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The perfect potluck

Updated: Jan 13, 2011 04:35 PM EST
Hosting a potluck dinner lets you be creative about making it fun and keeping it reasonable. (©iStockphoto.com/Jack Puccio) Hosting a potluck dinner lets you be creative about making it fun and keeping it reasonable. (©iStockphoto.com/Jack Puccio)
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By Patricia Berry
From Ideas That Spark 

Is the economy throwing a damp dishtowel on your dinner party plans? Don't be too quick to cut social gatherings from your budget. Sharing good times with friends -- no matter what the bank statement says -- is too important to forgo. And with a little ingenuity, it doesn't have to cost beaucoup bucks.

Hosting a potluck dinner, for instance, lets you be creative about making it fun and keeping it reasonable. Whether it's a one-off or a regular event, try adding a theme to your potluck party. It gives guests a good starting point for deciding what to bring and builds in a conversation starter, according to event planner Kathryn Osborne, who organizes parties in New York City. Themes can vary as widely as your imagination allows.

Here are a few jumping-off points:

Outsource the menu

Mary Conway and her friends do Bon Appetit potlucks several times a year, and each guest prepares a course from any cuisine magazine. Choosing menus laid out by professional foodies will add variety to your party. "Initially, none of us were all that confident in our cooking, but now we hardly ever have a failure," says Conway, of Newton, Mass. "Sometimes the dishes don't look much like the pictures in the magazine, but we have a lot of fun, and the food is secondary."

Home on the range

Party planner and Houston native Osborne likes a cowboy party theme, with such dishes as ribs, chili or baked beans for the entree. Salsa and chips, cornbread and some old-fashioned apple pie can round out the meal. It's enjoyable, yummy and cheap.

Eat what you read

Call it a twist on the old come-as-you-are party and invite guests to bring a dish in keeping with the book on their nightstand. Assign them a part of the meal and see what arrives at the appointed hour. The guest who's reading Ina Garten's latest cookbook may have an advantage over the one who's nodding off to a John Grisham thriller, but that's the beauty of it. (Note: This theme works well with movies too.)

Of course, with so many cooks, there is some room for missteps if you don't plan ahead. Bear in mind a few tried-and-true potluck pointers for making the party a hit:

Appoint a manager

Particularly if you form a supper club, an overseer who knows the abilities and behaviors of the group at large can help avoid potluck pitfalls. The job may involve creating and assigning the menu (and avoiding the seven-casseroles-on-a-sideboard disaster), nudging the guy who always makes cocktails into trying a dessert and keeping the chronic latecomer from taking on the hors d'oeuvres course (again).

Mix it up

Push beyond your comfort zone and invite a multigenerational mix of guests, suggests Osborne. Keep in mind older or younger friends and neighbors who don't necessarily fit "neatly" with the group. "It's fascinating and wonderful to see what comes out of those new encounters," says Osborne. Some guests can bring wine so they don't feel obligated to cook or embarrassed for arriving empty-handed. If they say they'd like to prepare something, give them an assignment. The more food, the merrier.

Go fancy

Just because you want everyone to pitch in doesn't mean you have to be informal. Send invitations -- Evites are a charming (and free!) alternative to purchasing and sending paper invitations. Sit down to a table set with the good china. After all, what are you saving it for? 

Set up the next one

With everyone pitching in, your party will be everyone's success, and chances are there will be a call to do it again -- and soon. As host, it's your responsibility to pass the baton. Before the first guest leaves, pull out calendars and decide on the next date and host.

Raise a glass

Don't forget to toast each other's good work. You all deserve it. 

Patricia Berry is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Working Mother, This Old House, New Jersey Life and The New York Times.

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