Any hostess will tell you that the key to a stress-free party is a potluck menu. However, even the nearly foolproof, guest-driven event can still run into a few snafus if not managed correctly. Follow the advice below if you want to pull off the most organized, most delicious potluck your neighborhood has ever seen.
1. Assign people categories, not dishes.
Unless you have a friend who is universally known for an incredible potato salad that everyone will be rabid for come dinnertime, avoid assigning guests specific dishes. You never know what else they've got going on the week of your party or what they may have time to make, so give them the freedom to decide what to make. However, in order to ensure each and every dinner course is covered, it's totally fine to assign guests specific categories, like appetizers, sides, main dishes, or desserts.
2. Consider a theme.
Guests will crave a little dish direction, so if you're into the idea, choose a theme for your potluck dinner. Crowd-pleaser themes like Mexican, Italian, or all-American BBQ dishes will still give guests plenty of creative freedom, but will ensure that the flavors of dishes won't clash unappetizingly (because, let's be honest, guacamole and shrimp scampi skewers don't really go together).
3. Let everyone know what to expect.
No one likes to leave a party hungry, so make sure you (and your food-toting guests!) bring plenty of food to feed everyone. A few days before your party, let everyone know how many people you're expecting, so they can plan accordingly. Try to keep the crew under or around 20 adults (give or take some kiddos) — any more than that, and home cooks may struggle to prepare enough to feed everyone. You want the idea of bringing a homemade dish to be fun for everyone, not a burden.
4. Keep it causal.
This is especially important if you're hosting your shindig outdoors. Chances are, seating will be minimal and you might not have a spot for everyone — at least not one set up at a table. Plan accordingly by asking guests to prepare dishes that are easily eaten while standing up. Kabobs, finger foods, and sandwiches are always a good idea.
5. Ready your serving tools.
Your guests might not think of everything — so you'll want to be prepared. You'll need to have serving spoons, tongs, and maybe even some serving trays on hand. It's also a good idea to have some aluminum foil on hand, too, in case dishes need makeshift covers and protection from bugs.
6. Don't forget the booze.
Many consider it an essential for an outdoor potluck, so if you think a few boozy sips are something your guests will enjoy, make sure to assign the "category" to one or two friends with especially good taste. Or, task yourself with the role of bar keep and select a mix of beer and wine.
7. Have extra add-ons on hand.
Sauces, sides, and condiments are a great way to jazz up any dish, so be sure to have a few essentials on hand. Even if you're not sure what everyone is bringing (although, ideally, you'll have some sort of idea!), ketchup and a quality mustard are pretty crucial. You might even want to have mayo or aioli for sandwiches and chicken. And don't forget the pickles, olives, tomatoes, and onions.
8. Label and return dishes.
The sign of a successful potluck is … a bunch of empty Tupperware? Kind of! Guests will probably leave behind their dishes or storage containers, with the intention of picking them up later. Use a piece of masking tape and a marker to label everything as it first enters your home, so you can return items to their rightful owners post-party.