holiday potluck tips

Last weekend, Kristin Donnelly arrived at a friend’s potluck brunch carrying her signature scones marbled with sweet caramelized onions, oozy Gouda cheese, and buttery, crunchy pecans.

There are two sides to every potluck, and Kristin Donnelly has played both of them.

“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.”

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.

Modern Potluck: Beautiful Food to Share, $14.75 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.
See It

When You’re a Guest

Timing: 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.

The Gear: 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,” she says. “But really, anything with a lid rather than a cast iron skillet.” Donnelly laughed. These are a few of our suggestions for transport gear:

Pyrex Simply Store Glass Container Food Storage Set with Lids, 10 for $24.80 on Amazon

Amazon

The set includes one 6-cup rectangular dish with a blue lid, one 3-cup rectangular dish with blue lid, one 4-cup round dish with blue lid, and two 2-cup round dishes with blue lids. The U.S.-made glass is safe for the oven, microwave, fridge, freezer, and dishwasher. It also has a two-year warranty.The lids are BPA-free and top-rack dishwasher safe.See It

Rachael Ray Expandable Lasagna Lugger, $29.99 on Amazon

Amazon

This carrier is longer than other ones, so there’s more chance your lasagna dish with the handles will fit. You have two compartments in this carrier, and you can even put a hot dish in one and a cold dish in the other because of the super-foam insulation and Therma-Flect radiant barrier. The compartments both fit most 9-by-13-inch baking dishes. The lining is easy to clean, there’s an outside zippered pocket for extras you need to bring, and the carrying handles have a comfortable and convenient wrap that snaps shut.See It

Prepworks by Progressive Collapsible Cupcake and Cake Carrier, $17.99 on Amazon

cupcake and cake carrier for potlucks and parties

Amazon

This versatile carrier has cupcake trays with extra-deep depressions so your cupcakes won’t topple over, and extra headroom so you can really pile on the frosting without it getting smushed—but remove those trays and you can carry a 10-inch layer cake instead (or a 9-inch square cake, brownies, or bars). Plus, it folds up for easy storage in between potlucks.See It

When You’re the Host

Invites: 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.

evite invitations

Chowhound/evite

Of course you can post-mail paper invitations for an extra special touch.

Time: Pick a start time between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Donnelly says.

Food Coordination: 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,” she says. If someone has a dish that they’re passionate about making, let them bring it.

Theme: 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. Consider a breads-and-spreads party, in which people bring all kinds of bready baked goods with butters, cream cheeses, compotes, jams, and yogurt spreads like labneh. 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: Make sure you have a lot of surface, 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. 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 don’t have enough, bamboo or fallen-leaves compostable plates look nicer than other disposible plates, but they’re a little more expensive. It’s a nice way to elevate it, and you can get it on Amazon, she says.

Leafware Square Plates, 25 for $17 on Amazon

Amazon

Get a 25-piece set of hand-crafted, disposable, 9-inch plates made from fallen palm leaves. Each leaf is cleaned, heat pressed, and fully sterilized for sturdy, natural entertaining.See It

Decor: “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. “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. Try to coordinate your guests to bring one or two from each section.

Egg dish: 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. To class up your deviled eggs or frittata, add salmon roe, which you might find at a specialty store.

Cheesy Sausage Breakfast Casserole

Make Ahead Cheesy Sausage Breakfast Casserole

Chowhound

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 options, try Kristin’s Egg Casserole with Spaghetti Squash, Mushrooms, Goat Cheese, and Dill.)

Sweet Potato Turkey Frittata

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A crustless quiche with major holiday ingredients, this dish will do the trick. Get our Sweet Potato Turkey Frittata recipe.

Drinks: “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 always put a rosemary spring in each glass to give it a piney smell,” she says. Bring your two drink components in separate bottles, mixing on premises. If it’s 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. 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.)

Brandy Apple Punch

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Apple cider, brandy, cranberries, maple syrup, brown sugar, and lemon juice make this drink a real holiday treat. Get our Brandy Apple Punch recipe.

Mulled Hard Pear Cider

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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.

Breakfast Meat: 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.

Pig Candy

Chowhound

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.

Smoked Salmon and Bagel Breakfast Casserole

Chowhound

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.

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.

Margherita Scones

Chowhound

Sundried tomatoes, crème fraiche, and Parmesan cheese mingle within this brunchy favorite. Get our Margherita Scones recipe.

Spiced Zucchini Muffins

Spiced Zucchinie Muffins recipe

Chowhound

These just taste good and have that warm spicecreamy 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.

Big Salad: Have a fruit salad using fruit that’s in season somewhere in the United States, such as pomegranate and citrus. Of course, a green salad with a vinaigrette is necessary. 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.

Zesty Lime and Ginger Winter Fruit Salad

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This recipe calls for the fruit of down south: kiwi, oranges, and pineapple. Get our Zesty Lime and Ginger Winter Fruit Salad recipe.

Spiced Pecan and Apple Salad with Honey Vinaigrette

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Use that arugula or spinach to make this salad in which pecans are coated in apple pie spice and the apples are Granny Smith. Get our Spiced Pecan and Apple Salad recipe.

Dessert: 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, Donnelly says.

Applesauce Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake

Chowhound

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’s awesome. Get Kristin’s Applesauce Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake recipe.

Caramel Rugelach

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Sweet molten filling oozes from within the cream-cheese pastry of this Jewish classic during Hanukah. It’s a sweet treat for any special occasion, though. Get our Caramel Rugelach recipe.

This post was originally published on December 17, 2016 and was updated on December 7, 2018 with new links, text, and images.

Related Video: How to Make Bacon for a Brunch

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Amy Sowder is a writer and editor based in NYC, covering food and wellness in publications such as Bon Appétit, Women's Health, Eat This, Not That!, Upworthy/GOOD, Brooklyn Magazine, and Westchester Magazine. She loves to run races, but her favorite finish lines are gelato shops. Learn more at AmySowder.com.
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