The Thanksgiving Potluck: How to Do it Right The Thanksgiving Potluck: How to Do it Right

Thanksgiving is a labor-intensive holiday. No matter how organized we are, how empty our schedule or how “thankful” we are feeling, hosting a proper Thanksgiving dinner is a challenge.

The “Potluck” dinner is a great answer to an exhausting day. Calm yourself, shake-off those visions of eleven green bean casseroles and six cranberry salads. With just a bit of planning, you can take the “luck” out of Potluck and have a well-put-together, traditional holiday dinner, with exactly the variety of foods you want, and that your guests expect.

Follow these steps for a dinner for six families (or adjust to your count):

1. Invitations: Invite by phone the first week in November. Give a few details:

  • It is a Potluck event - without the "luck." You will co-ordinate the dishes.
  • A total of twelve adults plus five children (adjust to your count).
  • The time will be early afternoon (or the time of your choice).
  • You'll call back in a couple of days with the menu.

2. Make the menu:

For a "traditional" dinner you'll need turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, vegetables and pecan and pumpkin pie - or your own family or ethnic favorites. The host prepares the turkey, stuffing and gravy.

Assign each family one of the following:

  • Mashed potatoes, cranberries and bread.
  • Sweet potatoes or yams and a cake or cupcakes.
  • Vegetables - green beans and corn plus a favorite veggie casserole.
  • Pecan Pies - two
  • Pumpkin Pies - two

3. Organize your thoughts:

  • Appetizer: This day of heavy feasting doesn't need an appetizer. Should you choose to have one, make it something light, like raw veggies and a ranch-type dip. Skip the salad with dinner.

  • Potatoes: Mashed potatoes are time consuming and messy. Ask a guest to bring them in a crock-pot. Yukon Golds, or other high-starch-content potatoes, do not get watery and do well in a slow cooker.

  • Vegetables: Children are picky eaters. How often do we see a child's plate with a small piece of turkey and a big helping of corn - and nothing more? Green beans and corn are often a child's choice. Another vegetable, a family favorite -- maybe a vegetable casserole is perfect. If children are not a factor, get creative with your favorite autumn dishes.

  • Salad: Salads are a lot of work – the washing, the peeling, the chopping. We think, "Oh, I'll just throw a salad together," but on Thanksgiving, a lot of "throwing together" is already going on. Add a salad to your menu if your family insists. Otherwise, skip it.

  • Dessert: Dessert should be holiday family favorites. Along with seasonal pies, a cake or cupcakes are a big hit with the children, and ice cream is a must.

  • Wine: For twelve adults, four .750ml bottle of wine are needed to provide two eight-ounce servings per adult. Good White wine choices are Riesling or Chenin Blanc for less-dry wines and Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc for drier wines. Any lighter-styled red wine is appropriate. Beaujolais Nouveau, the first wine of the harvest, is released in November. Pinot Noir and Rosé of Pinot Noir are also good autumn wines.

  • Serving: Ask guests to bring everything for serving their dish. Pie makers should bring pie servers; bread-bringers should bring a basket and napkin for serving. Serving spoons should accompany each dish.

4. Host Family:

  • Turkey: If one of your guests is known for roasting-up a fabulous turkey, joyfully pass-on the job. Turkey can be sliced, wrapped in foil and kept warm in an electric roaster - making it easy to transport, as well. The "turkey-maker" must also make the stuffing and gravy - all those turkey juices are essential for homemade gravy.

  • Add-ons: Ham and a Jell-O-O salad with fruit are a wonderful add-on to the family menu. What child doesn't like Ham and Jell-O? A hot fruit compote, warm and subtly scented with cinnamon and cloves, is worth the effort. The fruit can be assembled the day before, and finished-off with other last-minute oven dishes. For add-ons, you need only willing cooks.

  • Extras: The host home should have coffee, cream and sugar, trivets for hot dishes, butter or margarine, whipped cream for desserts, and Baggies or small plastic dishes for take-home leftovers. Just to be on the safe side, tuck-away extra serving spoons, pie servers and a breadbasket - just in case your guests forget.

  • Allergies: Inquire about food allergies, such as reactions to nuts, in your "invitation" phone call. If there are food allergies among your guests, make all food contributors aware.

  • China or Paper? Set the tone of your holiday. Decide about using china or good quality paper products. If using paper, and perhaps even plastic table utensils, buy holiday-appropriate plates, napkins and utensils. Thanksgiving is not a day to give guests a plate that "folds" under the weighty and bountiful spread, or a fork and knife that can't stand up to turkey and pecan pie. Choose napkins that are dinner-sized and not too thin. Provide smaller napkins for dessert.

  • Are you serving wine? As host family, it's your decision. Assign wine to the above menu or have it on hand. Guests can "chip-in" to cover the cost. Generally, 8 ounces of wine per person (two four-ounce servings) is appropriate. Encourage each family to provide a designated driver.

  • Wine Glasses: Wine glass can be used for all drinks - even milk. Get them clean and shiny a week before the big day. Store upside-down until needed. Nothing throws a schedule into chaos like spotty, dingy glasses. One glass per person should be the rule or you'll quickly run short. "Wine charms" help everyone remember which glass is theirs. A wine charm is a small, usually metal or beaded, charm that fits around the wine glass stem. They are fun for your guests and especially the children. Try pairing a glass and a charm to a particular guest– maybe a charm that says "Born to Shop" for your sister-in-law, a corkscrew for your wine-loving brother, a dog or cat, giraffe or elephant, for the children. Wine charms are inexpensive and sold at major discount stores, usually in sets of 6 or 8 themed-charms such as shoes, beach items, animals, charms for boat lovers, golfers, cell-phone aficionados and shutter-bugs. You’re certain to find wine charms that fit the personality of your home or your guests.

  • Children. Making it Special: Serve a “sparkling” drink, such as sparkling grape juice (make it white grape juice for your carpet’s sake) or cider. Milk, or perhaps cola, is an everyday event for our kids, but a delicious drink served in a small plastic wine glass, with a wine charm, adds to the excitement of this special day, and lets the children know they are a cherished part of this day of Thanksgiving.

    A bowl of easy-to-eat fruit is great for the kids – seedless grapes and bananas are time-efficient and easy to handle.

  • Making Memories: Don't forget to the camera, and ask other guests to bring theirs. Invite a guest to use your camera when you are busy tending to details.


Thoughts on Expanding the Main Menu: You probably won't have to ask your guests to contribute more their "assignment." They'll step-up and offer to bring a ham, deviled eggs, Copper Penny Carrots or cherry pie because such items are beloved by their own family. At Thanksgiving, most of us expect to prepare multiple dishes - and in the end, we’re just thankful that we’re coming to your house.

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