Potlucks are like DIY manicures done the morning before a formal event – they seem so easy, tempting, and affordable, yet somehow can spiral out of hand and cause immense amounts of stress so quickly.
That probably only makes sense if you have mediocre nail-painting skills like me.
For keeping costs low, learning hosting skills, trying new foods, and just generally enjoying yourself, potlucks can be an excellent life choice. Especially if you’re the host and the potluck is in your home, you don’t even need to go anywhere! People just bring food to you! It’s like the best takeout ever because you actually want to hang out with the delivery lady.
Potlucks can be easy, and fortunately, we have the technology to make them even easier. When I found the website Meal Train a few years ago I became obsessed with it and have used it for numerous events in my life. Here’s a walkthrough and some best practices to get you started with one of my favorite online planning solutions.
Using Meal Train to Plan a Super-Organized Potluck
Items Needed Before Starting
Free Meal Train account on www.mealtrain.com
Yup, it’s free! Sometimes the Internet can be so great. The only premium version is the one for organizations like churches who coordinate events like this on a super-regular basis.
Email addresses of potluck guests
It’s easiest to share the Meal Train invitation by email, in my opinion.
Total guest count (approximate)
Everyone needs to know how much food to bring! Know Thy Guest List. When in doubt, round up, and try to have some plastic to-go containers nearby in case of leftovers.
If you’re still in the potluck planning stage of, oh maybe we could do it Saturday but would Friday be better for people, nope! Nail down a date first. There are a ton of online scheduling tools available to streamline this, I personally use Doodle.
Menu category ideas
For example, let’s say you’re planning a drinks-and-dessert potluck for the weekend before Valentine’s Day. You could have menu categories of chocolate desserts, non-chocolate desserts, healthy snacks, wine, non-alcoholic drinks, and the like. This gives your guests an easy list of options to choose from, and you get to suggest the types of food you’d like!
Full address of potluck location
Specific start and end time
Image to customize your potluck page
Setting Up the Meal Train
This is super easy! The Meal Train website is very intuitive and easy-to-use, and they have some excellent how-to guides as well.
I’ve also made a quick tech tutorial video showing you step-by-step how to set up a potluck using the Valentine’s Day Dessert example.
Best Practices for Hosting a Potluck
Food Serving Space
Horizontal space becomes prime real estate during potlucks!
At the minimum, clear off your main serving space and as much counter space as possible in the kitchen, so it’s easy for your guests to set things down upon arrival. If you think you might need extra space, pull out that table extender, bring in some side tables, bust out the folding TV tray, etc.
For bonus points, making little signs or labels for which food types go where (e.g. appetizers, dessert, drinks) will make it super-obvious to your guests where the food should go.
Drink Serving Space
Again, try to maximize your open horizontal space! You can make the drinks area easy to identify by setting out cups, glasses, an ice bucket (Thou Shalt Not Forget the Ice), cocktail napkins, even a little bar sign if you like.
I’ve been to my share of potlucks during which the hosts’ entire stock of serving spoons, tongs, and ladles gets snatched up lightning-fast. Yes, my potlucks included. No shame!
I do recommend washing all of your service items, platters, wine glasses, and such at least a day before the potluck. Sometimes this will be its own dishwasher load.
Also, if you know you won’t have nearly enough serving materials, you can request in the potluck instructions for guests to bring their own!
Fridge & Freezer Space
Try to have at least one completely empty shelf in your fridge and freezer, in case a guest brings something temperature-sensitive that needs to be kept cold and/or won’t be served right away.
If there’s a possibility that one of your guests will need to heat up a potluck contribution in the oven, microwave, or on the stovetop after arriving, try to find out in advance. Having 4 different guests vying for oven space with 2 casseroles that need 20 minutes at 350 and 2 other dishes that need 10 minutes at 450… been there. Yuck.
To allow for last-minute “hey can I use your oven” requests, I do suggest that your signature contribution not require heating, if at all possible. What do I mean by signature contribution?
Host’s Signature Contribution
When hosting a potluck, it’s an excellent idea to offer one main food or drink item to get the party started!
You can even make this part of your verbal invitation. Using the Valentine’s Day example, “Hey I’m hosting a dessert and drinks potluck the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, and I’m getting a big chocolate cake for everyone. You interested?”
Signature Contribution Ideas
- Main course entree
- Homemade / special order dessert
- Wine and/or champagne
- Keg of beer
- Seasonal punch recipe
- S’mores ingredients + place to roast marshmallows over a real fire
- Crockpot appetizer (I love to make citrus meatballs!)
Listing your signature contribution in the Meal Train is a great way to get the ball rolling so that no one is intimidated to be the “first” to sign up for something. You’re breaking the ice, so to speak. The digital ice. Of a blank screen?
Man, sometimes the 21st century is weird.
At any rate, offering one main signature thing both “anchors” the potluck and also demonstrates hospitality in a delightful, low-pressure way.
No matter how easy you make the signup process, inevitably there will be at least one guest who doesn’t RSVP, neglects to sign up for a dish, neglects to bring anything, or brings something anyway that requires oven time or fridge space or duplicates another contribution from another guest.
This will happen! People are imperfect. That’s OK. There is a way to allow for it.
One way to plan around non-responsive guests in advance is to have your signature contribution be the main feature of the potluck. If you’re relying on someone random to bring the main course or all the champagne, you will probably stress out wondering if it’s actually going to happen. Whereas it doesn’t matter really if there is one fewer side dish or dessert than you were hoping for. So the first strategy is to plan to provide the most important potluck element yourself.
Another strategy to plan around this is to enlist a couple VIPs. It’s not exactly co-hosting, since at a potluck everyone’s kind of co-hosting, but if you have a friend or two who are particularly reliable or they are your roommates or they are an amazing baker or something, it’s OK to make more specific requests within reason. Often there will be guests who actually ask, hey what do you want me to bring. You can have a specific answer! That’s OK!
Example: “I’m so glad you can come to the dessert potluck! I’ve ordered the massive chocolate cake, but I really want to make sure we have the champagne to go with it. Would you mind taking the lead on that?”
Bonus, this can also be a great way to follow up with guests who haven’t RSVP’d at all. Phase 1 of the conversation is, can you make it, and Phase 2 is what will you bring and if you’re not sure could you please bring X?
If you need an excuse to start the RSVP follow-up conversation, I recommend taking a logistical approach. Ask something that indicates you’re just being practical rather than nosy or pushy. Examples: “I am trying to figure out how many extra cups I need to get. Do you think you’ll be able to come?” “I might need to bring up some extra chairs from the basement for the potluck. Do you know if you’re going to make it?” And then depending on the response, specific requests for potluck contributions can follow.
And if one of your guests still drops the ball? It’s fine. You as the host will probably be the only one to notice. And hey, as long as at least one person shows up and there is a non-zero amount of food and drink, that’s a party. Your hosting duties are fulfilled no matter who remembers something or forgets something!
And there you have it, a quick overview of how to use the free service (seriously I can hardly believe it’s free) Meal Train to plan a potluck.
Even if everyone else is bringing food, what else do you need to remember?
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Until next time!