Potluck Party Basics: Origins, Popularity, and Etiquette

Updated on May 17, 2017
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Sadie Holloway loves trying out new easy-to-make recipes that help her enjoy a healthy, stress-free lifestyle!

Question:

I've never been to a potluck but my friend just invited me to one at her house. What is it and what should I bring?

Potlucks are a fantastic way to cut back on the cost of a big social gathering. Plus, when everyone pitches in to help out with the cooking, you're sure to have a tasty and bountiful buffet table!
Potlucks are a fantastic way to cut back on the cost of a big social gathering. Plus, when everyone pitches in to help out with the cooking, you're sure to have a tasty and bountiful buffet table!

Answer:

Potluck lunches and dinner parties with your friends from work, your book group, or your hobby clubs are a fun and tasty way to bring people together. Eating together and sharing in the collective preparation of food helps to strengthen social bonds, improve communication, and satisfy people’s hunger to try new foods. When done right, these events help ease the cooking and cleaning workload and cut back on the cost of hosting a social gathering.

Here's everything you need to know about the origins of potluck parties, why they're so popular, and how to adhere to basic etiquette the next time you are invited to one.

Origins

What is a Potluck Party?

A potluck is a centuries old tradition of sharing food. It's a special occasion when a group of people come together for a meal, usually lunch or dinner, that has been prepared collectively. Each guest at the gathering brings a food item large enough to be shared with all the other guests.

If you've ever been to one of these get-togethers hosted by your family, friends or social group, then you know how much fun they can be. Some people think that potlucks are made of hearty dishes, casseroles and stews, mayonnaise drenched pasta and potato salads. And let’s not forget the dessert table filled with homemade pies, cakes and squares. Today, a potluck can be as hearty or as wholesome as the guests wants it to be. They can be organized around different food themes, such as vegetarian or gluten-free, so that everyone can participate.

What does the word "potluck" mean? The definition comes from 16th Century England when food was generously offered to an unexpected visitor. The guest was served whatever was on the stove otherwise known as the "the luck of the pot.” Today's modern version, which seems to have originated in the early 20th century in the United States, is not about people spontaneously dropping by; rather it is a deliberately planned a social event where guests bring food to share following some basic rules and customs so that the event goes smoothly and no one is left hungry. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potluck)

Popularity

The Best Ocassions for Hosting a Potluck

  • Baby showers
  • Bridal showers
  • Going away party
  • Church gathering
  • Office team-building activities
  • Easter brunch
  • Block party or neighborhood summer picnic
  • School fundraisers
  • Charity events and meetings
  • Birthday parties for adults

Potlucks are great for social clubs, churches and community groups because they help spread the cost of food among those participating. Families of all sizes have potlucks to help share the responsibility for meal preparation so that one person doesn’t have to do it all. They're are also a helpful way for a circle of friends and family to gather around and support someone during a difficult time, such as planning a memorial service after the death of a family member.

Potlucks can be helpful for joyous occasions, too. Many couples are opting for a more casual, affordable way to have a wedding dinner with a small group of close friends and family. Potlucks are also popular among young people; it’s a great way to show off culinary skills while enjoying each others' company.

Etiquette

It's more fun when everyone pitches in and helps out with the items on  the buffet.
It's more fun when everyone pitches in and helps out with the items on the buffet.

Potluck Party Rules and Etiquette

Your party can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. The only true rule is that each dish should be large enough to be shared among a good portion of the expected guests. Some more party planning do’s and don’ts are explored in the following chart.

Do
Don't
Try every dish brought by other guests, unless you have are a vegetarian, have food allergies or follow a faith doesn’t eat certain foods.
Don't arrive empty-handed. If you genuinely forgot to bring something or didn't have the time to make a dish, apologize and make sure to give the host extra help setting up and clearing the dishes.
Label your dish clearly so the party host knows who brought it, what it is, and how to return dish to at the end of the event.
Don’t double dip at a buffet.That's just gross.
Help out with the clean up after the party is over.
Don't dive into the vegetarian dishes first if you're a meat-eater. Let those people who don't eat meat fill their plate with the non-meat items first.
Send a thank you card to the host after the party.
Take the host for granted and forget to acknowledge her graciousness in planning the party.
Let the hostess know ahead of time what you are bringing.
Don't bring a complicated dish that requires extra space or preparation in the host's kitchen
Use the golden rule as your guide if you aren't sure of the unwritten rules for a potluck.

© 2014 Sadie Holloway

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