How to Host a Potluck Party

Want to host a potluck party? I’ve got you covered! It’s the easiest way to entertain at home, but it still takes a bit of strategy to pull it all together. Just follow this guide to help you plan your summer parties, church gatherings, or holiday get-togethers.

outside food buffet table with various dishes of food.

Dinner parties are fun, but the truth is there’s no better way to gather with people than to organize a potluck party. In fact I would say MOST parties tend to be a “make-and-take” party.

A potluck party can be small with 10 or 12 people, medium size for up to 25, or large for up to a hundred. Think about these occasions where everyone brings a dish.

How to Organize a Potluck

With all the parties we’ve hosted over the years, about half of them have been a group effort where guests bring a dish to share. Whether the party is held indoors or out you’ll want to keep a few things in mind.

5 Quick Rules of a Potluck Party

  1. Assign categories rather than specific dishes.
  2. Let everyone know what to expect.
  3. Set up the space with tables to place dishes on, provide comfort and shade outdoors.
  4. Label dishes with what it is and who it belongs to.
  5. Remember to account for extras like napkins, plates, utensils, condiments, etc.

Location

The location will determine what you need for the party setup.

  • If it’s at a church, school, or office, you probably already have a large space with chairs and tables.
  • If it’s for a family reunion or other event you may consider renting a venue like a clubhouse, a park with a shelter, or lodge. These places typically have tables and chairs on site.
  • For parties at home, in the backyard or in the neighborhood, you’ll need to make sure you have folding tables, lawn chairs, and easy-up tents.

EXPERT TIP: If you’re hosting at an outside venue with public restrooms, bring extra toilet paper just in case.

party table outside, setup with flowers in tall vase, plates with napkins and forks, and corn on the cob.

Assign Items

  • Create a signup sheet, a facebook group, a group text, or an online portal like Signup Genius so guests can ensure they don’t duplicate dishes.
  • Divide the signup list into categories like meat, side dishes, dessert, snacks, bread, condiments, drinks, supplies. The larger the group, the more you can break down each category. Meats can be divided into burgers, chicken, hot dogs, while the side dishes can be categorized into salads, vegetables, fruit, etc.
  • Also include sign ups for party goods like disposable dishes, trash bags, drinks, etc. These are terrific items for participants who are less comfortable in the kitchen.
  • Alternatively, if this is for a specific meal like Thanksgiving, you can let guests sign up for specific dishes. For instance 5 people may need to bring mashed potatoes in order to serve a large group of 50.
  • I’ve found that some potluck parties are so large they don’t really need to list specific dishes. That’s because there’s such variety, even if you have 2 or 3 potato salads they are likely all different and will surely feed the crowd. It can also be exciting to see what all is available!

Label Your Dish

  • Keep dietary restrictions in mind and label you dish, letting guests know if something has nuts, dairy, or gluten.
  • Put masking tape with your name on the bottom of the dish. In case you leave it behind they will know who it belongs to.

PARTY TIP: Provide place cards and pens so guests can label their food: “with peanuts” or “spicy,” “Gluten free,” etc.

What to Bring

As the hostess you’ll need to decide what food you will provide, and what you want your guests to bring. Here’s a list of tried & true summer side dish recipes that taste great and travel well.

  • Our method at home is usually to provide the main course or meat, some pre-meal snacks or appetizers, and let guests fill in with sides, more snacks, and desserts.
  • For larger gatherings like a block party, each family will typically bring their own meat to cook if grilling is part of the plan.
  • Choose a dish that’s easy to transport and holds up well. Make sure it’s in a ready-to-serve container along with serving tools.
  • Consider the temperature of the food item. Can it be served at room temperature? Can it be served from a Crock Pot with a plug nearby? Can you place a cold salad bowl on a bed of ice?
watermelon cubes with feta and basil on tan platter.
large white bowl of penne pasta salad with sliced eggs on top.

Most Popular Items

  • Bound salads – includes creamy classics like potato salad, pasta salad, slaw.
  • Vinaigrette salads – includes green salads, veggie salads, pasta salads with an oil and vinegar dressing.
  • Baked Beans – with or without meat, sweet or savory.
  • Fruit – sliced watermelon, fruit salad, fruit platter.
  • Vegetables – raw crudites platter, grilled or roasted veggies.
  • Chips & Dips – tortillas and salsa, potato chips, crackers and cheese.
drink dispenser filled with iced tea, on table outside.

Beverages

When it comes to drinks, the hostess can prepare a signature cocktail or mocktail for the occasion, and there should be a variety of other beverages on hand that will appeal to everyone. Add a beverage sign up section for individuals to bring, or let guests BYOB.

  • Gallons of iced tea; sweet and unsweet
  • Beer
  • Pitcher and punch recipes
  • Canned or 2-liter sodas
  • Water
  • Plenty of ice to use in drinks and to keep in a cooler of drinks on ice.

Consider Your Space

If your potluck party is outdoors you probably have plenty of room to set up tables, seating, and an activity area. Indoors can be a little trickier depending on where you live.

For indoor parties, make sure you clear out all the clutter beforehand and clean off any surfaces that can be used for the food people bring. Nothing feels LESS inviting than to come into a messy space with nowhere to put anything. It makes you feel more like an intruder than a guest!

Have a Backup Plan 

We’ve all been there; you plan the perfect outdoor party and it rains on the day of. If you plan a party for outside, you must have a backup plan!

We’ve moved parties into the garage, or basement due to rain.

An outdoor popup party tent is a good thing to have on a sunny day as well as during a light rain that lasts a short time. Of course you can always bring the party inside the house if you must, but that can get tricky if you have a lot of small children.

outdoor party setup with wine and food and yard umbrella overhead.

How to Set Up

There are some logistical considerations you want to keep in mind.

  • Prepare the space with folding tables and chairs, trash cans, and coolers.
  • For outdoor parties, provide easy-up tents or market umbrellas, and trash cans.
  • The truth is, many times you don’t have enough seated tables when you host a potluck party. If people need to eat with their plate in their lap, at least make sure you have plenty of small tables around so they can set their drink down. You can pull them from indoors or from other rooms if needed.
  • Make sure you have plenty of space on the tables for your guests to place their food items.

Plan for Seating 

Have you ever noticed people sit MORE during an outdoor party than they do at an indoor party? It’s true. People like to sit and relax when they’re outside, but they like to stand and rotate when the party is indoors.

  • With that in mind, make sure you have plenty of folding chairs for guests to sit in at your backyard party, OR make sure to tell them to bring a folding chair with them. That’s how we do here in the burbs. Everyone travels with their folding chair!
  • Folding tables are also a good investment for any hostess to make. You can use them indoors or out and you will use them more than you ever thought you would! Cover them with fabric, a tablecloth, or a sheet and use them for a buffet table, a bar, or a seated table.
potluck buffet table with food, and utensils in wooden caddy.

Buffet Layout

  • Create a logical layout for the buffet. Put plates at the beginning followed by the food with any coordinating buns or condiments, and ending with napkins and forks.
  • Separate the food placement into main dishes, sides, desserts, and drinks. Set out snacks or appetizers around the party space where they are easily reached.
  • Place drinks in a separate location so you don’t get stuck in a traffic jam. 
  • A pretty floral centerpiece is a nice touch on the main table. Set it at the end for better placement if needed.

PARTY TIP: Have trivets, towels or other padding to put hot dishes on so they don’t ruin the table surface.

Theme

Do you want to have a themed potluck party? It can be as simple as a “brunch theme” or as targeted as an “Italian Night” theme.

Choosing a theme isn’t necessary but it can help guide everyone on what food to bring. Here are some ideas to start with.

  • Tropical theme or Hawaiian Luau.
  • Southern dishes or Family favorites.
  • Brunch or breakfast potluck party.
  • Soup or chili potluck.
  • Casserole party or comfort food.
  • Location theme or specialty cuisine like Italian, French, Spanish, Mexican.
  • Appetizers, finger food and dips, such as a Sangria & tapas theme.
  • Retro recipes from decades past, like 50’s casseroles with canned soup, or 70’s fondue.
  • Dessert party.

What About Kids 

It’s a good idea to have some classic child-friendly food items that they can indulge in. Hot dogs or burgers are good for cookouts, while pizza or spaghetti is a good choices for indoors. You can assign these items to guests just as you would the other dishes if you like.

As for activities I don’t like having anything overly structured for the children to do. It only adds to the chaos and pulls focus from the adults ability to socialize. Provide a safe area in which the kids can play, and provide indoor or outdoor games accordingly. And let them use their social skills and imagination. Interesting concept in this day and age, right!

man and two women socializing at a backyard party.

Unexpected Guests 

It always seems like someone has a last minute visitor who comes to the party with them. While we all love the saying, “the more the merrier,” this kind of scenario is what stresses me out the most!

As a planner I don’t like the unexpected but I’ve learned to think ahead and plan for it, and unexpected guests are no exception. If it’s a potluck party there should be plenty of space and food to go around, right? With that in mind I try to buy a little more than what I know I’ll need…just in case.

In the end, it’s always fun to meet new people.

Checklist

  • Tablecloths
  • Table decor and/or centerpiece
  • Napkins
  • Knives, forks, spoons
  • Plates
  • Bowls
  • Cups
  • Paper towels
  • Serving spoons
  • Ice
  • Coolers
  • Chafing dishes and canned heat (Sterno)
  • Plastic food containers or zippered plastic bags (for leftovers!)
  • Moist towelettes
  • Garbage bags

FAQ

What is a potluck party?

A potluck is a communal gathering where everyone participates by bringing food or drinks to share. It’s commonly called a covered dish supper, too.

What can I bring to a potluck that doesn’t require cooking?

Purchase bags of chips and dips, buns and rolls, gallon-size jugs of iced tea, veggie trays, fruit salads, paper products, juice boxes, beer.

Well, I think that just about covers everything you need to know to host a potluck party. There are plenty of occasions for it and I hope this guide will help you plan ahead.

If you like this post, PINShare, or sign up for our Newsletter at the top of the page. And don’t forget to follow CAH on Instagram or Facebook. Cheers!

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts

One Comment

Comments are closed.