Potluck food advice

Here are suggestions for rules to follow when bringing food to a potluck gathering.  These considerations are for fairness more than for proper etiquette.

How much food should one bring to a potluck?

The most common advice refers to a multiple of the number of people in your party.  My advice is different.  I tell people to bring any amount, but not to eat more of all food than is eaten of the food you brought.  That way, the quantity of food brought is always enough, no matter how many people attend or how much they bring.

Include everyone in your party in your calculations.  If your whole family attends, but brings only one dish, be sure it includes at least as much quantity as your whole family will eat.  If more than a few people are in your party, you might want to consider bringing multiple varieties of food.

But, how should the quantity of food be measured?  Should it be measured by volume, weight, calories, or cost of the food, or the time to prepare it?  For example, I could bring a few large bottles of tap water which is a large volume and weight, but no calories, cost, and preparation.  Or, I could bring an expensive and rare homemade delicacy for each person to taste just a little bit due of the high cost and preparation time.  Which measurement I use to determine the quantity of food to bring, I consider not each time, but as an average of the many potlucks I attend.

Sometimes participants might want to allow no food to be brought by certain people, such as first-time guests, the host, or the event coordinator.  If so, other participants need to know to bring extra food.

To help ensure enough food, for yourself and others, people should be welcome to bring more food than suggested, and then feel comfortable taking any remaining of it at the end of the potluck, without feeling obligated to give it to the host or other guests.

Preparing food

If the exclusion of certain foods is requested by the host, such as for theme, health, ethical, or religious reasons, adhere to that policy.  If you are not certain about an ingredient, note that on the ingredient list displayed next to your dish.

Cutting whole fruit and vegetables into bite or serving sized portions makes them more inviting to potluck participants.

Of course follow cleanliness procedures when preparing your food that others will eat.

No mention yet has been made here about controlling the assortment of foods to produce a balanced or complete meal.  That's not important to me.  It's only one meal.  Put things into perspective.  Enjoy the company.  Spend your time caring about more important matters.

What else should be brought?

I suggest each person bring, with the food, whatever is needed to serve it.  People might also want to bring a place setting to eat the food to help the host, and to bring reusable ones to help the environment.

A list of ingredients placed next to the food you brought helps people avoid certain ingredients, such as for health, religious, or ethical reasons.  You might want to provide a recipe if you want to share it, so other people can try preparing your dish.  Write your name also, so people know whom to ask questions and give comments.

Label everything of yours that you want to take with you when you leave.  Or somewhere list which items you don't want to forget.

How much food should one eat?

At the potluck, the first time I take food to eat, I take a few foods quickly, and then I go eat it slowly.  That helps everyone taking food after me to obtain their first serving sooner.  For each food, I mentally divide it into enough portions for all present, and then not take more than one of those portions.  After I finish eating the food I took, and after everyone has finished taking their first serving, I go back for seconds.  I determine the total amount of food I can take without taking others' portions, by seeing how much of the food I brought has been eaten.  There's no problem if the food I bring is not liked by others, because I can eat it, and bring home any remaining to eat later.

If you will be arriving late, after people start eating, tell the host what food you will be bringing, and ask the host to mention that to the other guests, so they can save room in their appetite for it, and hopefully leave some other food for you.

Don't take more than you will eat.  Don't waste the efforts of the people who brought the food.

Before asking for remaining food someone else brought, and you are not the host, consider that extra food may have been prepared for either the person who hosts the event or who prepared that food.

This page, changed February 10, 2003, is copyright © 2003 by David Cohen.
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