How to Throw the Perfect Potluck Dinner

Who’s bringing the casserole?

Formal Fondue Dinner Party

The humble potluck conjures up images of Midwestern church basement gatherings ripe with tater-tot casserole, green bean casserole, tuna casserole, sweet potato casserole and broccoli chicken divan (a casserole). But the potluck is seeing a resurgence among foodie-type youngsters, and armed with Le Creuset, they’re giving Aunt Ester a run for her money. “I see inklings of [potlucks] already becoming more popular,” said Kristin Donnelly, author of the upcoming cookbook Modern Potluck. “There’s certainly nothing new about potlucks, but what is new is a generation interested in food and savvy about new ingredients and different flavors. These people are getting older and doing it more, not wanting to go out for whatever reason.”

Indeed, the potluck can be a laid-back way to host a food gathering with friends, as Donnelly found after she had her first child. An avid dinner party host, she found that entertaining guests became far more difficult with the additional family member, and the potluck became a simple solution. “It was just so easy because you could put your time and energy into one great dish and have a fun social event.”

If you host a potluck for your next soiree, there are a few things to keep in mind. While throwing a potluck means reducing the pressure to cook, it also requires coordinating between several people and still means preparing the space. And while the success of a potluck dinner is dependent on your guest’s cooking skills (consider dropping from your guest list the guy who always brings a Costco-sized bag of potato chips), these guidelines will help your night go off without a hitch.

1 Consider a theme. Though it isn’t a necessity, having a theme is a good idea as it helps give direction to your guests. “You can go as specific or as general as you want,” said Donnelly. “I’ve suggested things like making a dish based on a place you’ve traveled to.” Or, consider making different categories of cuisine the theme, to ensure the dishes will be complementary of each other.

2 Have (loose) assignments. If you aren’t organized when dolling out assignments for your guests, you may end up with ten trays of brussels sprouts (not that there’s anything wrong with brussels sprouts). That said, also don’t be a dictator with what people can and can’t bring. “The spirit of a potluck is to bring people together; it’s not so much about perfection,” said Donnelly. When you send out invites, include a link to a Google Doc where guests can fill out their name and add what they want to bring, that way you’ll avoid duplicate dishes while giving guests free rein.

3 Communicate. To help things run smoothly, make sure your guests know what to expect the day of. “I think it’s great for the host to be upfront about the kitchen availability — whether the oven will be available or how much counter space there will be,” said Donnelly. “It’s also good for hosts to remind guests to bring serving utensils if you don’t have everything.” In short, assume your guests know nothing about the logistics and work with them to make sure everyone has what they need before the dinner.

4 Make the main. “As a host, commit to making the centerpiece dish,” said Donnelly. “It’s easier for people to fill in around it and it sets the tone for what the potluck will be.” A good main — like Donnelly’s own Chicken Tinga recipe below — can anchor the rest of the meal, but is also easy to make in large quantities. Also consider making something that is easily complimented by other sides your guests will be bringing.

5 Consider disposables. Depending on how many people are coming and what your dishwashing situation looks like, you may want to forego using actual dinnerware and go the disposable route. Donnelly recommends bamboo or banana leaf disposables because they a) still look respectable and b) are study enough to support enough food for someone with a serious appetite. At the end of the meal, they can simply be tossed — making post-meal cleanup a lot easier.

6 Remember libations. With a lot of the focus on the food at a potluck, it can be easy to let drinks fall by the wayside. In the planning phase ask some guests to bring drinks. That can be as simple as beer and wine, or, if one of your friends has Tom-Cruise-in-Cocktail aspirations, have them put together an alcoholic punch or batch cocktail. On the day of, set up a temporary bar so guests can easily serve themselves at their leisure.

7 Clean up. This is where potlucks can be tricker than a regular dinner party. At the end of the meal, you are now left with a ton of dishes to return to guests. Culinary figure Ruth Reichl once told Donnelly that guests should take their dishes home, even if they’re dirty. This helps distribute leftovers and helps you avoid a messy kitchen and a cumbersome dish-return process.

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Kristin Donnelly’s Chicken Tinga

Chicken Tinga is a hearty, spicy, Mexican stew that can be served either on its own in bowls or with tortillas and garnishes for tacos. Donnelly recommends this as a main (especially in cold weather) because it’s full of flavor, easy to make and easy to serve.

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes plus juices
2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 1/2 pounds trimmed, skinless, boneless chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 large garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth


1. In a blender or food processor, puree the tomatoes with the chipotles.
2. In a wide pot or Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil until shimmering. Season the chicken all over with salt and pepper. Add enough pieces to the pot so they fit in a single layer and cook over moderately high heat until browned (about 6 minutes). Flip the pieces and cook until browned. Transfer browned chicken to a plate and repeat with the remaining chicken.
3. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the pot. Add the onion and garlic and cook over moderately high heat, stirring and scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan, until lightly browned and softened (about 7 minutes). Add the oregano and cumin and cook about 2 minutes until fragrant. Add the tomato puree, the chipotles and broth. Bring the sauce to a boil, scraping up any more browned bits. Simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes, until thickened. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Return the chicken to the pot and simmer, covered, about 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer, stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes, until the meat pulls easily with a fork and the sauce is thick. Remove the pot from the heat. Use two forks to shred the chicken.

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