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How to Organize a Potluck at Work: Tips and What to Avoid

Sadie teaches speaking and leadership skills to women who want to have a better relationship with others and with themselves.

Before your next office party, check out these tips on how to plan a potluck at work.

Before your next office party, check out these tips on how to plan a potluck at work.

Build Community at Work With a Potluck

Having a potluck lunch in the office is a wonderful way to bring team members together around a common objective: eating! And who doesn't like to eat?

With some planning and a clean, well-outfitted staff kitchen, your office can pull together a relaxed, fun and sumptuous potluck lunch.

Dips and bite-sized appetizers are great for a potluck lunch at work!

Dips and bite-sized appetizers are great for a potluck lunch at work!

Where Did the Potluck Come From?

When people think of potlucks they often picture the hearty dishes, casseroles and crockpot meals that their relatives would bring to family gatherings. Then there were the endless pies, cakes and dessert squares. Don’t forget the mayonnaise-drenched pasta salads or the cubed fruit suspended in green Jello!

But in 16th-century England, a potluck was actually food provided for an unexpected visitor. There was very little planning involved. The drop-in guest was served whatever was on the stove: “the luck of the pot.” The modern-day potluck, which is more of a social event where guests bring their own food to share with each other, appears to have originated in the late 19th century or early 20th century United States.

Potluck dinners are often organized by faith or community groups because they simplify meal planning and help spread the cost of food among those joining in. Many large families like to have potlucks for the same reason. Singles and couples who enjoy a wide net of friends also partake in the potluck, not because it cuts down on food costs but because people like to showcase their culinary skills. Bringing a dish to share helps the party hostess out and allows more time for everyone to enjoy each others’ company.

The only hard and fast rule for a potluck is that each dish should be large enough to be shared among a good portion of the expected guests. Some potluck organizers prefer to have each participant agree in advance to bring a single course, resulting in a multi-course meal. Other planners let guests bring whatever they choose, ranging from the main course to desserts. It really is the “luck of the pot” because the party may end up with 10 entrees and no dessert!

Potlucks have always been about sharing; that's why they are perfect for your next office team-building event!


Here's a handy checklist of food items to keep in your fridge and pantry so that you can always whip up a potluck dish at the last minute.

You can't go wrong when you bring a fresh fruit or veggie dish to an office potluck.

You can't go wrong when you bring a fresh fruit or veggie dish to an office potluck.

Supplies Checklist

  • Office dishes and serving ware: Outfitting the staff kitchen with a durable set of serving ware, cups and plates is an eco-friendly alternative to using disposable dishes. Simple tableware and cutlery add an elegant touch to an office potluck.
  • Space for cleaning and storage: Make sure you have a clean, clear space to wash and store the dishes after each potluck.
  • Containers for leftovers: Keep a supply of reusable plastic containers on hand to store or take home any leftovers.

Etiquette Tips

There's no point in organizing an office potluck to boost team spirit if people are careless and inconsiderate at the luncheon. Here are a few quick tips on how be a thoughtful, well-mannered potluck guest.

  • Don't arrive at the potluck empty-handed. If you genuinely forgot to bring something or didn't have the time to make a dish, excuse yourself from joining the potluck. If your peers insist you have lunch with them, then you may join in. But do not use this free pass more than once. Show up to a potluck without a dish more than once and your co-workers might start to resent you.
  • No double-dipping, ever. Enough said.
  • Try everything. Unless you're a vegetarian, have food allergies or follow a religious faith that keeps you from eating certain foods, try to sample every dish brought to the potluck by your co-workers. Everyone likes to feel that the food they brought was appreciated by their fellow diners.
  • Make sure the vegetarians and vegans have options. If there are vegetarians and vegans at the potluck table and you're an omnivore (meat-eater), don't dive into the non-meat dishes first. Make sure that those people who don't eat meat have had a chance to fill their plate first. The non-vegetarians should have plenty of other items to choose from on the potluck buffet table.
  • Apply spreads correctly. Nothing is more gross than a dish of butter or cream cheese with someone else's old crumbs in it. Don't apply spreads directly to your bun or muffin. Put a portion of the spread on the side of your plate first.
  • Make a plate for those who can't join. If someone can't join the potluck because they're in a meeting or got called away for a work emergency, make up a plate for the missing staff member. Even if the staff member has already eaten when they return to the office, a thoughtfully laid out plate of food says, "We missed your company at lunch today."
  • Share fridge space. When you bring your food in on the day of the potluck, be thoughtful in how you store it in the fridge. Don't forget to leave room for your co-workers' dishes to fit in the cooler, too.
  • Help out with the cleanup. Don't disappear after the potluck lunch with an excuse such as having to make an "important phone call" or run off to a meeting. Stick around and help clean up. The more people helping out, the faster everyone can return to their office work.
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Pasta Salad Video How-To: Watch this video for step by step instructions on making a tasty pasta salad for your next potluck lunch at the office!

Ingredients to Avoid

When trying to decide on what kind of dish to bring to a potluck, there are some ingredients that should be avoided. Here is a list of things you shouldn't put in your potluck dish.

  • Raw red onion: Raw red onions can add a potent zing to your potluck dish that may leave a strong aftertaste in people's mouths for hours after a meal. Chives, green onions and scallions are somewhat milder options if you still want a taste of onion in your dish
  • Cilantro: For some people, cilantro has an unpleasant taste. Studies have linked this strong aversion to DNA. It's not that these folks are picky eaters; it's that their tastebuds actually react differently to certain foods.
  • Aged cheeses: Not everyone enjoys stinky aged cheeses. And for some people, aged cheeses can trigger for migraines.
  • Green peppers: Green peppers can taste bitter if they aren't at the ideal ripeness. Green peppers can also cause excess digestive gas, which makes your potluck guests burp and feel bloated.
  • Cooked carrots: Cooked carrots tend to end up mushy and soft which can add an unpleasant texture to your potluck dish. Carrots are best served raw and crisp in salads and with dips.

If your recipe simply cannot be made without one of these ingredients, try to at least cut back on the amount used to that it is not too potent.

Obviously, in addition to this list of potluck ingredients to avoid, be mindful of any allergies that people may have. If your dish uses shellfish, nuts, or other known food allergens, make sure that your dish is properly labelled as such. Although most people with life-threatening food allergies are pro-active in finding out what is in a dish before they eat it, you never know.

What do you think? Are there any ingredients that you think should never be put in a potluck dish? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

(Source: 5 Things You Should Never Put in Your Potluck Dish, Huffington Post)

Did you forget the office potluck is today? Sushi is a popular take-out item that you can order and pick up on your coffee break, just in time for lunch!

Did you forget the office potluck is today? Sushi is a popular take-out item that you can order and pick up on your coffee break, just in time for lunch!

Last-Minute Potluck Options

If you forgot that today is office potluck day, here are a few options:

  • Pizza: Have a large cheese pizza delivered just in time for lunch. Ask the pizza maker to slice the pizza into thin wedges instead of the standard 1/8th size pieces. That way more people can have a piece of pizza!
  • Popsicles and ice cream: Fruity popsicles, fudgecicles and other ice cream treats are a fun dessert item and can be purchased and most medium to large drug stores or corner stores.
  • Beverages: Head to your gourmet coffee dealer on your lunch break and buy an assortment of gourmet bottled beverages, iced coffee drinks, or fancy tea sachets. Set up an attractive beverage station beside the potluck table and let participants pick out a fancy refreshment to enjoy with their lunch.

Is Bringing a Store-Bought Dish to a Potluck Cheating?

One of the great things about a potluck lunch at the office is the wonderful array of tasty dishes that you get to try! Some potluck participants like to go all out, whipping up a storm in their kitchen, creating mouthwatering dishes. But not everyone has the time or talent to bring a homemade dish.

How to Break the Ice

How do you break the ice and get everyone into a social mood at the office potluck? Potlucks tend to have a social aspect built right into them. Working together to set the table, chatting in the kitchen while the final touches are put on the culinary creations, the 'ooohs' and 'ahhs' that fill the room as people gather around and the dishes are revealed—people tend to feel more relaxed and ready to mingle as lunch gets underway. To add an extra level of fun to the lunch, why not play a few icebreaker games?

Need More Office Potluck Tips?

Check out some of these cool potluck planning tools that will help make your office party a success!

© 2014 Sadie Holloway


freecampingaussie from Southern Spain on August 24, 2014:

Love the photos ! We used to do potluck dinners for family /friends but never at work. A good idea . Informative hub ,I am hub hopping !

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