The 5 New Rules of the Modern Potluck

updated Nov 5, 2019
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I attended a lot of church basement potlucks as a kid, and chances are your parents dragged you along to more than one of these events as well. And for good reason: Potlucks are great! They help a community of people — family, friends, churchgoers, coworkers — to gather and share a meal without any one person having to shoulder all the planning, cooking, and hosting.

But the thing that made them truly great for me — especially as a 12-year-old kid — was the mesh of informality with a vast variety of tastes. If, in contrast, dinner parties were all about cooking and hosting (and a little showing off), potlucks could be about nothing more than gathering and eating. And the food! The food at potlucks was some of the best: hearty, cheesy casseroles, chilis and stews, rich slow cooker dips, tangy bean and pasta salads, and, of course, chips. So many kinds of chips.

All the food was lined up on the biggest table available. You grabbed only what you wanted and ate it off of paper plates balanced on your knees, or held in one hand, using plastic flatware and keeping a couple of paper-towel napkins in your lap, while chatting with friends.

Looking back, I loved these potlucks, not just because I got to eat as many Ruffles as my stomach would fit, but also because the casual setting and frequency (hey, they were easy to arrange) gave us time to really focus on getting to know each other.

The Modern Potluck

Of course, times change. As a grown-up with a family, I’ve seen more dinner parties and kids’ birthdays than potlucks lately. But I know the tradition of potlucks is still alive and well and simply needs a nudge and some updated guidelines for modern families. Sure, there are other ways to gather informally around food. (I love throwing a crappy dinner party now and then with close friends.) But if you’re looking to build or bolster a larger community, do it with food, and do it often!

And if you’re unsure about going back to paper plates or too many cheese casseroles, don’t worry: How we potluck in 2019 isn’t how we potlucked in 1999 or even 2009. Today, potlucks — a meal where the food is cooked and shared by many hands, not one all-powerful hostess — are so much more egalitarian and practical, and also creative in new ways. Church basements aren’t the only places we potluck: think also of cookbook clubs (have you joined ours?), parties to make meals for the freezer or a new parent, cookie swaps, soup swaps, and so many more gatherings around food that live cozily together under the umbrella of potluck.

Here are five rules (guidelines, let us say) for modern potlucks so that today’s eaters can continue to discover and rediscover what has always made potlucks great: It’s the meal that lets people relax and focus on time spent together.

Credit: Olive & Mango

The 5 Rules of the Modern Potluck

There might not have been many old-school potluck rules (and if there were, they involved making sure everyone didn’t bring the same green bean casserole). But times change! If you’re throwing a potluck these days, you’ll need to reckon with how people communicate now, how they cook, and how they eat. These five little rules make potlucks today even easier, better, and more hospitable. It’s Potluck Week here at Kitchn, so dive in: We hope that you can find an excuse to break out these guidelines and host or attend a potluck soon.

1. Create a formal sign-up sheet (it’s kinder and more inclusive).

A very informal potluck invitation may seem more friendly (“bring whatever you like!”) but honestly, a more formal, spelled-out sign-up process is more hospitable and inclusive. A formal sign-up sheet gives everyone a chance to list what their needs are. Maybe there is need for some gluten-free or vegan dishes? Create slots so people see what is needed and don’t have to guess or ask if their dietary needs will be accommodated.

Avoid texts or email (who has time for email these days anyway?). Yes, you can use iMessage or Gmail to personally invite folks, but the best way to keep details straight is to make sure they’re centralized: Set up a Facebook event or use a SignUpGenius sheet. (They have a tab specifically for potluck!) You will help everyone see who’s coming — and, more importantly, what they’re bringing, to keep the type-A planners from “accidentally” cooking a whole dinner, and the cheerful procrastinators from all showing up with the same bag of tortilla chips and salsa.

Here’s just one more perhaps too-often overlooked benefit of a sign-up sheet: My daughter’s elementary school has a very diverse community, and using an app means the parents who are still learning English can use a translate tool to participate more. It helps make them feel more welcome.

Credit: Olive & Mango

2. Invest in reusable plates (and ditch the paper for good).

If you’re going to potluck regularly it is absolutely worth investing $20 in a stack of plastic or melamine plates (these are tough to beat at less than a dollar a piece) that can travel from potluck to potluck. You can even assemble a picnic basket (or storage container) full of reusable plates, forks, and cups. Think informal: nothing needs to match. In fact, if you don’t want to buy it online you can find things second-hand at a thrift store. Take up a collection of mismatched cloth napkins from your friends for the basket too.

Inspired by: The Community Zero Waste Picnic Basket from Simple Bites.Net

And don’t fret if everyone there isn’t on the same eco-conscious page: If people still use paper towels or plates, it’s okay. The goal isn’t zero waste, just less of it.

Credit: Olive & Mango

3. Make more room for vegetables, the glamorous potluck stars.

There will always be room on the potluck table for French onion dip and several kinds of chips. But it’s 2019 and having fresh, healthy food to eat is too established to be considered a fad. Glamorous salads and vegetarian grain bowls rule Instagram; a gorgeous vegetable-first dish will be a potluck star too. That means it’s time to make deliberate space for more thoughtful fare. The place where ham balls and dry pasta salads once sat can be filled with things like kale salads, vegetable-forward sandwiches, and hearty lentil soups.

Giving your potluck a theme — and using that sign-up sheet! — can help here. For example, “We’re hosting a vegan birthday potluck for Rachael.” It helps everyone know who they are cooking for and what to expect when they get there. Above all else, a veggie-filled salad will always get eaten.

4. Help everyone with a dietary need feel informed, secure, and well-fed!

Whether it’s a diet, an allergy, or an aversion, these days more folks are coming to the table with at least one food on the no-fly list. Whether it’s a potluck, a lunch table, or a coffee hour, it’s deeply uncool to make anyone feel less-than or excluded for their dietary choices. We hope we’re long past the days of having one wan salad for the vegetarian at the party. It’s hospitable and just kind to make sure there is a generous spread everyone can eat.

But how to not just have food, but to signal that it is safe or accommodating in the busy bustle of a potluck? It can be time-consuming to give every single item on the table a detailed label. So here’s a better idea: Take a page from your local hot-bar’s playbook and give shared dishes a quick color coding. You can get inexpensive color dot stickers (the ones you see at yard sales, which can be snagged at most dollar stores) and have friends label their dishes according to a few rules.

  • Green for vegetarian
  • Red for nut allergies
  • Yellow for keto/Paleo/ ow-carb

And so on and so forth. Post a little cheat sheet at the front of the buffet table. Then every guest can quickly determine which dishes are for them.

5. Provide enough power for all the electric helpers.

Last but not least, let’s talk about our electric helpers. Hosts may want to make sure there are enough power strips. While your 1989 potluck table may have had a Crock-Pot or two, nowadays Instant Pots are joining the crowd alongside the rice maker and other kinds of multicookers, there to keep dishes warm. Here’s hoping at least one is full of brothy beans.

These are the five things that more and more characterize the potlucks that are happening in our homes, schools, churches, community organizations, and more. We’d love to hear about your potlucks and how you use them to connect with others. What do you make, and how do you make them work for you? Do you have other rules you think belong on this list? It’s Potluck Week! So please share!

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