- Honestly, Dara -

How to Host a Stress-Free Potluck

With a little planning, some timely communication, and a dash of creativity, your next potluck can be a stress-free success.

Illustration of a woman carrying a salad

I live in a potluck world — even though the mealtime gatherings I frequent and host are rarely actually called potlucks. 

But potlucks they are. Friends invite friends to dinner and we all ask, “What can I bring?” Next thing you know, our phones are buzzing with text updates on what’s on sale at which store, what everyone’s making, and — whoops — what they’re making now that their initial plans fell through.

When my kids’ school hosts morning events for parents to come and admire their students’ work, there’s an unspoken assumption we’ll all bring food to contribute to the community breakfast table — another potluck. You get a sense of how hectic our collective lives are based on whether that table is adorned with strawberry skewers and homemade muffins or doughnut holes from the convenience store around the corner. Either way, we’ve all pitched in with something to share.

When my own schedule hasn’t pushed me into the realm of doughnut holes, I have a repertoire of a half-dozen dishes I might bring to shared meals. My potluck favorite of late is a citrus and pomegranate salad I found in a cookbook by the Israeli–British chef Yotam Ottolenghi. 

My kids have their own go-to potluck dishes for school and scout events. My son’s favorite is extra-buttery garlic bread, while my daughter goes with a coconut-milk chocolate pudding that’s both dairy- and gluten-free, because she has a lot of friends with food restrictions. (Her recipe: chocolate-pudding mix, coconut milk, and a sprinkle of ground chocolate if she’s feeling fancy. She likes to serve it in Dixie cups with paper umbrellas, for additional flair.) 

Yes, potlucks are a big part of my life, so when Ali Rosen’s first cookbook, Bring It! Tried and True Recipes for Potlucks and Casual Entertaining, landed on my desk, I pounced upon it ravenously. Rosen, who in 2014 was included in Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list in the Food & Wine category, has built a culinary media business around this theme: Her website, video-production company, and Emmy-nominated New York–market TV show all fall under the moniker Potluck with Ali.  

Rosen admits that her mother wasn’t a fan of that title at first. “Potlucks always have horrible food!” she warned her entrepreneurial daughter. Fortunately for us, Rosen persevered.

Potluck started out as a metaphor, about bringing everyone to the table,” Rosen says. “Everyone has a different viewpoint, a different perspective. I was tired of food media where you always see the same chefs and get the same points of view. I wanted to break that mold.”  

So Rosen is intentional about talking to people from all corners of the foodie world. “I never went to cooking school, so every time I had a question, I would just call up people and then make television about it. I’ve learned so much,” she says.

Tips From a Potluck Professional

As Rosen’s enterprise and cooking worldview have expanded, she’s refined her own perspective on the Great American Potluck. 

Among the first recipes she would like to see go by the wayside are the “mayo bombs.” You know the foods in question: mayo-covered macaroni, mayo-covered potatoes, mayo-covered fruit.

Also on her list are meats kept in a slow cooker or a warm oven for so long that a layer of orange oil forms on the top, alarming all who confront it. 

“I’m all about room temperature, even for meats,” she says. “I just hosted a potluck for my father-in-law’s 70th birthday, and everything was served at room temperature, including a delicious salmon with mustard.”

 Indeed, as we’re carting food from our home to another’s, stressing out about how to keep those cocktail sausages in barbecue sauce piping hot can sap the joy from an otherwise casual and fun affair.

“It’s funny to me that we spend so much energy and time trying to make sure things are hot,” says Rosen. “That we’d rather have overcooked hot food than really good room-temperature food.” She recommends swapping those wieners for a simple pork tenderloin, which is delicious warm or at room temperature.

Other suggestions? To be sure you don’t end up with six versions of guacamole or nine dozen brownies, Rosen encourages communication (hence, buzzing phones) to work out a balance of dishes. And of course, if a friend has an allergy or other restriction, share that information with the group. 

But unless everyone’s collaborating on a Moroccan-food night, keep the planning general, lean into the mystery, and see what shows up. 

Cook to Impress — Without Stress

Finally, if you’re bringing food to a potluck, there’s nothing wrong with a little pizzazz! But don’t worry about getting too fancy.

“I want to impress people, there’s no question, but I want to find the easiest way to do that,” says Rosen. 

Pre-peeled garlic? Premade pie crust? Sure. 

“It’s much more important to get people cooking again,” she argues. “If you can prepare a pie in 10 minutes because you bought a pie crust, do it!” 

In fact, Rosen’s goat-cheese pumpkin-pie recipe features a store-bought crust, a can of pumpkin purée, goat cheese, cream cheese, eggs, and a bit of sugar and spice. I think I’ll work that one into our rotation when my little one gets tired of her coconut-milk chocolate pudding. 

The more I think about it, the more I think Rosen is on to something. After all, aren’t potlucks just the way life rolls? Foodwise, certainly: You’ll readily find Thai chicken bowls and Mexican burritos side by side at restaurants, and leftovers are essentially a refrigerator potluck. 

If you extend this idea out to the rest of life, you’ll realize it’s all a big mix-and-match. We all get to take what comes, even if it all doesn’t seem to fit together in a perfectly planned way. It is a potluck world after all — if we only take the time to notice. 

This originally appeared as “Bring It!” in the December 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

is a James Beard Award-winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by Paul Hostetler

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