Everything You Need to Know to Host a Potluck Party

I’m sharing everything you need to know to host a potluck party! Use this guide to help you plan your summer parties and casual gatherings. A potluck party is the easiest way to entertain at home, but it still takes a bit of strategy to pull it all together. Just follow my tips and you’ll be a fabulously thoughtful hostess. 

Everything you need to know to host a potluck party.

How to organize a potluck party

With all the parties we’ve hosted over the past decade, about half of them have been a group effort where guests bring a dish to share. Some of the best occasions for this are backyard cookouts, game viewing parties, ladies night in, “Friendsgiving”, or any other reason you can think of. Whether the party is held indoors or out you’ll want to keep a few things in mind.

How to organize a potluck party

What to bring

As the hostess you’ll want to decide what food you will provide, and what you want your guests to bring. Our MO is usually to provide the main course {meat}, some pre-meal snacks or appetizers, and let guests fill in with sides and desserts.

Don’t leave it up to chance that each guest will bring the perfect dish for a well balance meal – you could end up having 5 potato salads! It’s a good idea to assign a type of dish to each guest based on their comfort level in the kitchen. For instance, ask Jane to bring her favorite classic potato salad, Janet can bring sweet & spicy baked beans, Ally can bring a green salad, Sandy can bring rolls from the bakery, etc.

Guests like to be given some direction because it takes the pressure off of them {as long as you’re not asking Betty to bake a 3 layer cake if she’s never even boiled water}. Here’s a list of tried & true summer side dish recipes.

When it comes to drinks, the hostess can prepare a signature cocktail or mocktail for the occasion, and should have a variety of other beverages on hand that will appeal to everyone. Knowing this in advance, the guests can BYOB if they want something different.

How to set up a summer potluck party buffet

Consider your space

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

As the hostess, make sure you clear out all the clutter beforehand and clean off any surfaces that can be used for the food items that 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!

RELATED: See how I turned an everyday console into an entertaining space here.

What to make for potluck party

Have a backup plan 

We’ve all been there – you plan the perfect party outside and it rains cats and dogs on the day of. If you plan an outdoor party 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.

summer party food buffet

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. Or you can do a diy wood topper for a chic look.

food buffet with flowers

What to do about 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. After all, 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.

baked beans in green dish

What to do with the kids 

I think we can all agree that most potluck dishes are not totally kid friendly. Mine will not eat a potato salad or pasta salad for anything! It’a that whole “mixed foods” thing.

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 believe in having anything too structured for the children to do. It only adds to the chaos and becomes more trouble than it’s worth for the adults. Provide a safe area in which the kids can play and let them use their social skills and imagination. Interesting concept in this day and age, right!

outdoor summer food buffet

How to set up for a potluck party

Finally, some logistical solutions that you want to keep in mind are:

  • Make sure you have plenty of space on the tables for your guests to place their food items.
  • Create a logical layout for the buffet. Put plates at the beginning followed by the food. Place drinks in a separate location so you don’t get stuck in a traffic jam. 
  • Separate the food placement into main dish, sides, desserts, and drinks. Set out snacks or appetizers around the party space where they are easily reached.
  • Use pretty dome food screens to keep bugs away from the buffet dishes.
  • A pretty floral centerpiece is a nice touch to the main table.
  • If you’re outdoors provide sunscreen, shade areas, bug spray, and lighting if you’re lingering into the night. Check out this guide on plants that repel bugs and mosquitos, too.
  • Let guests write their name on a piece of masking tape and adhere it to their dish. In case they leave without it, you’ll know who it belongs to so you can return it.
  • 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.

Well, I think that just about covers everything. Just because it’s the end of summer doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of occasions to host a potluck party. The fall and winter are full of game days and other reasons to gather. I hope you’ll use this list to help you plan ahead. Cheers!

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