Making the Potluck a Success in Today’s World

by Dale S. Brown


I love potlucks! I love the different foods you discover. Cooking for a wider group leads to cultural exploration as well as to closer human connections.

Sadly, in my community, these gatherings are happening less and less. The idea of a potluck sometimes causes people to groan. “It’s so much work!” one friend says. “I can’t cook,” says another. Organizers are increasingly concerned about dietary restrictions, from the need to supply low-cal vegan dishes to requests for gluten-free breads or desserts.

Can we reinvent the potluck so it can work in today’s busy, ingredient-conscious world? 

Fortunately, there are alternatives to the hidden rules that haunt today’s potluck. Here are some suggestions:

Share the traditional duties of the host

In the traditional potluck, the host offers his or her home, coordinates the food mix, and is responsible for cleanup. In addition, the host often provides the main dishes, especially if few other people are willing to bring them (which is often the case). To lessen the burden of responsibility, consider assigning the following tasks to different individuals:

  • Offering a home or venue for the potluck
  • Coordinating the food and assuring there is balance among the dishes and enough food for everyone
  • Cleanup. 

 Allow flexibility in how people contribute

In many communities, you can still count on people being giving and flexible, with potluck participants acknowledging that “somehow it just works out.” But in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where I live (and in numerous other places if my informants are correct), the following things are happening:

  • People are refusing to coordinate or lead a potluck, because they fear they won't get enough help. 
  • The potluck table has insufficient food or food that isn't nourishing enough for a meal. This may be partially due to the economy. At one potluck I attended, three-quarters of the table was desserts. At another, the table was empty after the first 10 people served themselves.
  • In my own experience, I’ve found that those participants who are less well-off, who are immigrants, and/or who are good cooks tend to bring most of the food—and pay for most of the ingredients. Their generosity is wearing thin. Or, put differently, their generosity is still active—but is this really fair?
  • People turn down potluck invitations because they don’t want to cook or can’t afford the ingredients of the dishes they're expected to bring.
  • Women are still bringing the bulk of main dishes (!?!?!?). Yes, I stand by that observation.

Here are some suggestions to make potlucks work again:

  • If you’re the person leading the first potluck of a group, go ahead and do the traditional hosting job mentioned above. After everyone has had a good time and says they want to do it again, describe the steps you actually took to create the event. Suggest dividing the work and see if people are willing to take it on.
  • Excuse people from bringing food if they have other potluck responsibilities, such as cleanup or coordinating the event.
  • Allow people to make a financial contribution and offer that money to the people who make the main dishes to buy ingredients.

Request, but do not require, that potluck contributors list the ingredients in their food

Food allergies are on the rise. Many people have strict eating protocols such as vegan diets, gluten-free diets, and religious restrictions. Because these individuals need to know the ingredients in the food they eat, they may avoid potlucks where the content of dishes isn’t clear.

Unfortunately, listing ingredients can be difficult. Some creative cooks aren't reliably aware of each item they put in the pot. They worry about making a mistake. People who bring takeout food might not know most of the ingredients.

Requiring people to list ingredients may exclude some people from participating. But it’s a good thing to encourage. You may also want to announce that it’s okay to bring your own special food and participate in the potluck without partaking in the rest of the dishes.

Bring an attitude of gratitude

Each of us makes different decisions about our participation in the local food movement, our nutritional choices, our contributions to the environment, and our willpower to stick to our ideals. Let’s learn from each other and avoid scolding or preaching about “how it should be done.”

Be generous

If you bring food and can afford it, bring as much as you can. Bring food you like and take home the leftovers. Try to bring twice as much if you're part of a couple. If bringing food is burdensome for you, make an offer to the potluck organizer. Say, “I can’t cook a contribution this time, but would love to stay and clean up until the kitchen is sparkling.” You could also bring a less expensive contribution, like a huge bowl of popcorn.

If you don’t have the time or skills to cook for the group, you can offer to buy the ingredients for another participant. Offering money can be awkward, but you can offer ingredients tactfully. You could say, “I have a bunch of chicken in the freezer that I can’t use—I was wondering if I could bring it over and you could make that great dish you brought last month.” Or, “I’m going shopping on Thursday and I thought you could let me bring you the ingredients for such and such.” Be prepared to humbly cajole and persuade them. “We loved your XYZ—can’t you let us bring you the items you need to cook it?”

Consider how your experience as a consumer of food influences your expectations

Eating out and ordering takeout have become increasingly common. Some people bring their own expectations as food consumers to their social lives. Do you get irritated if the activity is disorganized, or if the meal starts late? Are you hesitant to cook for a potluck because you’re afraid the food won’t be as good as what you get in restaurants or see on cooking shows? Do you think you shouldn’t have to help clean up, because you never have to when you eat out? Let’s reclaim the lost art of hospitality and of offering our gifts.

Organize potlucks and enjoy them!

Many of the “old” potluck traditions are based on an earlier time when women were responsible for cooking and didn’t work outside of the house full-time. People who lived closer to one other and knew one other for longer were confident that their efforts today would be returned tomorrow. But in today’s busy, transient, and increasingly “me-centered” world, we may need to define monetary and work contribution more explicitly. By rethinking our approach to potlucks, we can continue to enjoy the age-old tradition of sharing good food and good company.

Other posts from Dale S. Brown:

My Story of Frugality: Breaking My Economic Dependence on My Job

Spending Strategies: How Frugality Helped Me Cut Costs and Gain Freedom from Work

Are You Being Frugal, or Just Plain Cheap?

Dale S. Brown works on a portfolio of projects that empower people both in personal growth and political power. She lives in Washington, D.C. and is a guest blogger for New Dream. She blogs about how frugality financially empowered her, enabling her to take an early retirement at age 50 and live on her income.