Planning is the key to a successful potluck. When orchestrating the menu, don't be shy about asking guests to bring specific dishes that will be needed to round out the menu. This eliminates the guesswork for them, too.
Make your potluck party one for the memory books.
If guests have specialties they're known for or love to make, they'll appreciate being asked to bring them. Ask noncooks to bring beverages, utensils, and napkins, or assign them to the decorating team.
To coordinate everyone's efforts for office or church potlucks, a sign-up sheet is essential.
Ask guests to let you know ahead of time if they'll need refrigerator, oven, or stove-top space and make sure they bring serving utensils for their dishes to avoid last-minute scrambling.
For large gatherings, suggest everyone mark their names on their pans and utensils to ensure they'll get them back. Or, use disposable containers.
The best foods for potlucks are those that can be made easily and in advance. Avoid dishes with elaborate last-minute preparations.
Unless you have enough tables for sit-down eating, stick with foods that are easy to eat and don't require a knife, as most guests will be juggling plates and drinks on their laps.
Don't feel obligated to offer a full bar or any hard liquor at all. Beer and wine are usually sufficient. Or, stick to one hard liquor drink in keeping with a seasonal theme, such as a punch bowl of eggnog or hot rum toddies.
Use snow or crushed ice in large barrels, planters, or your kitchen sink to chill wine, champagne, soft drinks, or beers.
Set up your buffet on any large surface, such as a dining room table, kitchen counter, picnic table, or sideboard, that can be approached from all sides. Offer the beverages in another area to avoid traffic jams.
Lay out the buffet in logical order. Place plates at one end of the table for guests to pick up and load with food, and the eating utensils tucked inside napkin bundles at the other end to grab once their plates are full. If both hands are needed to serve a salad or pasta dish, leave space in front of the serving dish for guests to set their plates down.
Holiday potlucks, whether they're cozy, noisy, or sophisticated, should contain an element of the season's joyful colors and lights. Decorating needn't be elaborate, though. Simply trim the house with greens, candles, and tree lights in unexpected places to fill the house with fresh scents and a warm glow.
Background music sets a festive mood and can come from tapes. Or, consider adding extra excitement with live music by hiring a piano student to play your piano or by inviting carolers from your local church or club to drop by while your party is in full swing.