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How to Host a Potluck Dinner

Five party-planning essentials from an expert.

The best potluck dinners are fun and relaxing; the worst are chaotic and unsatisfying. The key to success? "You have to have some form of organization," says Marco Flavio Marinucci, founder of the blog Cook Here and Now (cookhereandnow.com), which organizes San Francisco–based potluck dinners. Marinucci spoke with Food & Wine to divulge his five best tips:

1. Create a theme

"I don't believe in hodgepodge potlucks. It's important to create a theme; it can really surprise and delight guests, and get them excited about cooking. Try to move beyond generic themes, like Italian or Cantonese; instead, choose a specific ingredient, like sustainable seafood or heirloom tomatoes. That way, you get really different approaches that reflect each cook's background, and you end up with dishes you might never have expected. Try to finalize the theme two weeks before the dinner so guests have time to come up with great recipes."

2. Plot out the courses

"Potluck should include every course—appetizers, soups or salads, entrées, desserts—as well as alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Always plan more than one for each course: Someone with the best intentions may bring an appetizer, for example, that does not work well, and you don't want that to be the only choice on the table. Or someone may have to cancel at the last minute. For that reason, I think it's important that the host always make the main dish—because then, it's guaranteed to show up!"

3. Give portion guidelines

"If you have 20 guests and two of them are making desserts, they should each prepare something that serves 10 people. The good thing with potlucks is that you don't need to be exact—people generally will not eat a full portion of something when there are other options on the table. We usually have a lot of leftovers, which is great. Encourage people to bring their own to-go containers and to ask each cook for permission to bring home extras of his or her dish."

4. Limit last-minute preparations

"For potlucks, cooks usually prepare dishes three hours before they are served, but not all dishes can wait that long. Try to find out which guests will need a stove burner or oven space, but encourage them to make as much of the dish in advance as they can. For example, vegetables can be grilled at home and then tossed into a salad on site."

5. Stress the importance of presentation

"There is a tendency not to think about the way a dish will look when it's served at potlucks. But presentation is a big part of the meal. Even if you're with a group of good friends, don't just put everything out in the containers they came in. Have everyone bring a nice serving dish, and garnish dishes with a sprig of rosemary or a slice of lemon, or whatever is appropriate to the dish."

More Potluck Ideas:

Published November 2008
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