, each knowing that we both did actually take a plate, put food on it, and eat from it.

I blame it on the spread. Somehow, when you’re picking up bites of beet hummus and spicy Indian curry and store-bought pasta salad and lemony kale couscous and a sausage rigatoni bake, it’s hard not to feel like you’re eating no dinner and five different dinners simultaneously. It’s confusing for your taste buds, and for those of us who revel in thinking about how the foods on a plate go together, it’s totally unsatisfying.

But that doesn’t mean potlucks have to be off-limits when you host. I mean, think about the perks: Throwing a dinner party isn’t cheap or easy, and it’s nice to have friends contribute to both the costs and effort of an event. If you want the community aspect of a potluck but aspire to a dinner that’s more fun, more inspiring, and maybe more matchy-matchy than your everyday weeknight dinners, try a themed potluck. Naming a theme, a vibe, or a specific cookbook to work from brings everyone onto the same page, so that when you settle in to eat, you’re actually excited about how all the food goes together.

It doesn’t mean you have to ask your guests to make a special trip to the grocery store. (In fact, it’s more fun if they don’t.) First, learn to give more guidance than simply “bring a dish.” Say “Bring a Sichuanese side dish,” or “Bring a main dish you ate as a kid.” Ask what they have in their fridge, and help them brainstorm how on-hand ingredients can fit into your theme. They’ll appreciate guidance in the decision-making department, and you’ll still wind up with a dinner that tastes delicious.

Want a potluck that feels more like a meal? Issue a theme for guests to follow. The dinner will feel more complete, and you’re more likely to taste (and learn) something new. Here are 10 themes to try out for your next potluck.

1. Mexican Night

When it comes to group cooking, Mexican-American food has long been the star — it’s delicious, filling, and well-loved. Expand everyone’s appreciation by asking folks to bring a Mexican dish they’ve never tried.

2. Movie Night

Announce a movie screening with your invite, and ask guests to bring dishes that jive with the movie’s location or theme. Think Downton Abbey for a fancy old-school English meal, Frozen for a Scandinavian brunch with something for the littles to do, or Skyfall for a Turkish-inspired spread.

3. Sichuan Night

Add some sizzle to your potluck by requesting everyone bring a Sichuan dish, with varying degrees of heat. Fucshia Dunlop’s latest cookbook, The Food of Sichuan, would be an excellent resource here — and a fun way to learn about the broad variation within the Chinese food in that region.

4. A Night in Paris

Bring on the bistro feel with a little music, some twinkle lights, and a menu of French bistro favorites. (Here’s our guide to the best classic French cookbooks.) Don’t forget to assign the wine!

5. Game Night

If you’re not into the sports ball thing, make it more fun by asking fans to bring a dish native to their team’s turf (or surf) to enjoy with the game. You could even get competitive — think New England clam chowder versus Manhattan chowder for a Patriots versus Giants football game.

6. Childhood Favorites

Sewn together by the taste of nostalgia, this is a great theme for groups of people that don’t necessarily know each other very well. Bring on the garlic bread, Mom’s dumplings, and the perfect chocolate cake (and the stories that go with each one). This theme is definitely more hodge-podge than the others, but I think the fun stories will make up for it all.

7. Hot Pot

Read up on the basics of Japanese, Korean, or Chinese hot pot traditions, then light the fire, make a delicious broth and a giant pot of rice, and invite your guests to bring a specific ingredient or dipping sauce. Huddle around the pot and dip away for hours! (Suggested reading:

the DL on Asian hot pots

8. Apps Only

Perfect for dinners you know won’t include a proper seating, an appetizer-only potluck encourages invitees to graze all night long. These butter-bathed saltines with a chili-crisp yogurt dip will definitely be an app star.

9. Indian Feast

Make the rice and your favorite dish at home, so you can serve it piping hot, and assign additional dishes by protein (as in “bring a lamb dish”) to ensure a good variety.  Also, Kitchn just featured Priya Krishna’s Indian-ish as their October cookbook for Cookbook Club, and there are a ton of great recipe ideas there.

10. Farmers Market Haul

An easy way to make sure the dishes are a little more cohesive than usual for a potluck, is if you focus on what’s in season. Stews, apple tarts, and braised meats sound like a delicious spread to me!

Do you have any ideas other ideas for a potluck theme? Let us know in the comments!