6 Tips To Throw A Thanksgiving Potluck

For the past 6 years (save for our pandemic Thanksgiving) I’ve hosted an epic (according to me and the reactions on friend’s faces) Thanksgiving Potluck.  I drag rugs outdoors, rent old farm tables, set up a full bar and fill the table to the end caps.  It’s always been a bit of a hodgepodge group of friends who have become family, friends of friends with no family in town, and three years ago, the dreamy guy from Houston I was very newly dating and… both of our sets of parents. Buckle up, y’all!

The true glory of a Thanksgiving potluck is that it brings together groups of people who may not normally collide. I like to foster the dinner table where I overhear my dad tell my friend Mike’s neighbor my most embarrassing childhood story.  It’s always a delight of dishes and personalities.  Cultivating the menu is important but the vibe is where the memories are made. Watch me pull out the dinner party conversation cards – past a few groans, they upend any smalltalk for something deeper. 

Maybe you’re just starting to piece together your Thanksgiving holiday – I hope your table has unexpected guests. Here are a few ways I throw a holiday potluck that is easy on me and comfortable for my guests. 

As the host of the potluck, I usually make the main dish. For a traditional Thanksgiving that means I cook the turkey so my guests don’t have to put a whole cooked turkey in their car and travel across town (though I’ve seen it done). But don’t feel hamstrung into making a big bird for the main event.  If you’re holiday is on the smaller side, this Thanksgiving Pot Pie is is everything all at once and I’ll tell ya – Stovetop Stuffing SLAPS. 

Ask friends to bring their most nostalgic dishes.  Even at a potluck, it’s nice to have a taste of home.  Ask one friend to bring their favorite family stuffing and another to bring their most beloved vegetable side dish. Of course it’s wonderful to have an overlap of dishes and a bounty of side dishes, but we want to avoid every single guest bringing only their favorite cranberry sauce. Before the meal is served, I like to go around the room and have everyone introduce their dish.  A story gives food a splash more color.  It’s really special to have a piece of everyone’s roots in the potluck spread.  I’d bring my aunt Cordellia’s Homemade Potato Rolls (they’re so tender, fluffy and the recipe comes with freeze-ahead instructions!). 

Haul out every platter and serving utensil, plus cards for labeling dishes before guests arrive. In my experience, guests so graciously arrive with only their warm dishes in tow. Sometimes dishes are still in pots and might need to be transferred to serving platters. Before a potluck, I cart out and dust off all of my serving bowls, platters, and extra utensils so they’re easily accessible for all the incoming deliciousness. Labels are helpful for guests with food allergies or preferences to ensure everyone gets what they want and nothing they don’t.  Listen – if this feels over the top, that’s correct. We’re all the way in. 

Be thankful! If you’re the host, and most chefy in your friend group, it’s important to remember that cooking for a big group is intimidating to most people.  Don’t forget to be appreciative of everyone’s culinary efforts, no matter what.  I find that people present their dishes with caveats and apologies when in reality it’s an incredible bounty.  It’s nice to remind guests that efforts are delicious and appreciated! Now… tell us words of affirmation are your love language without telling us words of affirmation are your love language. 

Have a stash of to-go containers. The best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers (that I usually eat later Thanksgiving evening because I can’t wait). I always have a stash of these reusable to-go containers  so guests can load up on everyone’s dishes before settling into the couch for a post-meal rest. Whoever gathers their leftovers first gets the first pick of couch seats. May the odds be ever in your favor. 

Give everyone a job. Ok not everyone, and not a job.  I have a hard time asking for help but here’s the thing – guests actually want to help. Having a little task can help ease guests into the party and give them reason to interact with everyone.  Ahead of the party I ask a friend more musical than me to compile a playlist. This is essential work.  I ask another friend to keep an eye out for empty wine glasses (and ask if they need to be refilled), and another friend to be on water duty. Giving away little tasks makes you a gracious, less-stressed host and helps everyone feel responsible for, not only the meal, but the good times around it.

Bonus tip / unsolicited advice:  offer an untraditional Thanksgiving dessert.  My vote is for either this French Silk Pie or a Lemon Blueberry Gooey Butter Cake.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends! xo