Why Potlucks are the Perfect Alternative to Expensive Dinners With Friends

A group of people attend a potluck in someone's backyard.
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The death of the dinner party is one of the greatest tragedies of our generation. (Just kidding. Everything is terrible.)

The reality is it’s just too expensive (and stressful) to cook a full meal for 12 people. And you can pretty much forget about all of your friends being able to spring for an extra dinner out at the same time — which gets even pricier if they have kids and need to hire sitters.

But friendship and food are as integral to the human condition as saving enough money to, ya’ know, pay your bills and stuff. So what if I told you there was a way to have your cake (for free!) and eat it, too?

Well, in an effort to bring back the dinner party without all the stress and $$$ involved in a Betty Draper-style affair, I present for your consideration: the dinner potluck.

In Defense of the Potluck Dinner Party

If the word “potluck” conjures up visions of sweet old ladies sampling 15 variations of the same tuna casserole, it’s time to redefine the group dining experience.

Here, you’ll find tips for organizing the perfect potluck so you can stop stressing and spending — and just enjoy the meal.

1. Create a Guest List

This should be your first consideration. Are you inviting your book club? The parents from your kid’s play date group? People from your Thursday night cornhole league? A weird amalgamation of every friend group you’ve ever been a part of?

Whoever they are, the people you invite are going to set the tone for your evening, and it’s easier to make some decisions, like a theme and location, based on the guest list.

Also, don’t forget that brunch can be a potluck. Instead of going out on the weekend and dropping $50 on mimosas, invite your brunch-y friends over and ask them to bring a shareable breakfast-y dish!

2. Pick a Theme

The Penny Hoarder hosted a pot luck in St. Petersburg, Fla. When hosting a potluck, try choosing a theme. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

A potluck without a theme is like a 3-year-old’s storytelling: plotless and mildly frustrating.

To avoid the weird plate combination of seven-layer taco dip, salmon mousse tartlets and ambrosia salad (why?!), pick a theme for the night that your guests can work within. Something broad like Italian or Thai will bring about one cohesive meal, but if you’re feeling a little adventurous, make the theme as specific as “tomatoes” or “street food.” This will force people to get pretty creative!

You could also make it a game, such as having everyone bring their own variation of mac and cheese, or assign each dish a number and anonymously vote on the best at the end of the night. Winner gets a prize! (Or gets to take all the cheesy leftovers home.)

3. Send Out a Sign-up Sheet

Use a site like Signup Genius or Perfect Potluck to make it simple to coordinate dishes. The host fills in details like location, dish suggestions, and any food allergies or dietary restrictions the group should be aware of, and the guests sign up for whatever they want to bring.

Make sure to include cups, plates, napkins and plasticware on the sign-up sheet! Unless you want to shell out for paper products or spend the next four days of your life washing dishes, let guests sign up to bring these items as well.

Note: If you’re a micromanager, the potluck party format may not be for you. The fun of potlucks is seeing the variety and creativity your guests bring to the table — literally. Make sure you have all the categories covered: appetizers, sides, main dishes, desserts and drinks. Then, let your guests do the rest. Don’t worry about creating a specific menu.

4. Make Some Rules

When hosting a potluck, ask your guests to bring their own serving spoons (and serving dishes if you’re trying to get a little fancy), along with a food storage container from home.  Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

Alright, so a few rules can’t hurt.

Ask your guests to bring their own serving spoons (and serving dishes if you’re trying to get a little fancy), along with a food storage container from home. That way, they can take advantage of any leftovers without you having to hunt down your entire Tupperware collection later on.

Request that no one brings anything they need to cook on-site. You should limit oven use to “warming.” There’s no bigger bummer than setting out a freshly cooked dish after everyone is already stuffed!

Also, remind your guests that a potluck dish doesn’t need to feed the whole party. A four-person serving goes pretty far when each guest is sampling a little bit of everything.

5. Focus on the Setup, Not the Food

Since the guests will cover the majority of the food, you can spend your time focusing on your home. Tidy up, set up extra tables and chairs, and prep the kitchen for the food — but don’t go wild deep cleaning.

The point of a potluck is a casual gathering of friends, not a formal, crazy-making dinner party!

Hook up a power strip so guests can plug in slow cookers if needed, create a pour-your-own drink station (low-maintenance party = low-maintenance drinks), set out trivets and extra spoons (people will forget, trust me), and provide a stack of notecards and pens for people to label their dishes with when they arrive.

6. Have a Good Time

And then chill out — because you’re not cooking eight different dishes — and wait for your guests to arrive! Make yourself readily available in the kitchen for last-minute setup and “hey, do you have an extra…” questions, but don’t spend your whole evening in there.

All you need to worry about is chatting with your guests and enjoying your budget-friendly, low-maintenance, stress-free dinner party.

Besides, it’s easy to relax when you know that cleanup consists of a trash bag and a quick kitchen wipe down — and, oh yeah, that final awkward attempt at getting the lingerer to pack up their dish and get out so you can get back to your latest Netflix binge.

Grace Schweizer is an email content writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s dreaming of a potluck dinner made up of only brownies.