How to Run a Great Thanksgiving Potluck Dinner

There is a certain magic to a potluck dinner, an extravagant feast with pleasingly little effort on any single individual’s part. And they’re an intrinsically happy affair—something about getting all the guests in the kitchen that also seems to get them in a good mood.

All of this, I find, pairs quite beautifully with Thanksgiving.

And it just adds to the charm of it all,

(Photo: Skye McAlpine/Food52)

The key to running a smooth potluck As hostess, I provide the foundations for a sumptuous meal. In Thanksgiving terms this means: I welcome guests into my home; I take care to set the table beautifully; and then I cook one key culinary centerpiece.

Left to my own devices, that would most likely be something like a roast duck—perhaps with braised grapes and an apple and pear stuffing, but by convention you might prefer to go with turkey. Your potluck dinner, you choose. I would then roast a heap of potatoes because they’re simple and low-maintenance and because a roast of any kind without potatoes is not really a proper roast at all. The rest is in the hands of my guests.

This is where the lists come in:

  • Drinks, of course (both wine and prosecco)
  • A few antipasti (salami, hams, crackers, dips, crostini, nuts, and so forth)
  • Breads
  • Any number of side dishes—of which sweet potatoes, stuffing (many varieties), and green beans are all a must
  • Cheeses
  • At the very least, three kinds of dessert, of which one really should be a pie
  • If I am short on cutlery, glasses, crockery, extra chairs and so forth, I add them to the list too

(Photo: Skye McAlpine/Food52)

With each invitation to dinner, I discuss what the guest might like to contribute. There are two ways of going about this. Depending on how well you know your guests, you can either draw up a list of very specific tasks and dishes—such as “four bottles of white wine” or “homemade pumpkin pie"—and let them choose what they’d like to bring. Or just follow their lead on what they might like to bring. The former affords you greater creative control, though errs slightly on the bossy side; the latter makes for a more eclectic and interesting meal. 

Either way, make sure that the essentials are all covered: that there will be enough food for everyone to drink and eat, enough places laid at the table, and enough chairs to sit on.

Include anything and everything from loaning extra chairs to planning a playlist. Wine, for example, suits the friend with no tim, and few kitchen skills; likewise, the (invaluable) offer of a spare pair of hands to help clear and wash plates after dinner. Pecan pie, on the other hand, is for your friend who loves baking.

(Photo: Skye McAlpine/Food52)

Try to talk everyone through the logistics of their task. So, if it’s stuffing, what dish will they bring it in? Would they prefer to borrow a casserole from you? . If you’re tight on space, encourage guests to bring cold dishes instead, like wild rice salad.

On the day, plan your timings carefully. Set the table as early as you can, and get to prepping the potatoes and the birds. Allow time for guests to be late (because odds are they will be); linger over drinks to make sure that everyone has arrived (and every dish is on the table) before you sit down to dinner.

If you’re been asked to bring along a dish to a potluck dinner, choose something that is easily portable and calls for very little "doing” at the other end (to afford minimum hassle to your hosts). Here are some of my favorites:

  • , a savory twist on the pie theme
  • , a lovely addition to any table and a nice vegetarian alternative to turkey
  • , a light side dish that looks bright and festive, and goes very nicely with poultry.
  • , it’s always a special treat to have fresh, homemade bread with a meal
  • A tub of , to go with the sweet pies
  • , a lovely, seasonal cake that travels easily wrapped in greaseproof paper
  • , simple, festive and a little out of the ordinary

(Photo: Skye McAlpine/Food52)

Serves 8 to 10

For the dough:

375 grams all-purpose flour
125 grams confectioners’ sugar
125 grams butter, chilled

For the filling:

250 grams sweetened chestnut purée
4 pears
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon superfine (caster) sugar

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

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