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Potluck Dinners are Fun but Chaotic - How to Make them Better

Updated on November 30, 2012

Potluck Plus is the Answer

What is a potluck dinner? It's an event where the guests bring whatever food dish they wish, and the result is the luck of the pot or potluck. In other words, whatever shows up. Suppose you were interviewing an investment advisor and you asked her what her investment strategy is, and she responds "potluck." You would seek the assistance of another advisor. I think the same goes with food. If you're planning something, whether a program of investing or a dinner, a little planning goes a long way.

Potluck dinners can be fun. Potluck dinners can also make your stomach turn. Over the years I have been to any number of these events. They're popular with community and church groups as an inexpensive way to have a meal and some fellowship. I have been to dinners where 80% of the guests thought that pasta was a nifty idea, or chicken, or eggplant or (pick a food group). Because it's potluck, not thought is given to the preparation of or the mix of foods. It doesn't have to be this way.

My preference for a small gathering of people where budget is a big consideration is to cater it and charge each individual the per head cost. Chances are strong that each person's cash outlay will be the same or a little more than if they prepared the meal themselves. But that's only my preference. I'm not going to change the minds of people who like potluck gatherings, nor shall I try. I shall attempt, however, to suggest a way to take a little bit of luck out of the potluck, so you can still enjoy the folksiness of the event without gagging.

Nanny State Alert!

I think it's pretty safe to say that local health departments hate potluck dinners because their inspectors don't get a chance to run their creepy little tests on the fare. Nothing upsets a regulator more than taking away from him that which he regulates. Here on Long Island, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, all sorts of church and community groups served what amounted to potluck dinners to people in need. At my church, St. Mark's in Islip, we had a couple of weeks of "Loaves and Fishes" dinners for displaced folks. These were basically potluck dinners with the parishioners providing the food. A lovely Christian project. St Mark's wasn't busted (it has a full kitchen), but some organizations were. The inspectors swooped in and ordered the food carted away and destroyed because they didn't comply with the precious regulations. People like this should be held down and stuffed full of multiple renditions of baked ziti.

Potluck Plus - Have the Same Fun - Just Add a Little Planning

First you need a committee of one or two people. This is where it gets a little different from a traditional potluck dinner - it's getting organized. The portion numbers on the following chart are derived from an excellent article on cooking for crowds. It isn't carved in stone. Different books and websites will recommend different numbers, but they won't change radically. You will notice the assignment column on the right. Please feel free to print or copy this table as you need. I suggest that you pass this form around to the members of your organization. Inevitably a few people will neglect to put their names down, and here is where the committee will have to make a few phone calls. Ideally, if you can put this form on your group's website it will save a lot of time. Just make certain that there is only one official form in existence, otherwise you will get a lot of duplication. Some members will feel that they are getting stuck with a more expensive item because the cookies and pasta went first. Here is where the committee may need to break down some of the more expensive dishes such as steak or lobster into two or three member assignments.

So this article recommends taking a little of the luck out of potluck dinners. Your dinner will be just as much fun, but won't turn into a baked macaroni festival. Mangia!

What Sized Portions Do You Need?

Food Item
For 25 People
For 50 People
Assigned to (fill in your name and phone number
Appetizers before main course (4-6)
150 to 200
300 to 400
ribs, spareribs, shortribs
25 puunds
50 pounds
3 13x9-inch casseroles
5 13x-9inch casseroles
Chicken, turkey or duck (boneless)
13 pounds
25 pounds
Chicken, turkey or duck with bones
19 pounds
38 pounds
Chili, stew and other chopped meats
8 pounds
15 pounds
Ground beef
13 pounds
25 pounds
25 pounds
50 pounds
Oysters, clams, and mussels
100 to 160 pcs
200 to 260 pcs
7 pounds
16 pounds
22 pounds
44 pounds
Roast (on the bone)
22 to 25 pounds
47 to 50 pounds
Roast (boneless)
13 pounds
25 pounds
Shrimp - Large
7 pounds
14 pounds
Steak (T-bone, porterhouse, rib-eye)
16 to 24 ounces per person
16 to 24 ounces per person
Turkey - Whole
25 pounds
50 pounds
Asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, peas, etc.
4 pounds
8 pounds
Corn on the cob (halved)
20 ears
45 ears
3.5 pounds
7 pounds
6 plounds
8 pounds
3 dozen
6 dozen
2 9-inch cheesecakes
4 9-inch cheesecakes
3 9-inch pies
5 9-inch pies
Ice Cream
1 gallon
2 gallons
Sheet Cake
1/4 cake
1/2 cake
2-4 dozen
4-8 dozen dozen

Copyright © 2012 by Russell F. Moran, except for the food portion table which you are invited to print or copy as you need.


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    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks LL, glad you found it useful

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 5 years ago from Oklahoma City

      I've held many a potluck in my time and found early on that assigning people to bring different courses worked the best for me. Thanks for the list of portion sizes for groups and the breakdowns; that's a very useful tool.

      Voted up and Shared.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      I really think it works better when there are assignments. But maybe I'm just a control freak!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Handy and helpful chart. My Church does a Potluck and follows a similar routine. Everyone signs up on a list and writs down what they are bringing. Usually if someone already see's another person is bringing lasagna, they bring something else.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Quoteslover.

    • Quoteslover profile image

      Quotes Lover 5 years ago

      These are very quick and easy potluck ideas, thanks for sharing.

    • suzzycue profile image

      Susan Britton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Me too!

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Suzzy. I think potluck dinners were the original tailgate party.

    • suzzycue profile image

      Susan Britton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      It did at potlucks for the end of our camping season at our trailer park. Lake Huron Resort campers were the best. There was no shortage of food and they all stayed for the cleanup at the end. The foods we mostly cooked from BBQ or fires. It was an awesome variety of food also. We looked forward to it every season.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Potluck should include the guests dragging their stuff back home!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      The chart is great and the suggestions excellent. Still, the worst part of any meal is washing those darn dishes. :)