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Expert Tips for Hosting a Beautiful Thanksgiving Potluck

Know what makes Thanksgiving a whole lot less stressful? Asking everybody to help out and bring dishes to fill the table at the feast. Of course, having your friends and fam pitch in can lead to a whole different kind of headache: Will guests show up with the promised cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and cheesy cauliflower, or will they go rogue and bring something questionable? Here are easy strategies for throwing a successful Thanksgiving potluck that's freak-out free.

Thanksgiving and Friendsgiving Photos.

Photo by Meredith Publishing

1) Create a Signup Sheet

Yup, there are apps that help organize the menu at your shareable feast. Many different apps, actually. But, as much as we love technology, these helpful apps require that everyone download and use them, no matter what type of mobile device they've got glued to their palm. As an alternative, you could start a spreadsheet and share it on Dropbox or Google. Or you could dive into Pinterest and find the cutest Thanksgiving potluck signup sheet to download, print and pass around, old-school style. If you're hosting/coordinating, try and get all the bases covered without sounding too bossy. Ask everybody to grab something from one from these categories:

potluck signup sheets

2) Make Menu Planning Fun for All and All for Fun

The Thanksgiving meal is pretty classic, from the roast turkey and stuffing to mashed potatoes and pecan pie. But, when potlucking, it's essential to leave a little wiggle room for the traditions of others to be included. That's the joy of a shared spread, after all. Invite creativity, without going way crazy. Does your BFF love lumpia on Turkey Day? Or steamed rice instead of taters? No prob -- let them bring it! Can't eat gluten? Or maybe you're a vegan? Planning ahead will help avoid holiday sad face. Got friends who swear they can't cook? No worries. They can check out Whole Foods Market, where they can find everything from appetizers to prepared side dishes and desserts.

3) Figure Out How Much Is Enough

It's easy to go overboard and pile on when potlucking, but there's an easy way to calculate how much to prepare for each person:

  • Starters: Appetizers or snacks should consist of two to three portions per person
  • 3 ounces of dip or salsa (about 1/3 cup per person)
  • One cup of soup (less if it’s a thick soup)
  • 3 ounces of salad (about 1 cup)
  • 6 ounces of meat or main entrée
  • 5 ounces of starch (potato, pasta, or rice)
  • One and a half pieces of dessert

Tips for Calculating How Much to Cook for a Crowd

Mashed-Potatoes Photo by Meredith

Mashed Potatoes | Photo by Meredith

4) Send Gentle Reminders

The organizer should reach out a few days before the Big Night, recirculating the signup sheet as a reminder, asking for a quick ping back. Roger, that! You could add an incentive, with silly prizes for those who respond, and kitchen clean up assignments going out to those who ignore. This is a good time to offer instructions on the best way to bring everything:

  • Find a serving dish that can go from the oven to the table for serving. Consider how it needs to be padded, heated, cooled in order to arrive safely. A cooler works well for keeping dishes warm, too.
  • Wrap the dish so it is solidly set into the container. Use plastic wrap and aluminum foil generously to ensure the dish is airtight.
  • Consider freezing the dish in advance, thawing it overnight, and baking it at your destination. (Check with the host first to make sure there will be oven room.)
  • Label the dish with your name, the name of the recipe, and serving directions. For this, you can write your name on masking tape using a Sharpie.
  • Bring a serving utensil and any condiments you want to serve with the dish. Label these items with your name.
  • Secure the dish in the car so it can handle the ride, especially if the dish is hidden from sight in a cooler or a heat bag.

5) Set a Time for Dinner to Be Served

Drinks and appies at 4, the feast is at 5. Or whatever time makes sense. If you don't set a time, there's a danger of guests showing up too early or too late. When everyone's arrived and the potluck signup sheet has been checked off, it's time to get serious. The table's set and everybody's hungry, so let's sit down and give thanks for all this amazing food. If it doesn't feel too corny, go around the table and ask everybody to say a few words about their creation before passing it around (to the left in some houses, to the right in others, while many skip the passing and go buffet-style).

edited Holding-a-Plate-of-Thanksgiving-Dinner-1024x683

Photo by Meredith Publishing

6) Create a Holiday Vibe

Decorations don't have to be fancy, but your guests will be impressed when you make an effort: Light some candles, set the table, create a playlist. (Or cue up the Allrecipes Thanksgiving playlist from our friends at Turntable Kitchen.) See, that wasn't so hard.

7) Ask For Help Cleaning Up

The casual vibe of a potluck means the organizer can ask everybody to pitch in on the cleanup. Come on, at least clear your plate! Pour another round of wine in the kitchen to sweeten the deal. That group activity after din din helps battle that post-turkey tendency to crash on the couch and slip into a food coma. It's also a great way to make room for dessert. Remind everybody to grab the dishes and utensils they've brought to the party. Portion out the leftovers into disposable containers so you can share the bounty.

8) Round Everybody Up For The Big Finish

Consider a change of scene for serving dessert. If you've passed dishes, family-style, for the main event, why not finish by setting up a sweets table? This is the course that offers the best opportunities for gorgeous photos, so why not invite the pie-parazzi to shoot pics before everyone dives in. Or create an adorable mini dessert buffet.

Assign one of those non-cookers to wrangle coffee and tea or after-dinner drinks for the potluckers. Before everyone heads out the door, hand them some leftovers, give them a hug and make a date to do it again next year.

Apple, Pumpkin, and Pecan Pies

Photo by Allrecipes

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About Leslie Kelly

Always hungry to learn, never had my fill of oysters, Memphis dry rub ribs, wild salmon, chocolate chip cookies or a well-rolled lumpia. Washington state wine lover, bourbon fan. Totally obsessed with brunch!