How to host the perfect summer potluck

It’s summer, a time of endless barbecues, parties, and cottage visits with friends and family. But one of the most popular (and arguably least stressful) get-togethers to host this season is the potluck. Potlucks do make your job as host-with-most easier (you can divide up workload and costs), however, there are still a few things to keep in mind to ensure it goes off without a hitch!

Keep it outdoors

You’ll probably want to dine outdoors anyway in the summer months, but when you’re hosting a large group of people, keeping it outside is even more important for your sanity. Too many cooks in the kitchen can get annoying pretty fast, so limit the need to go in and out where you can. Keep a cooler of drinks outside, assign just a few people to be your kitchen prep team, and cross your fingers it doesn’t rain.

Pick dishes ahead of time

There’s nothing worse than a potluck consisting of five Greek salads and eight tins of cookies. Avoid duplicate dishes by having everyone sign up for their offering. They can either report into you or, if you’re really organized, you can set up a Google Doc spreadsheet so everyone can go in and update which dish(es) they’re bringing—while also glancing at what everyone else is bringing.

Stick to a theme

You don’t have to go all-or-nothing here, but a loose food theme will give your party an extra bit of pizazz and also ensure that dishes pair well together. Throw a Mexican fiesta with margaritas and a piñata, and guide your guests to bringing dishes like nachos, quesadillas, and black bean dip. Or really give guests a challenge and assign each of them a “mystery” ingredient to incorporate into their dishes.

Keep it cool

It’s summer. It’s hot outside. Your guests will be sweaty, but what’s worse is the food can get sweaty, too. Avoid heavy, hearty dishes and instead remind guests to bring warm-weather fare such as cool pasta salads, crudités, or maybe even a summer gazpacho. Steer clear of mayonnaise and egg-based dishes, and be sure to have lots of ice on hand.

Say bye to bugs

Where there’s food, there are bugs—at least in the outdoors. Keep your table insect-free by wiping it down with vinegar or mint before the party starts—mosquitos and other biting insects don’t like either scent. Another option is to set up a fan; not only will the breeze keep bugs away, but it will also keep your guests cool. Nylon food covers are another great option to keep bugs off your buffet.

Check for allergies and food sensitivities

Do any of your guests have allergies? Is someone vegetarian or lactose intolerant? You don’t have to customize your menu to meet only their needs, but be sure there are several options available so they can eat. And if it’s a serious allergy such as seafood or nuts, ask ahead of time whether they can be around those ingredients at all (some can have anaphylactic reactions from scent alone), or if they just have to avoid eating them.

Take responsibility for the main

If you don’t want your guests just eating plates of side dishes, you’ll likely want one main dish, whether that’s something as complex as a roasted pig or as simple as barbecued burgers. Assign the main dish to yourself and leave the sides to your guests. It’ll be easier to prep and serve on your own property than having a friend boat two dozen steaks across the lake.

Give a break to the cooking-challenged

Have a friend who just can’t work her way around the kitchen? Offer the non-chefs of your group the option to bring cook-free dishes such as a salad or fruit platter, or ask them to help you stock up by supplying drinks, condiments, or plates and cutlery.

Break the ice

If you’re not into party games, an easy idea to get strangers talking is to scatter around some Trivial Pursuit cards. People will naturally pick them up and start quizzing one another, leaving you free to attend to your other hosting duties. Booze works well, too.

Let your guests take it home

One of the difficulties with potlucks is determining how much food is enough, but the truth is, we usually end up with too much. Avoid having a fridge full of leftovers by providing take-out containers for everyone. If you don’t want to spare your Pyrex, seek out biodegradable containers at a grocery store or health food store.

Show your gratitude

A potluck only works if everyone participates, so while you deserve recognition for hosting, your guests also deserve some praise for their contributions. Be sure to thank everyone and compliment those whose dishes you adored. You may also want to send everyone home with a small token of appreciation or send out a thank you email after it’s all over.