A Cozy Holiday Potluck with Friends: How to Plan a Great Potluck Dinner

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Danielle Tsi)

Maybe it’s because I’m a Midwestern girl at heart, but I love a good holiday potluck. It feels so much more festive and cozy to me than an elaborate dinner party this time of year. Also, much easier to plan and carry out! With everyone bringing their own special dish to the table, the meal comes together without stress and feels relaxed in a way that encourages a second bottle of wine.

This year my friend Tracy and I invited our friends to her house for what will hopefully become an annual potluck affair. We decked her dining table with evergreens, frosted gingerbread cookies to eat by the fire, and waited impatiently for our friends to show up with dishes in hand. This week, I’ll be talking all about our potluck party and how you can throw one of your own. First up: the party plan!

(Image credit: Danielle Tsi)

The Party Idea: A Cozy Evening With Friends

Going into this, my biggest goal was to carve out a little space in the holiday zaniness for my best buds to get together for some wine and nibbles. I’ve been living in California for almost three years now, and it was just in the last few months that I realized that I finally felt settled — and that I had been lucky enough to meet some very lovely people in that time who I now count among my closest friends. We all have busy lives and it’s not often that we can all gather together in the same place and at the same time. I was determined to make that happen.

The seed of that idea ended up becoming a potluck for a few reasons. First, my friends love food — all I had to do was casually mention the idea of a potluck and they were already two steps ahead of me in planning what they’d bring. Second, for a party meant to celebrate friendship, a potluck felt like a better fit than a dinner party cooked I’d alone. Third, as has been established, I love a good potluck and will take any excuse to host or attend one!

In the end, I had six couples (a total of 12 people) on board with the potluck plan. My friend Tracy signed on as co-host and we decided to throw the party at her house where we would have slightly more space than in my tiny 800-square foot apartment. Plus, Tracy had a trump card: a fire place!

With that decided, we divided and conquered: Tracy was in charge of the decorations and other hosting duties and I would organize the food and drinks.

(Image credit: Danielle Tsi)

Planning the Potluck

My original idea was to make this a German holiday potluck party and to ask everyone to bring their favorite German dishes. I was thinking “rustic, hearty, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food.” This turned out to be a better in concept than in reality as…well…apparently not everyone has a favorite German dish! Here’s your first lesson:

1. Pick a Potluck Theme (But Don’t Make It Too Narrow)

A theme is helpful because it puts everyone on the same page and it makes the potluck feel cohesive — less of a random assortment of dishes. Strictly German food was a little too narrow, but opening it up to “any dishes from Germany or neighbors” was great. I decided to make a Polish bigos stew, someone’s husband made potato pancakes he had in Alsace, another friend brought a nut cake, and so on.

Next potluck lesson:

2. Let Guests Pick Their Own Dishes (But Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Them to Change)

With a larger potluck, I might have asked people to specifically bring (or sign up for) an appetizer, a main dish, a dessert, and so on. Since our party was fairly small, I decided to let people volunteer their own dishes. This was mostly fine, but at a certain point, I realized that we had a few too many appetizers and could really use another side dish. I asked a friend if she might be willing to switch it up, and she swapped her recipe without a blink.

Last potluck lesson:

3. Relax! It’s a Potluck! (But Don’t Forget the Serving Spoons)

Once all my guests were set with their dishes, I felt totally relaxed — This is easy! I should always throw potlucks! But a few days before the party, I realized that I’d overlooked a few planning steps, namely how many dishes needed to be re-heated at Tracy’s house, did we have enough serving spoons, and did we need any serving platters? Lesson learned: a potluck organizer’s job doesn’t end when the RSVPs are all received.

(Image credit: Danielle Tsi)
(Image credit: Danielle Tsi)

The Party Look

Tracy is a whiz at making a table look fabulous, and being a not-whiz myself, I was happy to leave it in her capable hands. We talked about what kind of vibe we were going for: rustic, warm, very relaxed. We really wanted everyone to feel cozy and comfortable. This being said, we still wanted it to feel like a special, festive party — rather than eating off our laps as happens at so many potlucks, Tracy and I decided to serve the potluck on a buffet table, but then eat at the dining room table.

Tracy has a beautiful wooden dining room table, so we thought we’d skip a table cloth or placemats and arrange everything right on the wood, rustic-style. Her house is also surrounded by evergreen trees and the table decorations became a simple matter of going into the back yard for some branches. Sparkly silver accents and pops of white brought it all together, and a scattering of candles gave the table a warm glow.

We also talked about how the night would progress. As our friends arrived, we thought we’d do cheese and crackers with cups of mulled wine at the island in her kitchen. Then we’d move into the dining room for supper, and then to the fireplace in her den for dessert and an after-dinner drink.

(Image credit: Danielle Tsi)

The plan was made, the day was set, and this little holiday potluck was coming together quite nicely!

Next up, I’ll share a recipe for the Polish stew I made as my own potluck contribution and we’ll talk about how Tracy set that gorgeous table. Later in the week, I’ll talk about how the night played out, share my favorite gingerbread cookie recipe, and give you some tips for planning out the buffet table.

Styling: Tracy Benjamin

Photography: Danielle Tsi