16 Ready-to-Eat Groceries You Can (Proudly) Bring to Any Potluck

updated Nov 6, 2019
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Potluck season is here! It’s a time of both excitement and dread. Don’t get me wrong — the idea of a potluck is super fun. They’re casual and convivial and the lineup always offers the element of surprise. But the realities can be a bit harsh. Aside from the occasional weird or, uh, questionable food items, there’s another frequent pitfall: running out of time to prepare something to bring. 

Whether it’s due to a busy schedule or just plain forgetfulness, it happens to me more often than I’d like to admit, and judging from the desperate trays of celery sticks and gummy dip that so often populate potluck spreads, I think it’s a common affliction. 

So I recently started keeping a running list of grocery-store items that I could grab the day of, or even on the way to, the party that I wouldn’t be ashamed to bring. Here’s my cheat sheet. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman


1. Sushi

Some stores have an in-store sushi counter and a wide array of grab-and-go sushi trays that are prepared daily and actually really good. The bigger “Chef’s Sampler” trays are perfect for parties, or grab a couple of containers of rolls and make your own sampler platter.

2. Cheese and charcuterie plate

Upscale stores (like Whole Foods) will have the most interesting cheese and cured meat selection, plus employees to help you navigate them so you can put together a platter to be proud of. Plus, there’s an olive bar so you can add tasty and colorful pickled things like marinated mushrooms and stuffed olives and peppers. Don’t forget to check the packaged sliced meats area for pâtés and savory mousses. If you’re on a tight budget, though, Trader Joe’s offers a smaller selection of quality cheeses at low prices. 

3. Gourmet nuts

Hit Costco for the best prices on specialty nuts, like Blue Diamond Gourmet Almonds, or even a tub of Kirkland gourmet nuts. Aldi even has a bunch of great options in larger bags.

4. Shrimp and cocktail sauce

A platter of shrimp is always a big hit, and you can never have enough. If you have time for defrosting you can DIY your own platter in minutes for a fraction of the cost of a store-assembled one. Just grab a bag of frozen tail-on cooked shrimp, let them defrost, then arrange on a platter with some cut lemons and a bowl of cocktail sauce. 

5. Pita chips and dip

Pita chips are sturdy enough to stand up to all manner of dips. Decant some hummus (Whole Foods makes great hummus) into a pretty bowl, swirl it with the back of a spoon, and drizzle with olive and a sprinkle of za’atar if you have it. Costco has giant tubs of Parmesan-asigo dip and smoked salmon dip that would work great, too. And in the TJ’s freezer section there’s artichoke dip (always a huge hit) that just needs to be heated until bubbly. If there’s no time for that, just grab a jar of TJ’s eggplant or red pepper spreads instead. 

6. Frozen apps

If you have time in your schedule to give these a quick reheat before the party, you’ll be a star because hot apps make people happy. Every store has a different selection, so be on the lookout for crowd-pleasers like mini quiches, taquitos, meatballs (maybe make an IKEA run?), spanakopita, and frozen pizza or flatbreads that you can cut into “party squares.” 

Credit: Olive & Mango

Entrees and Sides

7. Fried chicken

Most supermarkets have fried chicken, sometimes by the tub, in the deli area — and everyone knows fried chicken is good even when it’s cold. 

8. Soup

Skip the canned soup aisle and head to the prepared foods area to see what’s on offer. That’s where the fresher and more interesting soups will be. Better yet, grab a tub of soup from Costco. The Loaded Baked Potato and Tortilla Soups are good bets. Pour them into a slow cooker and you can serve them hot right from the buffet table. 

9. Tamales

Trader Joe’s and Costco both offer packs of fresh tamales in the refrigerator section, and they only need a few minutes in a microwave to reheat. Add a tub of sour cream and salsa and/or hot sauce so people can doctor theirs up as they see fit. 

10. Sliders

Look in the refrigerated section for tubs of pulled pork or carnitas. All you’ll need to do is heat it up beforehand (or in a slow cooker) with some barbecue sauce (if it’s not already sauced) and pair with a basket of dinner rolls, so people can assemble their sliders themselves.

11. Refrigerated or frozen lasagna

Okay, so you’ll need to have a decent amount of time to reheat a big frozen lasagna, but saucy carbs never disappoint. Every store has a different selection, but yours may even have some that are refrigerated (faster to cook!). Heat it up ahead of time.

12. Salad kits

Nobody beats Trader Joe’s for inventive, legitimately delicious and super-cheap salad kits. The Southwestern is a fave. Just grab a few bags and toss together in a big serving bowl. No Trader Joe’s nearby? There are tons of great salad kits at mainstream grocery stores, too.

13. Garlic bread

Everybody loves garlic bread and it goes with almost anything. Whole Foods offers theirs already slathered in garlic butter and ready for a quick toast in the oven. Or grab a baguette and tub of roasted garlic butter at Trader Joe’s. Bonus points if you sprinkle on Parmesan cheese before baking. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn


14. Sundae supplies

Sundae bars are super easy and really impressive — even if all you did was grab a couple of pints of fancy ice cream like Jeni’s or Talenti, some jars of caramel and hot fudge, and a canister of whipped cream. It’s a good idea to ask the host ahead of time if there’s room to store the ice creams before serving, otherwise you’ll need to pack them in a cooler with ice to keep them cold. 

15. Thaw-and-eat treats

Check the freezer section for desserts that only need to be thawed before serving. At most supermarkets, you’ll find a giant tub of cream puffs filled with whipped cream. Costco has frozen trays with three-dozen French macarons. Trader Joe’s has macarons too, as well as cheesecakes, tiramisu torte, and a cake bite sampler. 

16. Anything from the bakery section

No time to thaw? No worries. Head to the bakery area of any grocery store. There’s always a cake, a pie, or a platter of cookies that you can grab. At Costco the best bets for a fancy dessert are the cheesecake, chocolate mousse cake, tuxedo mousse cake, and tiramisu bar cake. If something homier is OK, grab the massive pumpkin pie. The Whole Foods bakery area offers even more elegant options for whole cakes, and the vegan chocolate mousse cake is incredible. If you’re tempted to put together a cookie platter from the Whole Foods cookie bar, go for the chocolate sandwich cookies and the chocolate-covered caramel wafer cookies.

What will you grab from the grocery store when you’re in a potluck pinch?