How to Organize a Potluck Dinner

posted in: Organizing 2

Image of cooked mussels being poured into a bowl and the phrase, How to Organize a Potluck DInnerOne of the pleasures in hosting a potluck lunch or dinner is the amount and variety of dishes.

There’s so many different flavors and tastes from which to choose.

Unfortunately, one of the downsizes is that you run the risk of people bringing duplicate dishes.

You don’t want to be stuck with three pasta and two potato dishes…

In this post, I offer some tips to help you organize a successful potluck.


Get an accurate headcount.

It’s difficult to throw any party or event without knowing the total number of attendees.

Set a total number of people you’d like to invite to your potluck, or write out a list of confirmed attendees.

Count any “Maybe” or “Undecided” invitations as “Will Not Attend” to be on the safe side; you don’t want to end up short a dish!

Once you’ve finalized your numbers, you can move on to food planning.

Choose a potluck theme.

Pepperoni pizza, vegetable lo mein, empanadas…and gelato? Why not?

One of the great things about potlucks is that you can sample many different dishes and tastes.

Instead of limiting people to bringing a certain type of cuisine, why not extend your reach with a broad theme for the potluck?

This makes it easier for people to identify and bring dishes.

For example, you might choose themes such as Favorite Foods (such as macaroni and cheese, pizza, chocolate cake), Old Family Recipes (such as apple pie, garlic roasted chicken, summer salad), Regional Favorites (such as Boston baked beans, Louisiana jambalaya, Texas Chili), and so on.

Create contribution categories.

Each invitee should bring one item from one of the major dish groups as listed below:

  • Appetizers
  • Soups
  • Salads
  • Main Dishes
  • Side Dishes
  • Desserts
  • Beverages

Of course, you can mix and match any of the groups above to suit your needs. If you’re having a small potluck with only five people, you would only need an appetizer, main dish, side dish, dessert, and beverage.

Obviously, the more people attending your potluck, the more dishes you’ll need to feed everyone. A good start is to divide the total number of attendees by the total number of dish groups. That should give you a general idea as to how many dishes you’ll need.

If you’re having a potluck with, say, twenty-one people, you might want to start with three dishes from each of the above groups.

You can of course adjust these numbers as you see fit: maybe you want to have less main dishes and more side dishes, or less desserts and more main dishes.

It’s completely up to you.

Don’t forget non-food items.

It’s a good idea to give people the option of bringing items other than food or beverages. It’s perfect for those less culinary inclined, or who would rather help out in some other way.

Guests could bring:

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

Request potluck contributions.

There’s a couple of ways to request potluck contributions from your guests. You could:

  • Email your contacts your potluck theme and dish groups/non-food items and ask them for their contributions
  • Set up a signup sheet on Google Docs with your potluck theme and dish groups/non-food items and ask people to add in their contributions
  • Print out a signup sheet and place in a prominent place (if at a volunteer group, workplace, school, or other location)

Here’s a few pointers to keep in mind:

Be sure to include a due date for dishes. You don’t want the dish selection process to go on forever! Plus, you’ll want to know what everyone is bringing a couple of days before the potluck.

First come, first served. To be fair to everyone, make it clear that once dishes/non-food items are taken, they are unavailable. Or, you could simply assign courses to people to ensure everyone won’t bring a dessert or main course.

Continually monitor contributions. Make edits to your potluck menu as necessary. You can let people know what dishes/non-food items are available, assign courses/dishes as necessary, and follow-up with those who have not yet submitted their contributions.

How about you? Have you ever organized a potluck dinner or meal at home or at work? What do you find the most challenging thing about holding a potluck? Do you have any tips for keeping things organized? Join the conversation and leave a comment below!

Want help planning your party or event? I have an eBook and online course that can help you plan everything, from to start to finish. Click here to learn more! 

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Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant who helps people get organized so they can stress less, have more fun, and be happier at home. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.

2 Responses

  1. Betty Winslow

    We have a potluck buffet at my house every Xmas eve – the most challenging part, for me, is to get everyone to let me know when they can come! I often assign latecomers things like pop, cookies, or a dessert, since that’s something that can be used throughout and a late arrival won’t throw things off too much.

    • Rashelle

      Oh, yes, those potluck RSVPs are tricky things. Even more so than regular party RSVPs, I think, since everyone is trying to figure out what to prepare/bring. That’s a great idea to have latecomers bring non-main course items.