It takes more than luck to pull off a successful potluck dinner. Whether the purpose is workplace team building or monthly get-togethers with friends, coordinating a dinner that everyone is satisfied with can be tricky.
Everyone has seen the potluck party where only some bring contributions and the table winds up with three variations of tuna casserole, five trays of brownies, two bottles of cola (for 20 people!), store-bought doughnut holes and bags upon bags of salty potato chips. This get-together might have started as a great idea, but there was obviously no planning to actually make it happen.
Then there is the over-programmed party, one for which all the guests are told what their assigned task is and what food they are responsible for bringing but the assigned food is something they've never made before and they now must experiment on unsuspecting partygoers.
Probably one of the best ways to execute a well-run potluck is half assignment and half volunteer. The person in charge of coordinating the potluck event should offer a sign-up sheet that will keep track of who is planning to attend and what everyone will be bringing. The sheet should be broken down into main dishes, sides and desserts and also include a section for those with no food prep ability or a lack of time; the latter section should include paper goods and cutlery, drinks, store-bought rolls or salads, etc. A person signing up might list his prizewinning hot chili under main dishes.
Everyone who signs up needs to commit to making or bringing what she specified to avoid unnecessary duplications and missing menu items. Unless there is a large crowd, once a partygoer commits to making a dish, there should be no duplicates permitted. The coordinator should touch base with all of the participants just a few days before the party to confirm what they are bringing. It might be a good idea to email all participants the list of what everyone is bringing.
Each dish should be clearly labeled by the person making it, listing not only what it is but also any allergens or dietary concerns associated with it (for example, whether it includes nuts, shellfish, gluten, meat or milk). When signing up, people should also make note of any foods that they have allergies to or any dietary restrictions they have; they need not identify themselves on that list. Every menu should also include vegetarian selections.
If your get-together is at your office or is a function being put on by an organization you belong to, there may be an allotted budget for it. If so, the coordinator might want to plan on ordering one or two main dishes, such as a tray of lasagna, and have partygoers bring additional dishes and sides. Unless there is adequate seating, finger foods might be preferable to dishes that have lots of sauce, require a fork and knife, and need heavy-duty plates. Hot plates and steam table trays with burners are great for keeping hot foods hot, but deciding how these can be set out safely should not be left to the last minute. And make sure that condiments, napkins and salt and pepper shakers aren't forgotten.
With proper planning, everyone should be able to enjoy the smorgasbord.