How to Host a Potluck Lunch (and Why)

For the past 16 years we have been part of a lunchtime fellowship group that meets every other Sunday after church. This group has gone through slight variations but what has survived is the basic structure: we meet at a different family’s house every other 1st and 3rd Sunday. Roughly it rotates so each family hosts every third time, or about every 6 weeks. The group is informal: it’s open to anyone who wants to come. One of the good things about the group has been that over the years it’s become a natural place to invite visitors after church.

Being a hostess is not natural to me at all but I’ve learned that the most important thing about hospitality is simply being willing to open your home. Everything else is icing on the cake. Here a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1) Your House is Clean Enough. I promise.

Really. It’s ok. You don’t have to scrub your house down before people come over. You don’t have to decorate. If you like to decorate, then go for it. But if not, keep it simple.  Assuming you keep your house reasonably clean (a little dog hair on the floor and fingerprints on walls are ok…moldy dishes in the sink not so much), then just do whatever normal cleaning you do for your own family. Our house is relatively clean but it’s not Pottery Barn perfect and that’s ok. If anyone decides to do a white glove test or check for dust bunnies under the beds, then they will find them but that’s ok.

2) Use What You Have

Over the years we’ve amassed a collection of very basic inexpensive dinnerware, glasses and flatware from places like Ikea and Crate and Barrel. The plates and bowls are all white but mismatched in styles. Paper products are also fine and we have used them plenty in the past. Now that we have enough non-paper stuff  we’d rather use it to save money and the planet. You don’t have to have a matching set of dishes for everyone invited or special themed party paper plates. People can have as good of a time eating off of a paper plate as china. Perhaps more.

3) Food….it’s a Potluck! 

The beauty of the potluck is that by nature you don’t have to plan and it’s supposed to be spontaneous. In 16 years we’ve never ever had a time where we ran out of food. There have been times when the food choices didn’t go together perfectly or we had a ton of one item but it all works out. On a recent Sunday we had no less than 5 pans of cornbread. The last person to bring the cornbread confessed later that she was impressed that I remained calm when she arrived with her offering. I laughed and sincerely told her that it didn’t bother me. I might have worried about it 10 or even 5 years ago but now it’s just a funny story.

In reality, our lunch isn’t a true potluck. Usually the host family provides something a bit more substantial and then everyone else brings other foods. Some families choose to have a “theme” or to let people know what they are making so others can make food that goes with it. H.’s preference is by far to just say “it’s a potluck” and see what we get. And it always works out.

There are some foods that we’ve found work great to feed a crowd and that can be made ahead (since we want to cook before church). Soups and chilis are great. Baked potatoes with toppings or a taco bar also work well. Anything where people can make their own ______ is good for a crowd because it allows for lots of different tastes. One of our favorite new approaches is a bowl meal where we put out lots of various toppings (beans, meats, cheeses, guacamole, salsa, olives, nuts, veggies, sauces all work well) along with a base like rice and people can make what they want.

4) The Hard Part

As an introvert, the hardest part of these lunches for me is definitely talking to people I don’t know well. Even though this is the part of being a hostess that most pushes me out of my comfort zone, I’ve found that it’s gotten easier over the years. The first trick I’ve learned is that almost everyone likes to help in the kitchen, especially if they are new or don’t know many people. It gives them something to do. It used to be when people would ask what they could do to help that I would answer “Nothing”, thinking that it was nicer for them to have the time to just hang out. But then I would see them kind of standing around awkwardly. So now I save a few easy jobs for someone else to do. Slice bread. Arrange something on a plate. Make lemonade.

I’ve learned from H. (who is excellent at talking to just about anyone) that most people respond well when asked questions about themselves. H. has a technique where he asks questions (some that can appear very random) about things he is interested in. Eventually he hits on some common interest or topic that then sparks a conversation.

I’ve gotten better at talking to people I don’t know well but I’ve also learned to accept that it’s not my strength. Part of being a good hostess is providing the atmosphere and space for others to have an opportunity for fellowship and conversation. Just by opening our home to people and inviting them over, we provide a space for conversations to happen, even if on a given Sunday I might not have been directly involved in most of those conversations.

5) The Good Part

Our closest friends are part of these Sunday lunches. Our kids have grown up together. Sometimes our lives get very busy but we know that every 1st and 3rd Sunday we will get together for lunch. Sometimes the group is very small, which can be nice. Sometimes it is very large and full of virtual strangers, which is nice in a different way.  Over the years we’ve had many people pass through our church who have also passed through our home. We might not still be in touch with them regularly but our lives are richer for the time we did spend getting to know them even a little bit. Who comes any given week is just as much of a potluck as what food we have.

I leave you with a challenge. If you don’t open your home now to friends and strangers, try it. You will be pushed out of your comfort zone but you will find that it is not as hard as you think and that it is much more worthwhile than you imagine.

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