Tips for Running a Thanksgiving Potluck (& a Recipe for Pear-Chestnut Pie)

There is a certain magic to a potluck dinner, an extravagant feast with pleasingly little effort on any single individual’s part. And they're an intrinsically happy affair—something about getting all the guests in the kitchen that also seems to get them in a good mood.

All of this, I find, pairs quite beautifully with Thanksgiving.

And it just adds to the charm of it all, that the more guests you invite the more plentiful the feast becomes.

Shop the Story

The key to running a smooth potluck is nothing more than organization—lists and planning ahead—and, of course, an eclectic crowd of generous friends. As hostess, I provide the foundations for a sumptuous meal. In Thanksgiving terms this means: I welcome guests into my home; I take care to set the table beautifully; and then I cook one key culinary centerpiece.

Left to my own devices, that would most likely be something like a roast duck—perhaps with braised grapes and an apple and pear stuffing, but by convention you might prefer to go with turkey. Your potluck dinner, you choose. I would then roast a heap of potatoes because they’re simple and low-maintenance and because a roast of any kind without potatoes is not really a proper roast at all. The rest is in the hands of my guests.

This is where the lists come in: I write down everything that you might want to complete the meal.

  • Drinks, of course (both wine and prosecco)
  • A few antipasti (salami, hams, crackers, dips, crostini, nuts, and so forth)
  • Breads
  • Any number of side dishes—of which sweet potatoes, stuffing (many varieties), and green beans are all a must
  • Cheeses
  • At the very least, three kinds of dessert, of which one really should be a pie
  • If I am short on cutlery, glasses, crockery, extra chairs and so forth, I add them to the list too

With each invitation to dinner, I discuss what the guest might like to contribute. There are two ways of going about this. Depending on how well you know your guests, you can either draw up a list of very specific tasks and dishes—such as "four bottles of white wine" or "homemade pumpkin pie"—and let them choose what they'd like to bring. Or just follow their lead on what they might like to bring. The former affords you greater creative control, though errs slightly on the bossy side; the latter makes for a more eclectic and interesting meal. 

Either way, make sure that the essentials are all covered: that there will be enough food for everyone to drink and eat, enough places laid at the table, and enough chairs to sit on. The list of tasks and dishes should be comprehensive and imaginative; something that allows for different budgets, time constraints, and varying levels of kitchen confidence.

Include anything and everything from loaning extra chairs to planning a playlist. Wine, for example, suits the friend with no tim, and few kitchen skills; likewise, the (invaluable) offer of a spare pair of hands to help clear and wash plates after dinner. Pecan pie, on the other hand, is for your friend who loves baking.

Try to talk everyone through the logistics of their task. So, if it’s stuffing, what dish will they bring it in? Would they prefer to borrow a casserole from you? When guests offer to bring side dishes that call for heating in the oven, think carefully about the oven space that you have available, and make sure there is room for everything. If you’re tight on space, encourage guests to bring cold dishes instead, like wild rice salad.

On the day, plan your timings carefully. Set the table as early as you can, and get to prepping the potatoes and the birds. Allow time for guests to be late (because odds are they will be); linger over drinks to make sure that everyone has arrived (and every dish is on the table) before you sit down to dinner. As for the rest, just watch the feast of all Thanksgiving feasts come together by itself, as if by magic.

If you’re been asked to bring along a dish to a potluck dinner, choose something that is easily portable and calls for very little "doing" at the other end (to afford minimum hassle to your hosts). Here are some of my favorites:

Pear and Chestnut Pie

Serves 8 to 10

For the dough:

375 grams all-purpose flour
125 grams confectioners' sugar
125 grams butter, chilled

For the filling:

250 grams sweetened chestnut purée
4 pears
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon superfine (caster) sugar

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Skye McAlpine

52 Days of Thanksgiving
Check It Out
52 Days of Thanksgiving

Top-notch recipes, expert tips, and all the tools to pull off the year’s most memorable feast.

Check It Out

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Writer & home cook living la dolce vita in Venice

1 Comment

AntoniaJames November 18, 2015
When I organized the potluck for 30+ for Amanda's book tour (NYT cookbook) SF Bay Area visit, I set up an Excel spreadsheet in a Google doc to which all invitees were given access. Everyone filled in what they wanted to bring, with the benefit of knowing what others planned to bring. It worked like a charm. ;o)