Last year was my first experience hosting a big family dinner on my own. I wanted to do something for my mom so she could just sit back and enjoy everyone. Taking responsibility of our family dinner was the least I could do for her. Boy was I shocked at much work it was to host a Thanksgiving potluck dinner!
Hosting a Thanksgiving potluck dinner can be a great way to entertain at home without having to do all the work yourself or shoulder all the expenses. It will take some planning and organization, but could make all the difference between a fun Thanksgiving, and one where you’re stuck in the kitchen all day cooking while you worry about your bills.
Even if you are not having a traditional potluck, having a list of needed items will help know what to suggest if family and friends ask what they can bring. Besides the food, you will need random things like ice, drinks, wine, etc. Most people don’t like to show up empty handed so having something planned out in writing will help when they ask what they can bring.
Here’s how to organize a Thanksgiving potluck dinner in 11 simple steps.
Thanksgiving Potluck Dinner Preparation
Embrace your inner boy scout and be prepared.
1. Make Your Thanksgiving Guest List
Decide who is coming. Then decide how you will communicate with everyone. In my family, I phoned the “flip phone group” and the rest I added to a group chat. You could also use email, or get super fancy and send invitations.
Make your list, and be sure to note anyone with food allergies or food preferences such a vegetarian. Send out the invitations (in what ever method you chose) and ask them to RSVP. Also note if they are going to bring a guest or whole family in your final tally of how many people you need to feed. It’s also good to track kids vs adults.
2. You Take the Turkey (and Main Dishes)
You should be responsible for the turkey and main dishes. This ensures a complete dinner in the event that someone can’t show up at the last minute. Determine how much you will need in order to feed all of your invited guests, plus a few extra portions just in case, or for leftovers.
For more help with your Thanksgiving main dish decisions, check out this article.
3. List the Thanksgiving Dinner Sides and Essentials
On your phone, in a notebook, or computer, list all of the Thanksgiving side dishes you would like to have as an accompaniment to your main course/s. For example, if you are serving turkey, your sides would likely be:
- Mashed Potatoes
- Green Bean Casserole
- Sweet Potato Casserole
- Broccoli Cheese Casserole
- Brussels Sprouts
Next list the traditional Thanksgiving desserts you would likely see. For desserts I left a few blank spots just in case something wanted to bring something new and unique.
Some of my favorite desserts in the past I had never tasted before, like my Grandma’s Chocolate Italian Creme Cake she made one year. It quickly became a favorite of mine. Some dessert ideas would be like:
- Pumpkin Pie
- Pumpkin Roll
- Apple Pie
- Angel Food Cake
- Cookies or Cupcakes (for kids)
- Pecan Pie
- Carrot Cake
For drinks, depending on what you feel it appropriate to serve, you might list:
- Sweet Tea (hey I’m from Texas)
- Cranberry Juice
- Soft Drinks
Be sure to include food allergy issues to avoid, without naming any names, and ask anyone to email you back with any issue you might not know about, just in case. Also ask them to check this with their guests if they are bringing a friend or date.
4. Get Them to Commit to Your Thanksgiving Potluck Dinner
Get them to commit to coming, and to what they are bringing. If your group is tech savvy, you can create a Google Doc and have people sign up. You will probably know if someone isn’t as tech savvy and you can call them and fill them in.
**Be sure and note on the list how many people are expected so everyone brings the appropriate amount of food and such.
5. Decide on Disposable or Washable Place Settings
A holiday meal can be a real challenge due to the number of place settings required in order to serve all the guests. Whether it is a sit-down meal or a buffet, chances are you will need at least one of these for every guest:
- Knife, fork, spoon
- Small plate (for dessert and/or salad)
- Large plate
- Cup, glass, or mug
If you opt for reusable and don’t have enough of each item, you could get stuck washing dishes. If you are not certain, do a quick count. I absolutely love kitchenware and holiday dishes, so I added a set to my Amazon wish list for later.
Disposable Thanksgiving Dishes
For those who hate washing dishes or are pressed for time, disposable dishes and cutlery seem the best way forward. However, that is a lot of money to be throwing in the garbage.
From a green point of view, it is also a lot of trash to be piling into landfills. Even when recycling, holiday festivities trigger a lot of waste. The money spent on disposables could easily go toward a set of holiday dishes and cutlery to be used for any special occasion.
You can opt for Thanksgiving designs, or get something more versatile in bulk such as white plates and cutlery. If you are the control freak and want them all to match, I suggest buying them all yourself. If you are on a budget, I would add that to the list of options for your guests can bring.
Day Of and Day Before Preparations for Your Thanksgiving Potluck Dinner
Hopefully you have some help, especially if you are the one cooking. Have you partner or kids get out tables, chairs, and run last minute errands of anything you may have forgot.
6. Make Space for All the Thanksgiving Food
You don’t want to be scrambling to make room when guests show up. If you have plenty of room, set up a buffet table where everyone can add their items as they arrive. If the table is small, put any desserts in the kitchen until they will be needed.
Another idea, if you have room, would be to create a separate area specifically for desserts. I know we always have so many options when our family gathers. If you create a separate table for desserts, then don’t forget to add the dessert plates and utensils here too. Grouping items you will use at the same time will help make it easier on guest, and you.
Note: some items might need to be kept cold in the fridge or freezer.
Either way, don’t forget a table cloth! You can go budget friendly with a cheap orange plastic one, or invest in something that will last. There are so many pretty ones. I like the ones that scream Thanksgiving. Besides table cloths, there are other cheap Thanksgiving decorations you can use to decorate you home.
7. Organize Lots of Serving Utensils
These are essential so your guests can help themselves during dinner. You will need large spoons, tongs, or forks for every dish and dessert. If you are going the plastic route, they are pretty reasonable and can be thrown away. Plus if one walks off inside Aunt Betty’s casserole dish it won’t hurt anything.
8. Be Ready to Warm Food Back Up
Most of the dishes that arrive will be warm at best, so be prepared to heat them back up. Keep lids tight on them and keep them together so they can collectively stay warm. If you have the racks in your oven ready, you can fit several things in there at once. Some dishes can even be stacked on top of each other. The microwave and crock pot are also options depending on what foods will be there.
9. Create a Beverage Station
This will help the beverage serving go smoothly. It can just be a area of your counter, but have everything there together to make it easier for guests who may not know your kitchen layout. Cups for teas and sodas, bar-ware for wine or cocktails, coffee cups for … coffee. Then all of the drink options can hang out here too.
If you are serving coffee, (it’s so yummy with dessert) don’t forget about milk, sugar, spoons, flavoring, etc. I use Koa Coffee, the coffee Forbes called Best in America.
**Don’t forget ice, in a pretty ice bucket or ice chest. Also, for any party I always provide bottles of water.
10. Don’t Forget the Extras and Condiments
Butter, mayo, and so on will help enhance the meal. Then there is the gravy! If you are the mom who is super on top of things, an adorable fall decorated caddy would be perfect to cart the extras around.
11. Have Plenty of Napkins and Paper Towels
This will help keep things neat and tidy, and enable you to cover any spills quickly. Honestly the cutesy ones that match the plates just don’t cut it when you are needing to clean up messes, I would make sure to have a few rolls for back up.
Thanksgiving Potluck Dinner Extras
My last tidbit isn’t so much a step, as it is a tip. LEFTOVERS! Make sure to have a way for guests to take home the leftovers. Paper plates, foil, and Ziploc bags are some of the ways we always do it.
Plates for dinners and desserts both, because if you’re like our family, we always bring too much food and have tons left. Plus I am always so full for dessert right after dinner, but I always know later that night I will be craving s sweet Thanksgiving treat.
Other things you might want to consider depending on your guests might be a music playlist, children’s entertainment such as coloring books and board games, and games for the adults to do if that’s your thing. Sometimes after dinner, and after the kitchen is cleaned up we play card games or dice games.
If you are hosting Thanksgiving this year, a potluck can be the way to go. Use these 11 steps to help you get organized. Leave a comment below with you favorite potluck tips!
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