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8 Steps to a Perfect Holiday Potluck

Are you stepping into the holiday hosting spotlight? Whether it’s Friendsgiving or a family get-together, a potluck is a great way to offset some of the stress of hosting while also giving everyone a chance to participate. So read on, and get ready to be the star of the party season!

First, you need a menu. This can be traditional holiday fare or something more casual like a taco or burger bar, pasta, chili, or anything your group will go for. The host traditionally provides the main course, and while turkey and ham are most associated with the holidays, they’re not required. If you’d rather not be sidetracked in the kitchen on party day, choose a dish that you can cook the day before, so you just have to reheat it. If your dish needs to be cooked on the day of the party, factor in plenty of time for that before guests arrive, or ask someone to see to guests while you're busy cooking.

When you send invitations, ask your guests if they have any dietary restrictions, and make sure all attendees know what should be avoided. Once you have a head count, you can start planning how many sides you’ll need.

To ensure a variety of side dishes (and avoid having four types of potato salad), start an email or text thread to track what everyone is bringing. You can assign sides or just ask what people want to bring, but make sure that you end up with a balance of food and desserts. There will likely be many items that need to be served warm, so ask for volunteers to bring crock pots or disposable chafing dishes as well.

Once the menu is set, send out the final list so everyone is clear on their roles. If you’re using disposable plates, cutlery, napkins, and/or cups, make sure someone is bringing those, and that they know the quantity needed.

And while the concept of potluck is that the host doesn’t have to provide all the food, you may want to have some backups on hand in case there’s a mix-up or someone has to cancel at the last minute. A gallon of ice cream can always sub in for dessert, and instant mashed potatoes or frozen green beans can fill in for a vegetable gap.

Partying is thirsty business, so make sure you have plenty of nonalcoholic beverages on hand. If you’re also serving alcohol, online tools can help you calculate how much wine or alcohol to stock. And to keep guests from overcrowding the kitchen, consider setting up a drink station with glasses or cups and a small cooler of ice, as well as bottles or pitchers of water.

If you don’t have a large dining table that seats everyone, or if you want to mix things up a bit, set up small tables or trays in the living area so guests can spread out. Designate a space for serving food, so you can easily organize dishes as they arrive. Even if you’re using disposable plates and eating utensils, you’ll need plenty of serving utensils, so you may want to hit up a dollar store for inexpensive tools or buy disposable sets at the grocery store. And of course, if you’re using your own dishes and silverware, double check that you have enough for everyone.

If you’re planning on games or activities, make sure you have everything you need for those. White Elephant gift exchanges and ugly sweater contests are classics, but you can find plenty of other ideas online, or even come up with something original! Christmas music karaoke, anyone?

One of the advantages of potlucks is that they leave you more time to get your house party-ready. Start your cleaning and decluttering a few days ahead of time to avoid last-minute panic, or hire a one-time housecleaning service to add an extra layer of sparkle. If you haven’t yet decorated for the holidays, now’s the time to go all out, along with extra touches like bowls of candy or party favors for the guests. Then, on the day of the party, run through the following checklist:

  • Stock soap, clean towels, and extra toilet paper in the bathroom.

  • Stash clutter in rooms people won’t go in.

  • Light a scented candle or two (but don’t overwhelm the house with fragrance).

  • Cue up some mood-setting music.

Guests will likely volunteer (and undoubtedly be happy) to help clean up at the end of the party. Don’t feel like you have to decline! You were kind enough to organize and host, and this can give you more time to socialize. If you prefer to do your own clean-up, just cheerfully let your guests know that you want to spend party time on fun things, so chores can wait until later.

Remember that this gathering is a chance to celebrate and enjoy yourself … not a test you have to ace! Be prepared for spills and food fails, and accept them with good humor. If using your fine china will make you worry about a chipped dish, then go with paper plates. Your guests won’t have a good time if you’re a nervous wreck, so let go of perfectionism and just have fun!


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