With the classic potluck approach in which people bring a dish of their choosing to share, you run the risk of ending up with multiple varieties of guacamole, a few trays of brownies, and nothing else. A good potluck organization plan will help to prevent duplicate dishes. And adding a theme to the event can entice guests to get even more creative with the dishes they bring.
A Night at the Movies
Pick a popular movie your guests are familiar with, and ask them to make a dish that somehow represents it. You could even choose a movie with a food-related theme and build your menu around that. For example, if you select the movie "Ratatouille," the theme for your party would be French cuisine. Hold a screening of the movie at the potluck as you and your guests enjoy the food.
For a book-themed potluck, one option is to pick a book you know your guests have read and plan the menu around it. Or if you're in a book club, plan a themed potluck for one of your meetings. Assign each member a specific course for their dish, and enjoy the food as you discuss the book. An added benefit is book club meetings are typically seated affairs, so you won't have to worry about guests moving around with potentially messy dishes as they socialize.
For this theme, everyone should bring a dish that reflects their family heritage. You might end up with a sushi appetizer, Argentinian picada as a first course, Italian bread soup, and Dutch chocolate custard for dessert. Allow guests the opportunity to introduce their dishes to the group, as they might have some interesting family stories behind them.
Appetizers and Desserts
These two courses are often the favorites at any party. So cut out the middle course, and assign everyone an appetizer or a dessert. But make sure guests tell you what they plan to bring, so you have enough of a variety.
Eat Like a Kid
Ask your guests to bring a childhood classic, and invite them to kick it up for adult tastes. For example, enhance standard macaroni and cheese with lobster, swap the hot dogs for chorizo in franks and beans, or add some garlic and herbs to your spaghetti with butter. This potluck idea is especially great if children will be attending.
Salads make a perfect potluck theme for the warmer weather. There are plenty of options for every course, starting with an antipasto salad and ending with a fruit salad. As the host, have big bowls of ice to keep perishable salads chilled, especially if you'll be outside.
Just like salads hit the spot at a summertime party, casseroles are the food for fall. Who doesn't love the allure of a warm and comforting casserole when the weather turns chilly? Don't forget to cap off your potluck with a dessert casserole, such as apple crisps or Indian pudding.
Letters of the Alphabet
For a theme that's bound to inspire you and your guests to thumb through some cookbooks, pick a letter of the alphabet that all the dishes must begin with. For example, if you choose the letter A, guests could make avocado, tomato, and mozzarella salad or albondigas soup. If you get together regularly for potlucks, start at the beginning of the alphabet and work your way through. You all will likely learn many new dishes this way.
A popular potluck theme is the "last meal." One way to orchestrate it is to have everyone bring a dish that starts with the first letter of their last name. This can minimize the odds of people coming with duplicate dishes. And for another creative twist on the theme, ask guests to bring the dish they would want to eat if it were their actual last meal. You're sure to get lots of delicious food this way.
For this potluck, the host gets to choose an ingredient that each person must work into their dish. For example, if the ingredient is beets, guests could bring a beet soup or beet salad. Just make sure you ask what everyone plans to bring to prevent any overlap.