16 Grocery Shortcuts to Bring to Any Potluck

updated Sep 16, 2023
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Flat-lay of people having barbeque party with meat and vegetables
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Come one, come all, because Peak Potluck Season is finally upon us! To be honest, it’s always potluck season in my world, but it definitely ramps up once the weather turns from “picnics where you’re battling with ants and sweaty cheese” to “Crock-Pot dips and sweaters for all.” Potlucks really bring out the best in us all, honestly. Convivial and low-key, the lineup is usually stacked with an element of surprise, not to mention that bringing a side, entrée, and/or dessert along guarantees you get to dig into many other dishes (just be sure to check with your pals, so it’s not a dip-only free-for-all). There is, however, just one frequent pitfall: running out of time to prepare something to bring. 

Whether it’s due to a busy schedule or just plain forgetfulness (oops), it happens to me more often than I’d like to admit, so I always have a few store-bought potluck day-savers on deck. If that sounds like you (and you’re reading this from your phone in the grocery store), I have a feeling a few of these just might clinch you the title of what I call a “VIP” — a Very Important Potlucker.

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1. Sushi

If there’s a boat I want to sail away on, it’s a sushi boat. That being said, if you’re low on time (or just want a sushi boat experience at grocery prices), your local spot’s in-store sushi counter has a wide array of grab-and-go sushi trays that are often top-notch. Grab a few containers to arrange your own “chef’s sampler” at your next potluck, with an assortment of rolls (like sashimi, California rolls, Philadelphia rolls, avocado rolls, and rainbow rolls), along with a fun side like seaweed salad.

2. Cheese and Charcuterie Fixings

Has anyone ever been sad to see a cheese and charcuterie board at a potluck? I think not. Luckily, they’re not too hard to make on your own at the last minute. Whole Foods, Aldi, and Trader Joe’s each have a well-stocked section of affordable cheeses and cured meats so you can put together a platter to be proud of. Add some marinated olives, a nut mix, and a pâté or savory mousse, and you’re on your way to a bomb cheese or charcuterie board.

3. Canned and Jarred Goods

It’s very easy to overlook the canned goods aisle when it comes to shopping for premade potluck items. But no more! There’s a lot of gold to be found in the section that just needs to be put in a cute serving bowl, and bam! You’re done. My favorites to always keep on hand? Blue-cheese stuffed olives, canned dolmas (grape leaves), marinated artichokes, and plenty of crunchy cornichon pickles (I’m especially fond of Three Little Pigs’ cornichons).

4. Shrimp and Cocktail Sauce

If there’s any place people will congregate at your potluck, it’s bound to be wherever the shrimp and cocktail sauce is at. You really can never have enough, and it’s nearly as easy to make your own versus springing for the ready-made platters. With just a bit of time for defrosting a bag of frozen tail-on cooked shrimp and a store-bought cocktail sauce (I like to add a bit of horseradish or Old Bay to doll it up), you just need to arrange your shrimp on a platter with some cut lemons. That’s it!

5. Chips and Dip 

Chips and dip are essentially a food group all their own. I know I’m not the only one who has made an entire dinner out of just dips (shout out to all the Girl Dinner-diners out there). You can and should go beyond the ruffled chips and sour cream and onion (I mean, bring those, but also a few others for good measure). Pita chips are buttery, sturdy vehicles for all manner of dips (like hummus, baba ganoush, and muhammara). The same is true of other crispy dippers like brioche toasts, Ritz crackers, and tortilla chips (which are great for warmed-up, slow-cooker-friendly dips like spinach-artichoke, queso, or Buffalo chicken dip). Add a bit of fresh herbs, and you’ll be dipping in no time. 

My favorite combo? Ithaca’s Buffalo ranch hummus (along with celery sticks and toasted pita bread) is the perfect choice for when you just can’t decide between hummus or Buffalo dip, and the indecisive ones among your group will be so glad to see it.

6. Frozen Apps

In a sea of cold apps, get the gold star with a few frozen apps that just need a quick reheat before party time. Because, let’s be real, hot apps make people happy. Every store will have a smorgasbord of options, so be on the lookout for crowd-pleasers and new seasonal options like mini quiches, taquitos, spanakopita, and frozen pizza or flatbreads that you can cut into “party squares.”

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh

Entrées and Sides

7. Fried Chicken

I’ve personally never met a platter of fried chicken I didn’t like, and grocery store fried chicken is often just as good as (if not better than) something you’d get in the drive-thru. Most supermarkets have fried chicken in the hot bar area (hi, Publix). Be sure not to be shy and grab a few more extra pieces — leftover fried chicken is maybe even better when it’s cold.

8. Soup

Bringing a slow cooker of pre-made soup is basically like a magic trick. And I don’t mean canned soups, either. Head to the prepared foods area to see what’s on offer, and you’ll spot tons of fresh and more interesting soups, like loaded baked potato soup, chili, or tortilla soup. Just simply pour them into your trusty slow cooker and you can serve them hot right from the buffet table.

9. Tamales

Tamales are basically the ultimate wrapped present. Coming in a variety of flavorful fillings (like chicken, cheese, pork, and beef), fresh tamales are abundantly available at stores like Trader Joe’s and Costco. All they need is a bit of time in your slow cooker to gently reheat, plus a few toppings (like hot sauce, guacamole, and sour cream), and you’ve got a hearty main event.

10. Meatballs

I know it’s a strange combination for many, but frozen meatballs + grape jelly + ketchup is the sweet-savory trio that never lets me down. Honestly, frozen meatballs + any pre-bottled sauce is always a good time. My personal favorites are BBQ, teriyaki, and Buffalo sauce (especially with chicken meatballs), but feel free to go super classic with marinara. They’re great on a toothpick or paired with a basket of dinner rolls to create a makeshift “slider” situation.

11. Refrigerated Lasagna

Saucy carbs rarely disappoint, and many stores offer pre-made refrigerated lasagnas that are ready for just a quick trip in the oven. I like to add a bit of chopped fresh parsley or basil on top as soon as it’s bubbly and melty to give it that, “Why yes, I did make this from scratch” vibe.

12. Salad Kits

My potluck-supply HQ, Trader Joe’s, is hard to beat when it comes to inventive, legitimately delicious and super-cheap salad kits. There’s basically a salad kit for every mood and every potluck spread, and they include dressings and toppings I wish TJ’s would sell solo. The Southwestern Chopped Salad is a fave, but I’ve also been very impressed by its bagged BBQ & Black Pepper Toscano Chopped Salad as well as the Lemony Arugula Basil Salad Kit. Just grab a few bags and toss them together in a big serving bowl. That is really it.

13. Garlic Bread

Garlic bread, as far as I’m concerned, goes with almost anything. At Whole Foods you can find baguettes already slathered in garlic butter (brilliant) and ready for a quick toast in the oven. Or grab a crusty loaf of bread, butter, and garlic spread at Trader Joe’s to DIY your own (my favorite route). Major bonus points if you sprinkle on Parmesan cheese before baking.

Credit: Photography: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell


14. Sundae Supplies

Sundae bars are super easy and really impressive — even if all you did was grab a pint or two of fancy ice cream like Jeni’s or a sorbet and gelato like Talenti. Whatever you do, don’t forget the toppings! A jar of sea-salt caramel, hot fudge, cherries (I love Fabbri’s amarena cherries), and a canister of whipped cream will excite the kids and adults (maybe the adults more, TBH). 

15. Thaw-and-Eat Treats

If you, like me, just couldn’t seem to find the time to make a tiramisu from scratch, you’re not out of luck! In the freezer section you’ll find plenty of low-maintenance desserts that just need to be thawed before serving, including that tiramisu you’re dreaming of. The aisle is full of treasures, like giant tubs of cream puffs and profiteroles filled with whipped cream, cheesecakes, and opera cakes, and they’ll likely be ready to eat by the time you arrive at the potluck. It’s a true win-win.

16. Anything from the Bakery Section

When in doubt, get thee to the bakery section. There’s always a cake, a pie, or a platter of cookies that you can grab on the way to that potluck. At places like Costco, the sky is nearly the limit, and you can find most any variety of cheesecakes, cookie platters, and even cannolis. Need to bring something a bit fancied up? The Whole Foods bakery area offers some slightly more elegant options like chantilly cakes, fresh fruit tarts, and, my favorite, its rainbow assortment of French macarons.

A version of this story was first published on November 17, 2019 by Danielle Centoni.