Potluck Etiquette

The rules for a great potluck party

Overhead smiling neighbors around potluck table sunny park
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Potluck parties are a great way for friends to get together for a party, without putting a lot of stress or expense on the one person hosting the event. Yes, the host will need to make their home comfortable and clean enough for guests, but the responsibility for food and beverages are shared. Often the host coordinates what everyone else will bring, especially if the group doesn't plan on eating only brownies for the meal, one of the most popular contributions, in my experience, to a potluck party.

As with any activity that involves a group of people, it's important to take into consideration the other members of the group. Therefore, whether you're the host or simply a contributing guest, think about these etiquette rules which will help to make it a happy experience for everyone attending.

Potluck Etiquette for Hosts

As you begin to organize the potluck, break down the meal into different categories of contributions. These will include appetizers, main dishes, salads, desserts, beverages, and party goods. Often the host will make the main course for the group, but that's not a hard and fast rule. Keep track of what each guest commits to bringing so you can see which categories need additional contributions.

When guests ask what to bring, give them a choice of two categories so they can choose something that fits their time and budget.

Don't tell someone to bring a particularly expensive item. For example, a fruit salad for 20 or steaks to feed a crowd would put a large financial burden on any one individual. On the other hand, if they volunteer without your asking, it's fine to accept.

A potluck is not a substitute for a party you should be responsible for hosting on your own. For example, if it's your child's first birthday party, it's your responsibility to entertain your guests, at whatever level you can afford.

Potluck Etiquette for Guests

If you've agreed to bring a main dish, don't show up with a dessert instead. You should always keep in your assigned category since the balance of the meal has been organized by your host.

When deciding what to bring, think about its appeal to the majority of other guests.

A bag of potato chips is not an adequate contribution to a potluck dinner unless your host specifically told you to bring that. A potluck assumes everyone is going to bring a dish into which they've put some time and effort.

If you've been invited to a potluck you shouldn't attend and eat unless you've made a contribution to a meal. For example, offices will sometimes organize potluck lunches as an opportunity for staff to socialize. You shouldn't just show up in the conference room and eat unless you've brought something to share.

Don't bring a dish that still needs to be cooked at the party unless the host has given his approval. For example, if you're bringing the hamburgers to the party, the host will have a heated grill waiting to cook them. But a casserole that still needs an hour to bake may not find an available place in the host's oven if the host is still roasting a turkey in it.

Your food should be ready to serve when you arrive at the party. If it's an item that needs last minute attention, such as a salad that needs the ingredients tossed together when you arrive, be sure to bring tongs or serving spoons for tossing it.

Bring your contribution in an appropriate serving dish with the necessary serving implement. Your host will be too busy supervising the flow of the party to begin to hunt down these items for you.

Bring a small tent card to place by your dish telling guests what's in your dish. It will help friends with allergies to identify which ones to avoid without running around the party asking everyone to name their ingredients.

If you've agreed to bring an appetizer, you, more than other guests, must be on time. Nobody's going to feel like your hot crab dip after they've had dessert.

Some groups decide to plan potlucks where the expense of the meal is divided among all participants. If that's the case, don't bring an expensive gourmet item that is way out of the price range of the rest of the menu unless everyone agreed to it in advance.

No double dipping. This means you shouldn't dip your carrot, chip, or another dipper in the dip, sauce, cheese, or whatever, bite it, and dip again.

Don't take too much of any one thing. Remember the line of people behind you want to take a little sample of everything too.

Don't use your hands or utensil that you've already used to eat to take food from the serving dishes. That's what serving utensils are for.

Once you've taken your food, move away from the buffet line to make room for the next guests to serve themselves. A buffet line is not the place to catch up with an old friend unless you're both waiting for your turn.

Don't take leftovers unless they've been offered to you. Some groups may have a policy that each member leaves with their own leftovers, but it's always nice to offer them first to your host.