How do I organize a potluck dinner

How to throw the perfect potluck party: 8 tips from a pro

You know this friend of yours who can cook dinner for 20 minutes without breaking a sweat? Well, for me that's Kristin Donnelly, TODAY Food contributor and author of the new cookbook, Modern Potluck: Beautiful Food to Share. Here she shares her top tips for throwing the perfect potluck party, as well as two fabulous potluck recipes for peach blueberry slab pie and spiced roasted carrots with lentils. Take it away Kristin!

1. Control your inner control freak

Dinner parties are the time to show off any dish and stylize the look of your table. But when you're throwing a potluck, relax. Sure, you can suggest someone bring a certain type of dish, but if your girlfriend dies bringing her famous (infamous?) Macaroni Salad, just have her bring it (or lightly whip the Spice Fried Carrots with Lentils in front).

To make sure the party doesn't have six plates of deviled eggs (unless you have a delicious egg potluck, which is a brilliant idea thanks!), You might want to create a sign-up form (set up a table) on Google Drive, up that everyone can access works well). Again, there is no need to over-control - just make a list of categories like Dips & Hors d’Oeuvres; Salads and vegetables; Main course; Dessert; Others, and let your score fill out from there.

Yossy Arefi / Courtesy Modern Potluck, Clarkson Potter
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Peach and blueberry bread cake with a sweet almond crust

Kristin Donnelly

2. Keep your guests informed about dietary restrictions

Knowing that some people at the party may not be able to eat certain foods, it's nice to tell other guests that they can take this into account when choosing their dishes. Make it clear that their dishes don't have to be gluten-free or vegan (unless it's a must-have).

3. Choose a topic or not

If you're hosting potlucks on a regular basis, choosing a theme can be a fun way to mix it up. But it's also unnecessary and maybe even inappropriate for those larger potlucks with many unknown guests. If you want to go the themed route, here are some ideas.

  • Global Street Food: You can ask people to bring a dish that is inspired by something they discovered on their travels or a place they want to go.
  • Your Grandmother's Favorite Recipe, Your Way: Ask people to show the original recipe along with their updates.
  • Book Club: Bring people together on a specific cookbook, or if you read fiction, ask guests to make recipes that are inspired by the book.
  • Seasonal parties: In summer, ask people to make dishes that use things from the garden or lots of herbs. In winter, throw a soup and use half to bring soups and the other half to bring side dishes such as bread and desserts.
  • Wine Couple Potluck: Tell everyone to prepare a dish and bring a matching wine.
  • Swap parties: in addition to a dish, ask to bring softly used clothes, kitchen items, books, or even surplus gardening products for swap.
  • Be careful: if your group is a big fan of spicy food, have them prepare dishes that use different types of chilies. Then serve ice cream and sorbet for dessert.
  • Local pride: Ask your guests to create dishes using one of their favorite local ingredients or food.

4. Think about the flow and label the food

For a small potluck, it makes sense to put most of the dishes on the same table. But for a bigger one, it's usually easier to spread the food out across different tables and different rooms. For example, you can put all vegetarian dishes in one place or distribute the dishes on tables that are intended for hot and cold dishes or starters and main dishes. If there are multiple hot dishes, put down the coasters so they're easy to land. Have blank labels and pens handy for you or your guests to write down the name of the dish and any necessary information such as "contains nuts!" or "spicy!" or "gluten-free!" For even more fun, line your tables with butcher paper and encourage people to write on the paper for their dishes alongside.

Yossy Arefi / Courtesy Modern Potluck, Clarkson Potter
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Roasted carrots with lentils

Kristin Donnelly

5. Don't forget plates, cups, napkins and utensils

If you don't ask people to bring these things, it is your job to make sure they are there. For larger groups, disposable plates and utensils are easiest, and when you're ready to splurge, bamboo or palm leaf plates and wooden utensils are good choices; They're durable, beautiful, and compostable. To facilitate the flow of traffic, make space for plates and napkins, and use trays or glasses to store utensils. High quality disposable cups are a little harder to come by. If you have enough space and have a lot of conversation, it pays to invest in a range of washable plastic wine glasses and other types of mugs. You can ask people to bring serving utensils - large spoons, cake servers, knives - that are appropriate for their dishes, but also have extras ready in case they forget. Make sure you have visible waste bins too, and if you want to allow recycling or composting, clearly label the bins.

6. Make sure your kitchen is as clean as you can get it

People will inevitably want to reheat their dishes or top it off at the last minute so try to have clear counters.

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7. Stock the bar

Even if you don't have a formal bar, create a drinks area that includes a large ice box, mugs, and wine and beer openers. Think about how you plan to use water - you can either buy bottled water in bulk or, more sustainable, large, refillable water containers with spigots.

8. If you are hosting or organizing a potluck offsite, find out what is available

Ask in advance for running water, electricity, bathrooms, garbage cans, tables and seating so you are not surprised on the day of your event. You will likely need to bring drink and perishable food coolers, as well as garbage bags.

Reprinted by Modern Potluck: Nice food to share. Copyright © 2016 by Kristin Donnelly. Photographs Copyright © 2016 by Yossy Arefi. Published by Clarkson Potter / Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.