A pot luck dinner seems like the easier thing in the world to plan out. I mean, you invite people to bring food over to your place, and then you all eat it. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Oh, but it isn’t!
There is more to throwing a pot luck event than inviting people over. I once attended a pot luck where the host did just that, and it was such a mess! We had about a dozen people invited, with no idea who was bringing what. Nine people brought desserts, eight of which were some sort of brownie or cookie. No one brought a main dish, or a vegetable, or beverages. We basically had pasta and cookies, eaten out of tupperware containers or over napkins. It was bad!
So how can you avoid common things going wrong?
- get a sign up sheet for everyone to look over and sign. If everyone knows that someone is already making brownies, then they won’t make them too.
- tell people what you need. If you say you need two people to make a main course, 4 for side dishes, 1 for breads, 3 for dessert, it makes it easier to sign up for something to make.
- pick a theme. One of my favourite pot lucks was one my friend threw was a Mr. Noodle pot luck. Everyone was asked to take two packages of Mr. Noodle and create something fun with it. We had Mr. Noodle soups, stir fries, and even a poutine. It was fantastic!
- let people know if you will be providing anything to drink, what you will be providing, and if the event is BYOB. Nothing worse thank people showing up and no one having anything to drink but tap water.
- Find out ahead of time if anyone has any allergies. If you know someone is deathly allergic to peanuts, tell everyone to make peanut-free dishes. If the allergy isn’t life threatening, then ask the person with the allergy how they’d like you to proceed. Maybe they’d rather not have that particular food present at all, or maybe they’d just like to know which foods use it so they can avoid it.
- if you’re serving drinks or cold food at all, make sure someone brings ice. Or make a tonne of it ahead of time. My father has never bought a bag of ice in his life, and my folks host a pretty epic New Years Day bash every year. He starts a week or two before the party, making ice and putting it in plastic bags in the freezer. If you don’t have the freezer space to do this, there’s no shame in buying a bag.
Seats and Settings
- make sure you have enough plates, cutlery, and cups for everyone. You don’t want people to have to eat off of old tupperwear lids, like we did.
- have something to serve with. Even just spatulas and ladles will work fine in a pinch. If someone has an allergy, and that allergen is present, then make sure each and every dish has its own serving utensil and no one cross-contaminates the dishes.
- unless everyone is willing to help pitch it to clean up, or you like staying up all night to do dishes (or you have a dishwasher you can throw everything into), use disposable plates and stuff. It’s much easier to just throw things away than to have to clean it all (it’s not exactly environmentally friendly, though, so don’t make a habit of doing this).
- does everyone have somewhere to sit? You don’t need a formal dining table and chairs to throw any sort of dinner party. We used couches, a coffee table, and TV tables for the Mr. Noodle Pot Luck, and that worked out just fine.
- find out if anyone needs any special seating arrangements. At one dinner I attended, no one thought to have a chair and TV table for a guest who had a broken leg was on crutches. He wasn’t able to easily lower or raise himself on the low couches in the house, and using a kitchen chair at the very short coffee table was uncomfortable for him. Make sure no one is uncomfortable like that.
- is this an intimate group of friends who all know each other? In that case, everyone should be able to mingle amongst themselves just fine.
- is this old friends and new friends who are not well acquainted? Then you have a little more work to do. Make sure to introduce each of your guests. And none of that, “Bob, this is Sally. Sally, Bob” stuff. No one can get a conversation started from that. Swell: A Girl’s Guide to the Good Life suggests personalizing your introductions. “Bob, this is Sally from work. She’s the one who always reads us those crazy news stories from the Weird News sections of news sites. And Sally, Bob here has been working with a cat rescue shelter for the last few years.” See how that gives them a little something to talk about?
- if you have shy guests who aren’t mingling much, give them helpful tasks to do. See if they want to help set up the buffet table and find out who brought what, or freshen people’s drinks. It will help them stay busy, and give them a reason to talk to the other guests.
So that’s just a few hints and pointers for a seemingly easy pot luck night in with friends. Of course, things will always go wrong: someone will spill things on the carpet, or break your new glass pitcher, or get falling down drunk and fall off the sofa. Don’t worry about these things though. Making a big deal about them will only make your guests feel bad.
And as for dealing with a drunken guest, or any situation where there’s the possibility people will be imbibing copious amounts of alcohol, I’m planning on dedicating a post or two to just that. I didn’t spend all those years attending frat parties for nothing, sunshine!