There are lots of festive ways to pull off a holiday party, but a brunch can be especially nice since evenings and weekend afternoons tend to book up fast. And there’s something more inherently casual about a mid-morning affair that you can enjoy in your comfy jeans and sweaters (and flats). Here’s your guide to hosting a holiday brunch—or what to bring if you’re attending one.
There are two sides to every potluck, and Kristin Donnelly has played both of them.
Based in New Hope, Pennsylvania, Donnelly is a recipe developer and food writer who trained at the Institute of Culinary Education. She also wrote the book on how to handle potlucks. “Modern Potluck: Beautiful Food to Share” came out in the summer of 2016. That same year, she shared her advice both as a guest and as a host with us. We think it’s well worth revisiting.
Jump to the specific sort of advice you need depending on your circumstances:
Modern Potluck: Beautiful Food to Share, $17.29 on Amazon
With 100 make-ahead recipes perfect for crowds—including vegan and gluten-free options—plus lots of practical tips, this is a great guide for all your potlucks and parties.
When You’re a Guest
Scored an invite to a holiday brunch? Lucky you! Here are some tips to keep in mind.
What to Bring
If you’re attending a holiday brunch that will be made entirely by the host, that’s awesome. Still, you shouldn’t show up empty handed. See another expert’s advice on the best holiday host and hostess gifts to bring with you.
If it’s a potluck brunch you’re attending, that narrows down the field as far as what you’re bringing—you’ve likely been assigned something, or at least given general guidelines. In any case, bring a dish that’s easy to transport and (ideally) ready to eat when you arrive. Scones are a great choice.
“With scones, you can just wrap them in a cloth or clean towel and bring them in a bowl,” Donnelly says. “That’s what I did when I went to a holiday brunch potluck that my friends do every year.” (Specifically, she was toting her signature scones marbled with sweet caramelized onions, oozy gouda cheese, and buttery, crunchy pecans.)
Brunches are relatively early, so it helps to plan ahead. “If you’re invited to a brunch, it’s nice to figure out how to make part of your dish the night before, do prep work, assemble it, and maybe even bake it the night before because it’s nice to not have to hustle in the morning,” Donnelly says.
Transportation (For Your Food)
Some dishes and containers are easier to take across town than others. “Pyrex now makes a lot of oven-to-table dishes with lids that are easy to transport. It’s convenient and inexpensive and sometimes you buy them at the grocery store,” Donnelly says.
“But really, anything with a lid rather than a cast iron skillet,” she laughed.
Related Reading: The Best Holiday Potluck Products to Bring Your Food to the Party
This carrier is longer than many others, so there’s more chance your lasagna dish with the handles will fit. You have two compartments, and thanks to the super-foam insulation and Therma-Flect radiant barrier, you could put a hot dish in one part and a cold dish in the other; the compartments both fit most 9-by-13-inch baking dishes. The lining is easy to clean, there’s an outside zippered pocket for any extras you need to bring (like utensils), and the carrying handles have a comfortable and convenient wrap that snaps shut.Buy Now
When You’re the Host
Having people over for a holiday brunch? How thoughtful! Here’s what you need to know.
For many people, sending an electronic invite via email or through an app is the easiest way to invite their guests. You can always simply use Facebook, but that old standby, evite.com, is still going strong. You can download it as an Android app (or on iOS) if you prefer, and can enable RSVP via text. Even the free invite option lets you add a “What to Bring” list if you want; guests can check them off as they’re fulfilled, and you can let them add their own items if you like.
Of course you can post-mail paper invitations for an extra special touch.
Related Reading: The Best New Entertaining & Party Cookbooks
Pick a start time between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Donnelly says. Not too early for those who like to sleep in, not too late that people will be starving for lunch or watching the clock to be sure they have time to rush to their next engagement (’tis the season to be stressed out).
You can make everything yourself if you’re feeling ambitious, but it’s totally fine to make it a potluck. In that case, how to figure out who’s bringing what?
“If it’s fewer than 10 people, I find it’s easier to coordinate over email and tell them what I’ll make and see what they’re bringing. It’s nice to have an idea so not everybody’s making eggs, and if there are last minute stragglers, I send them what everyone else is already making,” Donnelly says. If someone has a dish that they’re passionate about making, let them bring it.
This is entirely optional, but sometimes it’s fun to give people parameters on their food choices. Include your theme on the invite. Specific instructions also could be necessary if there are dietary restrictions involved, such as serious allergies or keeping kosher.
Or: “Look at breakfast cultures in other countries,” Donnelly says, or “ask people to bring holiday breakfast dish that they grew up eating.”
Setting Up & Serving
Make sure you have a lot of surface area, not just for serving, but for people who need to do last-minute prep for their dish. Supply guests with to-go containers, because—especially during the holidays—”there’s just so much food, it’s nice to let people take home their own leftovers,” Donnelly says.
Retro Holiday Paper Take Away Cups with Lids, 6 for $4.99 at World Market
These compostable leftover containers are adorable and you won't need to get them back.
Try to have extra serving dishes and spoons, and set up a designated drinks area outside the kitchen with cups. As far as plates, your regular plates are fine. (If you like any excuse to dress up and that extends to your table, though, check out our favorite special occasion dishes and linens.)
If you don’t have enough plates, bamboo or fallen-leaves compostable plates look nicer than many other disposables, but they’re a little more expensive. It’s a nice way to elevate it, and you can get it on Amazon, Donnelly notes.
Leafware Square Plates, 25 for $26.10 on Amazon
These 9-inch plates are hand-crafted from fallen palm leaves that are cleaned, heat pressed, and fully sterilized for sturdy, more eco-friendly entertaining.
Don’t even worry about this if you don’t want to (especially if you already have holiday decorations up).
“I think the point for potlucks is to bring people together in the easiest way possible,” Donnelly says. If focusing on décor too much stresses you out like it does Donnelly, keep it simple with a couple candles and maybe some greenery from tree trimmings and lay those around.
Related Reading: The Best Flower Delivery Services for the Holidays
“With potlucks, the point is more the gathering than the stressing about perfection,” she says.
The Most Important Part: The Food
These are the main food categories you should be considering when planning your potluck brunch. Try to coordinate your guests to bring one or two from each section.
What’s nice about a lot of egg casserole dishes is they’re fine at room temperature. Don’t do poached eggs or eggs Benedict or anything best when hot and served right away or fragile; quiches are great, as are baked eggs, casseroles, and frittatas.
Related Reading: This Green Shakshuka Is A Brunch Superstar
To class up your deviled eggs or frittata, add salmon roe, which you might find at a specialty store.
A dozen eggs and the recipe’s namesake ingredients get you started on the path. Make this casserole the night before and then bake it in the morning before you head out to the potluck party, or before you host it. Get our Cheesy Sausage Breakfast Casserole recipe. (Or for a veggie option, try Kristin’s Egg Casserole with Spaghetti Squash, Mushrooms, Goat Cheese, and Dill.)
A crustless quiche with major holiday ingredients, this dish will do the trick at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Get our Sweet Potato Turkey Frittata recipe.
“It’s fun to have something festive, alcoholic or not, some special punch-type thing; I think something sparkling is nice,” Donnelly says.
If you’re going to do mimosas, use freshly squeezed juice (you can swap in blood orange or pomegranate for more color). “You can always put a rosemary sprig in each glass to give it a piney smell,” Donnelly says. (If you’re bringing the fixings, carry your two drink components in separate bottles, mixing on premises.)
If you want to bring a punch that needs a punch bowl and you don’t have one, check with the host. “Often as a host, I’ll do the drink, but not if that’s their thing,” she says.
Having coffee is also important. Keep it warm in those insulated pots or even your slow cooker.
Low budget? Brut sparkling wine is less than $20 and it’s so good you don’t have to put juice in it, she says. Also consider holiday classics like mulled wine and spiced cider. (See our Cozy Crock-Pot Cocktails for great warm drinks you can make in your slow cooker, including coffee-based and non-alcoholic options.)
Apple cider, brandy, cranberries, maple syrup, brown sugar, and lemon juice make this drink a real holiday treat. Get our Brandy Apple Punch recipe.
A fresh take on apple cider yet still seasonally appropriate, pear cider stars in this drink, mulled with ginger, orange, vanilla bean, brandy, and honey. Get our Mulled Hard Pear Cider recipe.
A lot of breakfast meat is better when hot, such as breakfast sausage. Get around that with candied bacon or smoked salmon. A ham is good, because it can be served warm or cold.
Four ingredients are all you need for this show-stopping idea that will delight bacon lovers. It’s basically candied bacon. And it’s basically wonderful. Get Kristin’s Pig Candy recipe.
Salmon is basically pescatarian meat. And this is basically a bagel turned into a casserole—that is, if your bagel is an everything bagel and it’s topped with cream cheese, the aforementioned salmon, capers, and red onion. Get our Smoked Salmon and Bagel Breakfast Casserole recipe.
Sweet & Savory Baked Goods
These are not only wonderful at a brunch, they’re mandatory. Try making scones, savory vegetable tarts, biscuits, muffins, quick breads, or yeasted coffee cake. “Brunch is that time when you merge sweet and savory,” Donnelly says.
Sundried tomatoes, crème fraiche, and parmesan cheese mingle within this brunchy favorite. Get our Margherita Scones recipe.
These just taste good and have that warm spice we crave around the holidays and a creamy crunch that we love from those pine nuts. (But try our Doughnut Muffins recipe, our Citrus Poppy Seed Muffins recipe, our Apple Muffins with Pecan Streusel recipe, and our Blueberry Cornbread Muffins recipe too—what can we say, we really love muffins.) Get our Spiced Zucchini Muffins recipe.
Have a fruit salad using fruit that’s in season somewhere in the United States, such as pomegranate and citrus. A green salad with a vinaigrette is also nice (and often overlooked). If the greens are delicate—spinach, arugula, butter lettuce—keep the dressing in a jar separate from the greens and mix it in when guests are ready to start eating. Kale or cabbage are OK already dressed if you want to make ahead.
Plan for one big dessert plus some small sweets, like holiday cookies. Donnelly’s Applesauce Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake is like a giant quick bread, “a nice, sturdy spice cake that holds up for several days and is good for breakfast or brunch,” she says.
With dialed-down sugar, unsweetened applesauce does the trick, along with whole wheat flour for upping the nutrition and lowering the undesirables. Oh, and it tastes awesome. Get Kristin’s Applesauce Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake recipe.
This incredibly easy, super-moist chocolate cake has a secret ingredient you probably won’t see coming, and a fluffy peppermint frosting that’s extra festive with crushed candy canes sprinkled on top. Get the Chocolate Snacking Cake with Peppermint Frosting recipe.
For more tips, tricks, and recipes, visit our Holiday Headquarters.
Related Video: How to Make Bacon for a Brunch
This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated with new links, text, and images.
Header image courtesy of Manny Rodriguez / Getty Images