Eat Well, Spend Less: The Art of the Summer Potluck

There’s nothing like a lingering, warm summer evening to inspire one to entertain. The children’s bedtimes have long gone out the window, friends and family are in town, and the garden is flourishing – its fruit ready to take center stage on the dinner table.

A barbecue with the guys one week, a garden party with the ladies another week; there is no question that entertaining in summer can eat a chunk out of the monthly food budget. But not gathering with friends is entirely out of the question, as summer entreats us to fill the back patio to overflowing and let the laughter spill onto the neighboring yards.

So how do we receive guests (lots of them) and still have money at the end of the summer for school supplies? 

My solution to entertaining on a budget is simple: The Potluck. But not just any pot-luck. It must be an organized event, with plenty of communication between host and guests. Read on to learn how to plan a successful potluck, as well as how to be a gracious potluck attendee.

A potluck lends itself perfectly to summer entertaining because it sets a casual tone, allows you to have a break from all the cooking, and feeds a crowd easily with a myriad of food options. It allows for spontaneous gatherings of friends (often the best kind, won’t you agree?) with a relaxed atmosphere, and minimal clean-up. It just has so much going for it.

However, before we go on, let’s just clarify that the potluck is not a dinner party. The dinner party is a more formal affair, an evening out for your guests, and perhaps an opportunity to give another mom a night off of cooking. I don’t ask dinner guests to contribute to the meal, and if they offer, I suggest a baguette or a bottle of wine.

How to Plan a Successful Potluck

The single best tip I can give for hosting a potluck is d.e.l.e.g.a.t.i.o.n. Or at least, communication. For those who don’t like to ‘micro-manage’ a potluck, I give the example of my sister who once invited ten couples over with the vague request to ‘bring something’. I do not exaggerate in the slightest when I relay that an incredible nine couples showed up with hummus and pita.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of party I want to crash.

A potluck doesn’t have to have the variety of a restaurant menu, but at the very least should include:

  • a few pre-dinner snacks
  • a main dish
  • 2-3 salads
  • 2-3 desserts
  • fresh fruit
  • beverages

As the host, you get first pick on what you want to make. You can go a few routes:

  1. Make the main dish and have guests round out the menu.
  2. Ask for an assortment of dishes, and fill in the menu gaps yourself.
  3. Declare the event a BYOG – Bring Your Own Grillables – and make salad and dessert yourself.

In my experience, I have found it is far simpler to take care of the main dish and ask for side dishes, desserts and salads, as those are the items guests are most comfortable contributing.

Organizing it all

How exactly does one organize who brings what? Why, online, of course! I’m half kidding, but unless your group is half a dozen girlfriends who all communicate regularly, one of these options might be your best bet:

  • Check out the genius sample of how this site works.
  • Sign-up Genius: Potluck – Includes an online invite to your friends.
  • Create a Facebook invite and mention what you’ll need. Guests can ‘sign up’ on the event wall.

In this digital day and age, you might have better luck (and save time) organizing your event with one of these suggestions, rather than leaving messages on everyone’s answering machines.

Main Dish Suggestions

So you’ve got someone bringing a basket of baby vegetables, another few signed up for salads, and your best friend is supplying cupcakes. Perfect! Now all you need is the main dish.

As we want to stay on budget as much as possible, T-bones for the guys and tuna for the girls is out of the question. Jessica lists some great budget-friendly potluck suggestions and Tammy offers tips on how to throw a barbecue on a budget. Love how those girls tick!

Other suggestions are:

TIP: Dessert Idea? Plan an Ice Cream Sundae Bar – everyone brings a topping and you supply the ice cream.

Photo by Shaina

How to Be a Gracious Pot-Luck Attendee

I’m going to use my husband as an example of a not-so-savvy pot-luck attendee. This was back in his university days, when money was scarce, but creativity abounded.

He has signed up to bring ‘appetizers’ to the family Thanksgiving dinner, but like yours or mine, his thoughts did not naturally lead toward tasty, bite-sized snacks, or even crackers and cheese, and he didn’t want to “cop out” and bring chips. He arrived a little late (mistake number one) and his aunt greeted him at the door and ushered him into the kitchen.

“What did you bring?” she asked, obviously propelled by hungry mouths in the parlor. Danny lifted his arm and plunked a large shopping bag of Macintosh apples onto his appalled aunt’s counter.  He still hears about it every year.

Yes, there are ways to be a gracious and accommodating potluck attendee. Here are a few of them:

Inquire as to what you can bring. This is the best possible move you can make. The second best move is if your host gives you a specific request, be sure to stick to it!

Show up on time. Especially if you are bringing appetizers. No one wants to see a salad arrive when they’ve already moved on to dessert.

Have your dish ready to serve. Don’t assume you can show up to your host’s kitchen and start prepping and cooking your dish. Your host may not have time to show you where the kitchen equipment is, nor appreciate the extra dirty dishes you are creating.

If you are arriving at the event straight from work and really have no choice, do call ahead and inquire if you can have a little corner of the kitchen. Your host will appreciate the head’s up.

Wash and collect your own dishes. And, pretty please: leave the leftovers for your host (in her Tupperware). At least, always offer her/him first dibs, and if they insist they won’t eat it or don’t have fridge space, it’s acceptable to bring the leftovers home.

TIP: Loads of Leftovers? Swap with other potluck attendees so everyone can bring home tomorrow’s dinner.

What are your potluck politics? Anything to add?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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  1. Danny’s apples remind me of the college boy who was assigned “bread.” The rest of us thought baguette, he brought a loaf of sandwich bread in the plastic wrapper! 🙂

  2. We’ve been hosting Sunday Game Nights every few weeks here and we’ve been using the potluck system, having everyone attending chip in and bring a food item. It definitely saves on the grocery bill! Next time, I might try out some of your recipes. They sound great!

  3. Hey Aimee, I just wanted to say that I love the Eat Well, Spend Less series. My blog,, is centered around that exact theme. In fact, my byline reads, “Spend Less, Eat Well” haha. Just wanted to share, and let you know that I really do enjoy these posts!

  4. Aimee, this is fantastic potluck advice! I definitely think that you should plan to leave what you bring for your hosts unless they insist they can’t use it. I also think it’s nice to bring your dish/bowl home with you so the host won’t have to worry about returning everyone’s dishware after the party.

  5. It seems almost everyone always leaves behind the leftovers which is fine if they’re going to get eaten but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes there is just too much made and then too much left. But potlucks definitely are so much more budget friendly and everyone is usually more than willing to pitch in.

  6. These are all great suggestions – and a wonderful way to ensure the summer party still happens. I have also found that marinated chicken or flank steak as a main dish pleases the crowd and the pocket book – while being easy to prepare. Cuisine at Home had some great ideas for side dishes in its most recent issue – a nice change of pace from the usual tossed salads.

  7. I love this post – it is especially wonderful how you make suggestions to alleviate the stress of the host. Reminds me – we are overdue to host one of these 🙂

  8. I always go to the dollar store to buy the container I’m taking the potluck dish in. This way I can leave it with the leftovers and not worry about my tupperware/container going missing or being damaged

  9. Hi Aimée, great advices. very useful and perfect for summer. thanks! just what I needed!

  10. Stephanie says

    Thanks for the tips and links, Aimee. As someone who has always enjoyed potlucks but never hosted one, I always volunteer to bring cake and/or ice cream – no preparation needed, you just buy them. 🙂

  11. Looks so delicious. My appetite is starting now and I am craving for your potluck recipe. Hmmmm..want to prepare for my dinner.

  12. This is pictures is good look so delicious,i like the salad well i always crave with the salad.This reminds me with my father we always out in the week end and have lunch at the cottage facing to the sea we really had great time before.Can you post a recipe how you do the salad?thanks!

  13. Great post! I love potlucks because I love to sample lots of different dishes and see what my friends and family like to make. Sure, I love to cook for everyone, but I love the variety of a potluck. I’m feeling inspired to plan a potluck at my place this summer now. 🙂

  14. I laugh about the apples, but sometimes if I am pressed for time and expected at an event, I will grab a bag of red grapes (and bring my own bowl!) and wash them when I arrive! A great finger food! And healthy too!
    I am thinking I want to host a potluck soon!

  15. Great tips! I think I might send this link next time I invite people to a potluck. I had a guest tell me she was going to bring crab dip and what she meant was she was going to bring the things to make crab dip and make it at my house! She didn’t even stick around to help with the dishes! AND when she saw lemons and garlic in my fridge, she said, “I guess I didn’t need to bring those with me!” Aaaah! Needless to say, she has never been invited back.

  16. Wonderful tips! When we host, we usually supply the main dish and ask others to bring side dishes and desserts. It’s always worked out wonderfully!

  17. Great tips! We have regular potlucks at church, and we’ve found that an easy, earth-friendly way to handle leftovers is for all of us to bring whatever empty resealable containers from yogurt, etc., that we happen to have–washed, of course. They can go home with anybody and be tossed in the recycling bin after use. We put a laundry basket under a counter in the church kitchen for spare containers. We also keep a roll of masking tape in the kitchen so we can label containers, since they’re usually opaque and that can be confusing in the fridge.

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