Ten Tips from 5 Pros for a Community Potluck

It’s healthy for you to get to know your neighbors or start a new tradition.

Do you feel disengaged from your neighbors? If so, consider hosting a potluck to connect with locals and possibly even improve your health. “Enjoying meals with others is at the base of the Mediterranean diet pyramid,” reveals Amy Riolo, the Maryland-based author of “The Italian Diabetes Cookbook” (American Diabetes Association, 2016). “In the region, people believe it’s important to choose who you eat with before you choose the actual food!”

Whichever fare you pick, it will help break the ice, points out Beverly Hills–based Mindy Weiss of celebrity event planning company Mindy Weiss Party Consultants. “Plus, potlucks are a cost-effective way to throw an event.” Read on for expert tips and recipes for hosting your own community get-together.

1. Select a theme

To avoid a random hodgepodge of food, pinpoint a concept. Peruse Pinterest for inspiration, suggests Lulu Powers, Los Angeles–based celebrity party planner and author of “Lulu Powers Food to Flowers” (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2010). Potential themes include fall ingredients, Tex-Mex, Italian, appetizers and down-home.

2. Choose an ideal spot

The right setting depends largely on the head count. For smaller potlucks, a home with a large yard is comfortable, cozy and budget-friendly. For larger gatherings, consider community centers, local theaters and firehouses. “These locations further the group’s connection to the community, and most of these options are affordable,” says Bill Coyne, director of business development at New York City–based Cloud Catering & Events.

3. … And consider the weather

Experts agree to designate a “Plan B” location for outdoor events (try a church or community center) and to watch the weather forecast. “I have almost every weather app known to man on my phone,” Weiss says. “If there’s even a 40 percent chance of rain, plan on using the backup location,” advises Stephanie Petersen, chef at OrganicGrains.com, who has coordinated community potluck events for her church for 20 years. For temperatures below 65 degrees, she continues, use space heaters or small portable fire pits, or hold the event inside.

4. Pick a date, and invite guests

If your venue is readily available, consider setting up a Doodle invite, where “you can optimize the schedules of all potential guests to select the best date for all parties,” Coyne advises. He also recommends Paperless Post, which is “easy to sync with your calendar.” Riolo prefers word of mouth, followed by phone and email, but she points out that Nextdoor.com and Eventbrite also work well.

5. Assign dishes in advance

Weeks or several days before the event, assign participants a specific dish (and provide a recipe), course (such as dessert) or main ingredient (such as a protein or vegetable). “People like to be told what to bring,” reveals Powers, adding that you should give non-cooks the option of picking up takeout, a pastry from a local bakery or even a few pints of ice cream.

If assigning a specific dish, try gracious language such as: “We’re having an Italian theme, and here’s the recipe for tomato sauce,” Petersen offers. “[That said], be prepared for the fact that most people will not follow it exactly.” The advantage of going the main-ingredient route is that you can ensure a wealth of vegetable dishes, which will help make “vegetarian and vegan guests feel taken care of,” Coyne says.

In terms of assigning responsibilities, “I like the last-name strategy,” Riolo adds. “For instance, A-G bring an appetizer, H-O a main course, P-S dessert and T-Z drinks.” Use an online survey for dish sign-ups, Coyne recommends. Finally, “be clear about the theme and what is being requested of each guest—with clear sign-up instructions,” Weiss counsels,

Whichever route you take, don’t forget the appropriate serving pieces, Petersen says. “Be specific in your invitation to ask guests to also bring a serving spoon or utensil for their dish.

6. Address specific dietary needs

On invitations, specify that special diets will be accommodated, Petersen recommends. Yet add that those with extreme allergies should bring a dish or two that meet their needs. Have lots of labels on hand, designating dishes by title, special diet category (such as “gluten-free” or “vegetarian”) and main ingredients, listing any common allergens (such as nuts or soy), Weiss suggests. Don’t forget to include appropriate fare for senior citizens, who will likely require soft or low-sodium options, and children, who might want plainer food, Petersen adds.

7. Be smart about alcohol

“Remember to check local laws, and make sure that you are not serving to minors,” Riolo advises. “Some friends of mine actually have guests take a breathalyzer test before driving home.” In terms of what to serve, Coyne recommends creating a specialty cocktail that can be served without alcohol; guests can choose their preferred spirit to add. Or hosts can offer two mixed drinks, such as mulled wine and hot apple cider. (The Cloud Catering & Events recipe for the latter is below.)

8. Don’t forget food safety

“Designate someone to be in charge of food safety,” Riolo advises, and send them this document.

Meanwhile, Weiss recommends not leaving meat and dairy items out for too long, and Coyne suggests avoiding fish and making sure that food is kept in airtight containers before serving.

9. Plan table and chair setup

The experts agree that a buffet-style format, with a separate bar area, makes the most sense. For large events, designate serving tables as “main course,” “dessert” and so forth, Petersen counsels. Be sure that enough power strips and sources are available for multiple slow cookers at hot-food tables, she adds.

When determining how many tables and chairs you will need for guests, do a rough head count. Be sure the venue, such as a community center, has enough furniture to accommodate your group, Petersen says. A mix of folding chairs, picnic or card tables and blankets on the ground can work for more casual outdoor events, Riolo suggests.

Either way, well before the event, “decide if the eating arrangements will be tables for a few (six to 10) or one long larger community-style seating arrangement (11 to 20 to a table),” Petersen adds. She also recommends children’s tables with art and craft supplies to keep the younger set occupied.

10. Determine which tabletop items you’ll need

Consider the menu, and make sure that guests have access to the right serving pieces, dishes, cups and utensils. “Large community potlucks are notorious for not having all the tools and supplies in place to support guests’ needs,” Petersen says. For instance, if soup is on the menu, be sure to provide ladles and bowls. In case participants forget to bring the right serving utensils for their dishes (which they likely will), have backup pieces on hand.

If your budget allows, consider renting the tableware. Coyne works with trusted vendors, such as Party Rental Ltd. As a bonus, “most vendors will haul away the dirty dishes so you’re not stuck with a large pile at the end of the night,” Weiss says. To recoup the cost, hosts can charge a per-person fee, Riolo suggests.

“If your budget is a little tighter, go with disposable cups, plates and flatware,” Weiss recommends. For a sustainable option, Coyne opts for bamboo, which he describes as “biodegradable and fantastic looking.” Or have guests bring their own dishes and flatware; just be sure to tell them what they’ll need in advance.

Recipe: Pear, Ricotta and Pine Nut Cake

Amy Riolo loves to bring this dessert, excerpted from her book “The Italian Diabetes Cookbook” (American Diabetes Association, 2016), to potlucks.

Serves: 18
Serving Size: 1 (½-inch) slice

Place the ricotta and agave nectar in a large bowl and mix until ricotta is smooth.

Beat the egg whites on high speed with sugar until stiff peaks form.

Drain the raisins, pat them dry, and dice them. Add the pine nuts, orange zest, raisins, egg yolks, and pears to the ricotta mixture, and mix with a wooden spoon until incorporated.

Fold egg whites into ricotta mixture with a spatula, stirring counterclockwise. (Start at the “3 o’clock” position and turn your wrist counterclockwise until you reach the same point.) Continue folding in the egg whites just until they are incorporated and mixture is smooth.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and hit pan on the counter a few times to release air bubbles. Position a rack in the center of the oven, and bake cake until a knife inserted in the top comes out clean, 40-50 minutes.

Cool to room temperature, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, and cut into thin wedges to serve.

Recipe: Hot Apple Cider

Ideal for fall potlucks, this drink recipe was developed by Nathan Atkinson, director of operations, Cloud Catering & Events.

Combine cider, Calvados, honey, rosemary, cinnamon, cloves and lemon zest in a large pot and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes.

Strain cider and discard solids. Serve warm.

Photography: Howl, Stocksy; vicuschka, Thinkstock; Astarot, Adobe Stock; Boris_Kuznets, Thinkstock; andreaskrone, Adobe Stock