10 Ways to Dress Store-Bought Items Up for a Potluck — And Have No One Be the Wiser

updated Jul 17, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

The modern potluck has changed quite a lot over the years. For instance, if you get invited to a Friendsgiving this November and are asked to bring something to share, you’re taking part in a potluck. How we eat, how we organize, even where we hold potlucks has changed (they’re not all in church basements anymore!). But one thing hasn’t changed: Figuring out an easy thing to bring can be difficult.

When you want to impress your friends, but have no time to cook, try one of these smart shortcuts for dressing up store-bought items. They look (and taste) like you spent hours in the kitchen — without the, you know, hours spent in the kitchen.

Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. Make a charcuterie board.

A charcuterie board is a no-brainer. It’s easy to assemble and you can purchase the ingredients at most any grocery store. (And, hello, who doesn’t love a charcuterie board?) Joshua Hedquist, executive chef at Giulia inside Hotel Emery in Minneapolis, recommends grabbing three kinds of cheeses, two meats (like a cured hard salami and a fresh Italian meat), one crunchy element (such as fresh bread or crostini), and a jam or preserve, then arranging your bounty on a large platter. Get gourmet by adding a fancy mustard or something pickled, like artichokes, mushrooms, or asparagus, all easily found in the canned food aisle. If you’re really in a pinch for time, you can even buy a pre-made charcuterie board and simply transfer the items to your favorite wooden cutting board.

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

2. Use a rotisserie chicken.

A freshly roasted, delightfully moist (yes, we’re using that word) rotisserie chicken can be the base for many delectable semi-homemade dishes. Juan Zaragoza, chef at Gracie’s in Hotel deLuxe in Portland, Oregon, advises buying one and shredding it. Take the meat as-is along with taco fixings (here’s an easy recipe) and make a taco bar! Or if you have a little more time, throw the meat into a slow cooker with a jar of your favorite salsa and 2 cups of chicken broth. Cook on high for 30 to 45 minutes for an extra-flavorful taco filling.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Dress up meatballs.

Trader Joe’s to the rescue: Pick up a bag of frozen, precooked meatballs and toss them in a slow cooker with a bottle of your favorite savory sauce, such as a spicy barbecue or teriyaki. After an hour or two on low, they’re ready to serve with cute little toothpicks — and no one has to know they’re not homemade.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. Make nachos.

It barely passes as a “recipe,” but if you’re potlucking somewhere with an available microwave or oven, a platter of gooey nachos is sure to be one of the most-loved items. Grab a bag of chips, a container of fresh pico de gallo, a can of drained-and-rinsed black beans, a handful of fresh cilantro, and a bag or two of thick-cut pre-shredded cheese. Assemble the chips, beans, and cheese on a tray and bake for a few minutes, or put on a pretty plate and microwave. Top with cilantro and pico, and serve. Don’t forget the hot sauce.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

5. Bring Nutella brownies.

You can find pans of fresh-baked brownies in the bakery section of most supermarkets. Try this secret for a killer potluck dessert from food blogger Adriana Dikih: Transfer the bars to your own dish, then drizzle with Nutella (warm it in the microwave about 20 seconds to get it to drizzling consistency) and sprinkle with chopped nuts. “It takes five minutes,” says Dikih. “The only problem is, people always ask me for the recipe!”

6. Use a sweet shortcut.

No one will know you didn’t mix, chill, roll, cut, and bake that cookie dough into perfect shapes with this hack for dressing up store-bought cookies. Simply buy a container of cookies at the store (even gluten-free will do!), dip half of each cookie in melted chocolate, and decorate with festive sprinkles to make them appear super-special, says Nealy Fischer, cookbook author and founder of The Flexible Chef.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Upgrade your dip.

Transfer a container or two of store-bought hummus to a serving bowl, then top with freshly rinsed (and dried) chickpeas from a can. Add sesame seeds, crushed red pepper flakes, and a drizzle of olive oil, says Fischer.

Or, buy a container of artichoke dip, spread it on a festive plate and top with tons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil, recommends Charles Welch, executive chef at Good Fortune in Chicago. Either can be served with crudités (pre-chopped and from the store), pita chips, or fresh bread warmed in the oven. This is an especially great dish to make if the potluck is at your home. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

8. Make hot bar casserole.

Eric Lees, executive chef at Michelin-starred Spiaggia in Chicago, has an expert hack for a Thanksgiving favorite: sweet potato casserole. Hit up the hot bar at Whole Foods for mashed sweet potatoes, then top with your favorite marshmallows and use a blowtorch or your broiler to get them all melty and toasted. “No one will ever suspect it’s a store-bought side dish,” says Lees.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

9. Gussy up hot cider.

Pour some store-bought cider into the slow cooker to warm, then garnish it with cinnamon sticks and mulling spices, advises the culinary team behind The Spice House. No one will mind how easy it was to make. They won’t even notice — they’ll be too busy enjoying a glass!

10. Make a “fresh” loaf of bread.

Is there anything as intoxicating as the smell of freshly baked bread? You don’t need to worry about rising times or starter: Buy a loaf of frozen dough, bake it according to directions, and bring it to the party right in the warm pan. Cut it into dip-ready chunks and serve alongside a bowl of good olive oil or one of the dips, above.