Get Lucky this Christmas! (We’re Bringin’ Potluck Back)

10 Dec

In these tighter economic times, it makes sense that potluck parties should be on the rise. We shouldn’t give up our get-togethers just because our party budget has shrunk! And, with busy lives, the ability to cook multi-course meals – and still have the energy left to enjoy them with guests – is a rare feat!

I’ve hosted quite a few potlucks over the years –  from 80-person grade-level parents parties when our kids were in elementary school to Bible study end-of-year soirees that grew to 90 folks. We recently hosted a smaller potluck with a crew of 20 friends who all have kids in college (that same crew from the elementary school days)! If anyone ever understood the necessity of a frugal dinner party, it’s those of us who are paying out-of-state tuition!

Whether you are hosting or attending, here are a few tips!

Tips for the host:

Don’t kill yourself cleaning: Hide the stacks of unfinished business in your bedroom, turn down the lights and light some candles. Even a mess looks better by candlelight.

Tell them what you want: Give people suggestions for what to bring. You can even create a signup on one of the online sites like SignUp Genius. Unless you want specific items (such as bread to accompany lasagna) you can ask for general categories (appetizers, salads, main, sides, desserts, beverages, paper goods). But make sure your guests can see what the others are bringing – you don’t want four people bringing brownies! And, from experience, you don’t really need as many desserts as you think. One or two usually will suffice.

Be ready: Have everything ready to go so that you can greet guests and not be busy in the kitchen when they arrive. That means you’ve got space in the fridge for items that arrive and need to be kept cold, and space on the counter or in the oven – or on the buffet table – for items as they come. Also, lots of aluminum foil, ziploks and containers you don’t need back for sending leftovers out the door (or at least so you can send the original dish home with the provider. Who wants to drive around town with a load of Pyrex deliveries?)

Self-serve beverages: Unless your spouse or a friend really enjoys playing bartender, make drinks as self serve as possible. Walk your guest, for instance, to the cooler and cups, the already-opened wine bottles and glasses —  and get them the first one – then deputize them to help themselves  (and anyone else) to seconds!

Prepare for forgetful guests: Have plenty of dishtowels, trivets, oven mitts and serving utensils on hand, as well as platters, bowls, etc. for those who neglect to bring them. You don’t want to be standing on your head peering into the dark depths of your serve-ware cabinet trying to find the chip and dip bowl while you are supposed to be mingling and offering witty and charming commentary on your Christmas décor, right?

A friend indeed: Enlist a good friend to help you do an occasional walk-through-tidy (throw away empties, pick up used napkins, replenish ice or wine) or walk around with a platter of appetizers.

Ice-breakers: Even if someone else is bringing appetizers and drinks, be sure to have a few simple things on hand for those who arrive before the providers: some little cups of nuts, pretzels or Chex mix, a few large bottles of sparkling water, a bottle of champagne or prosecco (something that’s festive but won’t trump the person who arrives a few minutes late with that gallon of sangria or pitcher of Pom Martinis!)

Tips for the Best Potluck Guests:

Sign up early – but be flexible: Let your hostess know that even though you signed up to bring a chocolate cream pie, you would be happy to bring something else if she would like. This is better than signing up “I’ll bring whatever you want.” If you do that, you are forcing the hostess to figure it out for you. Give a default and proffer a phone call a few days before.

Know yourself, tardy girl: If you sign up for appetizers, arrive on time. If you are a habitually late person, offer to bring dessert instead!

Be fully prepared: When you bring something to a potluck, bring it ready to serve (or as close to that as possible) with all the appropriate serving utensils. I once had someone offer to bring macaroni and cheese to a potluck. They arrived 30 minutes late with a grocery bag and handed it to me: two boxes of uncooked Kraft Macaroni & cheese, a half gallon of milk and box of butter. I thanked them and told them we would be enjoying it for lunch the next day!

Even if you are bringing chips and salsa – bring a bowl for the chips and a dish for the salsa. Ask the hostess where she wants it and take it there. Dump them in and throw away your trash! If your dish needs preparation right before serving, let the hostess know that you will prepare it at the time – just ask for a five-minute heads-up before she wants to serve.

No doggie bags for You:  If you bring something to a potluck and it doesn’t get completely consumed (food or beverage), offer to leave it there – ask if they have a ziplock or a container you can transfer it to so they don’t have to wash your dish and get it back to you. (I know, the temptation is to take it with you – especially if it’s a bottle of wine – but etiquette wise, leave it unless your host resists and wants you to take it with you. They hosted, cleaned house and organized the party. They deserve to have a glass of wine and a nosh of onion dip once the guests have left!)

High-maintenance dish: If your signature potluck dish needs to be in an oven, be sure to check ahead with the hostess to make sure she has the oven or microwave space. I was once doing a pizza party (I had made several homemade gourmet pizzas). One guest arrived – they had offered to do meatballs – but they needed the oven for 30 minutes to heat them up. 30 minutes is a LONG time – and I needed the oven for the pizza. It was awkward…..but we did a little Rubik’s cube action and enlisted the microwave for the initial heating, and got it to work. But if it’s not convenient, consider making something else this time and save that high-maintenance entrée for you own party.

Gifting your Hostess: When you bring a hostess gift, make sure it’s not something the hostess has to deal with—such as a bouquet of flowers that are not in water. Nice host/hostess gifts you might consider as an alternative: a plant; a bottle of fancy olive oil or balsamic vinegar; bottle of wine with a note (but wrap it so it doesn’t get consumed that night);  cute cocktail napkins; a Christmas apron; small plate of something homemade (cookies; banana bread; brownies) wrapped nicely with a note; liqueur or schnapps (especially peppermint this time of year) are always nice to have on hand.

Courtesy call for help: Call an hour before the party and ask if you can pick up anything on your way over (a bag of ice – a bag of chips. I love it when someone does that for me!)

Last minute cancellations – send the dish anyhow! Unless your host refuses (or you have the stomach flu and no one would want to eat what you made with your infectious little hands) send your dish over even if you have to cancel – especially if it’s last minute and you’ve already made it. And that’s doubly important if you are bringing dessert – you might be the only one!

Now, shutdown your computer and get out there and socialize, people!

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