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13 Potluck Etiquette Rules to Memorize Before Your Next Party

Potlucks are a wonderful and informal way to gather with friends and family but just because it's casual doesn't mean etiquette goes out the window. Here's what the host—and guests—should know before the dinner bell rings.


You’re invited!

So you’ve decided to have an informal potluck but what method do you use to invite everyone? “If the invitation list isn’t too lengthy, I suggest a phone call first. This always makes the invitation seem more personal,” says Rachel Wagner, licensed corporate etiquette and international protocol consultant and owner of Rachel Wagner Etiquette and Protocol. Follow up with a service like Evite or a mass email, but don’t make this email faux pas when you do. Be sure to include the main dish you are making in the invite and include sign-up options for food and beverages. Offer a variety of potluck ideas besides making a dish; for example, guests who don’t cook can bring desserts from a bakery or beverages and ice.


Jen can’t have wheat…

“People with allergies or religious restrictions truly want to just fit in and not have a fuss made over their food restrictions in a group setting. So, you want to be as discreet as possible with this part,” says Wagner. Ask guests about food restrictions ahead of time. If you’re hosting a party, offer to prepare a small dish to accommodate the guest, however, recognize the guest may want to bring her own main dish. “One potluck idea is to print “Contains dairy and wheat” etc., on a small “tent” card made from a halved 3×5 index card and place it next to the dish. You can prepare blank tent cards to have ready for guests bringing food to indicate what allergens, if any, are in the dish. Guests can then determine if the dish is a “safe” choice for themselves or their child,” says Wagner. Tent cards are a fun way to identify the dish, regardless of food allergies and those with food restrictions won’t feel awkward.


Dress your dish

Potlucks are informal but when food arrives in aluminum foil containers, it’s not very pretty or stable and can’t be reheated in the microwave. “Request that your guests bring their food in serving dishes and serving spoons that you will wash and send back home at the end of the evening or near future,” says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. “It’s so much easier to have something go from dish to table and it takes very little time to swoosh a little soap and water on a dish and send it home.” In addition to serving dishes, request guests bring serving utensils.


Creative seating

A host should have enough seating for guests to eat comfortably without juggling a plate, utensils, and a drink on their lap. “You may not have enough table room or seating space for guests to eat unless you bring in back up from other parts of the house. Be creative and use spare end tables, chairs, ottomans and cushions,” suggests Gottsman. Don’t let a small space squash your potluck plans, just follow these tips for entertaining in a small space.

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Please be seated

The potluck is the show and you’re the director. If you’re seating everyone at a table, Wagner suggests using place cards to allow you to manage the different personality traits and promote congenial conversations and avoid hot topics that can turn ugly and ruin appetites. Consider personalities and seat guest accordingly, for example, seat an introvert next to yourself or another person who is likely to engage them. Avoid putting two boisterous storytellers together and reign in hot topic instigators by steering the conversation in another direction. (These seven magic phrases can save an awkward conversation.)

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Let guests help, if they offer

We’re not living in the Downton Abbey era, so ringing a bell to summon service isn’t happening. However, guests may want to lend a hand with preparations. “Have a mental or written last-minute “to-to” list that guests can assist with if they offer,” says Wagner. “Guests can light the candles, heat the rolls or fill the ice bucket.”


It’s your mess to clean up

Don’t ask your guests to help with clean up but if they offer, accept their kind gesture. While cleaning up distribute the leftovers, if any. “Stock up on disposable plastic containers that can be used to send leftovers home with guests,” recommends Wagner. Follow these helpful tips on cleaning up your kitchen fast.


Guest etiquette: stick with your dish

Guest etiquette begins when we receive the invitation. “Our responsibility begins when receiving an email or the potluck sign-up sheet for the potluck,” says Maryanne Parker, etiquette expert and founder of Manor or Manners. When you agree to make a certain dish, don’t show up with something else. “You should stick to the choice you made or were assigned. “If you signed up for a dessert, you definitely should bring dessert and not napkins,” says Parker. If you must, here is the right way to decline an invitation. 

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Be timely

It may seem like proper guest etiquette to arrive early, but that’s not usually the case. “Arrive on time, but not early,” advises Wagner. “The host has plenty of last minute details to attend to before guests arrive.” However, it is OK to offer to help when you arrive.


Guests know thy place

Place cards may make some of us cringe. “Do I really have to sit next to that person for an entire meal?” Suck it up, your host has thoughtfully arranged the place cards for a reason. “If there are place cards on the table do not rearrange them to sit by specific guest,” advises Wagner. “The host already pre-planned the ideal seating arrangements to enhance maximum conversations and socializing.”


Share your secret recipe

One appreciative guest will inevitably ask for the recipe for your chicken fettuccine bake. Be prepared by printing out copies of your recipe to share with others. “As a special touch, consider handwriting recipe and then making copies,” says Gottsman

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Leave it

The sitter called and you have to leave the party early or maybe there was so much food, there is a plethora of your sweet potato casserole left. Who gets the grub? “Guests can not take the rest of their dish home if they are leaving the party early. They need to leave it there for the rest of the friends to enjoy,” says Parker. Leftovers should be left to the host to distribute to the guests who would like to take them home.

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Thank you!

An elegant (and affordable) gift for the host will be most appreciated. Wagner suggests homemade or bakery muffins for breakfast the next morning, along with a jar of homemade or purchased gourmet jam. A scented candle, gourmet coffee, or a nice bottle of wine is always well-received. Saying “thank you” is expected as you leave the potluck but Wagner suggests mailing a handwritten thank you note the next day.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, Family Handyman and Taste of Home, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.