Throwing a Potluck Party on a Budget

The words “potluck party” may conjure up images of a hastily thrown-together meal where everyone brings dishes that may or may not go together. (Think: tacos and chow mein.) But it’s actually possible to have friends and family over for a potluck that feels like a fancy dinner party.

Follow these five steps for a potluck party everyone will love.

Come Up With a Theme

Themes can give a lively air to any event. Organize your dinner around a particular style of cuisine: barbecue, Mexican, tapas, Japanese — whatever you think will appeal to your guests. Emphasize the theme when you send out invitations. And make sure you have an RSVP date so everyone knows how many portions to cook. Now is the best time to confirm any allergies, too.

Sites like Doodle can help you streamline scheduling, making sure it’s a good day for everyone to come. You can also create a Facebook event. Try adding a poll to the event so people can vote on the theme, music and any other details of the day.

To avoid having everyone bring the same type of dish — not that there’s anything wrong with having five different desserts — ask people to bring a specific item. Or use a site like Meal Train, which allows you to come up with categories you want to fill — appetizers, entrees, dessert — and lets guests fill in the dish they’d like to bring.

Keep Decor Simple

While picking a theme can help guide cuisine choices, it doesn’t have to dictate your decor. Instead, opt for simplicity: Candles and a few fresh flowers picked from your garden can go a long way toward sprucing up the dining table. Vases, old wine bottles or other containers you have on hand can double as water pitchers or candle holders.

If you still feel like you don’t have enough dishware and decorations to go around, visit thrift stores, yard sales or your parents’ basement for inexpensive, creative treasures.

Consider How You’ll Serve

Guests may bring food in large pans or bulky serving dishes, making family-style dining a challenge. Buffet-style dining can be a better choice, as it requires less jostling and saves valuable space on the dining table. Place serving dishes on a sidetable, instead. You can also set up a serving area in the kitchen or in a side room. Keeping dishes off the dining table helps ensure everyone has adequate elbow room.

Add Music

Music can set the tone of the evening. You may have to adjust the volume of your music once guests arrive to ensure that you’re not either drowning out conversation or keeping the music so low that no one can enjoy it. Curate your playlist in advance, keeping your guests’ tastes in kind. Try a genre that matches the night’s theme. For example, you could play flamenco music for tapas night. Or poll your guests for their music ideas. This is easy to do through Facebook. Instrumental music is often the right route, as some people are easily distracted by lyrics.

Use Garnishes

Garnishes like mint, rosemary and lemon instantly make simple dishes just a little more special — and the presentation that much more appealing. Infused water is an inexpensive way to make a simple drink feel much more special.

When in doubt, remember that simplicity and planning ahead are key to saving on your potluck party. What matters most is spending time with people you love.

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