What is a Potluck


A potluck, by definition, is a situation where people who are participating in a gathering or event will take a chance that whatever is available should be acceptable. Today, the word describes a meal or a party wherein every guest brings a dish for the group to share. But what’s it really about? Where did this term originate and who started this practice? How does one achieve a successful potluck today? All these interesting facts will uncover in this guide.

It is common knowledge today and has been for years, that a potluck is a gathering where each of the guests contributes a unique type of food. Most of the time, these dishes are homemade and all the food will be shared by those who are coming or invited to the gathering.

Where Did the Word Potluck Come From?

It was originally spelled pot-luck. It was believed to have first appeared in the 16th-century work of Thomas Nashe that was written in the English language. Its original meaning was “food provided for unexpected guests” or the luck of the pot. However, much transition has happened to the term and by 1930, about the time of the Depression, it came to mean “communal meal” which means guests bring their own food. It is still an extension of its traditional meaning of luck of the pot.

Who First Did It?

Religious groups often organized potluck dinners or those who were in community organizations. This practice helped them simplify the meal planning and it was a great way to distribute both the costs and efforts among the participants. It would be a great burden for one person to always be the host of the gathering, preparing all the food and cleaning up afterward. It’s an innovative and fun solution, and it also encourages everyone in the group to participate, and not just be an ordinary guest.

Other smaller get-togethers that are often more informal, involved the distribution of food preparation and were also called potlucks. The only traditional rule was that the dish that you bring should be enough to be shared with a good portion of the party but not necessarily, by all. At other times, the guests plan ahead of time and decide who would bring a particular type of food, usually a single course. The entire food collection would then turn out to be a multi-course meal. Guests may choose to bring any type of food, whether it’s the main course or a dessert.

Before, potlucks were a simple combination of dishes without really having any theme. As time went by, potlucks evolved and gave way to themed dinner parties and special occasions.

Best Practices During a Potluck

The holidays are just around the corner. It is very likely that you would be in one or two gatherings that may involve a potluck. Even if you don’t, it’s still good to know some basic potluck etiquettes for future reference. So, what are some rules or what you may consider as best practices for a great potluck party?

  • The Host

    Yes, everyone is bringing food but there is still the main host who is often also the one who organizes the potluck. As the host, you are in charge of breaking down the meals into different categories so that it’s clear what each one should contribute.

    Make sure to include appetizers, main dishes, salads if not part of the appetizers, and desserts. Don’t forget that you need something to drink, too so make sure to assign someone for the beverages. Other times, you may also need party goods depending on the occasion. Keep track of who is bringing which so you can see which categories need additional contributions.

    It’s a good idea to give your guests a choice between two categories so they can pick whichever they can do best and that fits their budget. Do not assign something that is too expensive. Unless of course, they volunteer to do so.

  • The Guests

    As a guest, if you have agreed to bring a main dish, don’t bring another type of food like a dessert. Stick to your assigned category because if the main dish is not enough, it will affect everyone else in the party. There won’t be enough main course for all to eat.

    Think about the appeal of the meal you choose for the majority of the guests when you’re trying to decide what to make and bring.

    Don’t attend and eat in a potluck if you have not made a contribution. It’s also best not to bring a dish to the venue that you still need to cook at the location, especially if it’s in the host’s house. Unless you arranged it in advance. Your food should be ready to serve when you arrive at the potluck.

    Use an appropriate serving dish or food container for your meal. If you are aware that some people in your group have allergies, it’s best to make a list of what’s in the dish.

    Most of all, be on time especially if you are bringing the appetizer. Nobody will feel like eating it once they are done with the main dish and dessert.

  • Other Tips

    It might be something you easily take for granted but if you are bringing soup or anything that might require a bowl, it’s best to bring the bowls to the potluck otherwise the hose may not have enough for everyone to use. If you have planned this contribution in advance with your group, it’s also good to assign who may want to bring them.

    Avoid foods that may be too strange or too unhealthy for most of the guests. If it’s too spicy, some people may not be able to eat it. Or if it requires special tools to open like oysters, unless they are already ready to eat.

    Lastly, don’t forget the little items that you actually need in the potluck like utensils, napkins, and cups. It’s also good to have some ice ready.

Potluck parties are a great way for friends, neighbors, and families to get together without putting a lot of work and expenses on one person.