The uncontrolled nature of a potluck is, potentially, what makes it spontaneous and fun — but it's hard when people not only bring their own dishes, but also their own unique ideas of what constitutes appropriate behavior. As long as you don’t listen too hard to complaints or try too hard to make people happy, you can manage most problems and host a lovely meal while avoiding conflict and unnecessary work and making the mistake of re-inviting those guests who made things take a pot-un-lucky turn for the worst.
The great thing about the chaos of a potluck is that, by relinquishing control of the cooking, the menu, and everything but the venue itself, you can't hold yourself responsible for the many, many things that can go wrong. Yes, others may complain and decide that — since it’s your house/dish/idea in the first place — you’re the one responsible for making sure they're happy; well-fed; and safe from all possible allergens, hot spices, and cilantro. And yes, you can take reasonable precautions to prepare for worst-case scenarios, trusting that something will likely go wrong.
In the end, however, you must ultimately judge your own potluck responsibilities fairly and not hold yourself responsible for making everything right, anticipating all disasters, or soothing the expectations and disappointments of other participants.
With that in mind, here's what you can do in the following potluck scenarios.
Your guest doesn't bring what he's supposed to — or anything at all.
If one guest neglects his duties, chances are the party will still go on. And even if your guest doesn’t own responsibility, there’s really no point in arguing. But remember, you now know something important about his jerky character that will help you protect yourself in the future.
Your guest shows up with kids when the invitation says no kids allowed.
You can always ask your guests to mind their kids and protect your possessions, but you can never guarantee they have the ability or right attitude to get the job done. Worst-case scenario, you wind up distracted by having to act as bodyguard to all your valuables, jumping to interpose yourself between kids and anything remotely breakable. Again, the reward for your suffering is learning who the jerks are and earning the right never to invite them (or their destructive offspring) again.
Your guest is literally allergic to everything, gives no warning, and complains about how she can't find anything to eat.
Assuming you don’t hold yourself responsible — and why should you? — don’t feel obliged to listen. If she’s allergic, it’s her job to bring a big dish of something she can eat, or to at least let everyone know what her restrictions are and ask for volunteers to prepare a dish or two that won't kill her. It’s your job to make polite conversation and move along quickly when you hear whining.
Your guest shows up with an arsenal of Tupperware for bringing leftovers back home.
If the leftovers matter to you (or to the guests who want to take home the dishes they themselves prepared), give yourself a host’s right to do what you want with them or alert the other guests accordingly. Just let the Tupperware be a warning that you all need to move quickly and that this guest either gets blacklisted or gently advised in his next invite to not expect a doggy bag.
The host fails to return your Dutch oven, cupcake tin, etc.
As usual, there’s never any point in expressing resentment, no matter how righteous, because odds are your host is either busy, usually flakey, or generally not withholding your equipment out of malice (unless you showed up to the party with kids, Tupperware, or an unknown allergy to organic matter, in which case, you may have some passive-aggressive retaliation on your hands). If it’s important, drop by when they’re home and politely pick it up. And next time, use something disposable.
The host micromanages the potluck (e.g., tells everyone exactly what to bring, what exact recipe to use, etc.)
You have a right not to bring anything you don’t really want to, but choose your battles, because correcting a micromanager never ends well (which is to say, it usually results in a macro-argument). If it’s not a big bother, ignore your irritation, and bring whatever they want. If what they want is unacceptable — too fussy, difficult, expensive, etc. — offer what you think is a suitable alternative. Just remember that being polite with a micromanager is your protection.
Need potluck inspiration? Here are 15 crowd-pleasing potluck recipes to try.