Long ago, it was customary for a housewife to keep a pot on the fire into which all scraps of meat and vegetables were thrown. She kept the pot boiling all day. Stew was always available when hungry family members or neighbors stopped in for a visit. Even though the stew was always available, what it tasted like was a matter of “potluck.”

From “Little House in the Big Woods”
by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sketch by Garth Williams.

The word potluck was used in 16th century England to mean “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.” In the U.S. in the late 19th century or early 20th century, it was a “communal meal where guests would bring their own food.”

A potluck was a meal with no particular menu for the Irish. Everyone participating brought a dish for all to share. Irish women would gather together and cook dinner. They had only one pot so they cooked the meal together with whatever ingredients they happened to have that particular day.

Potluck dinners are often organized by religious or community groups. Smaller, more informal get-togethers such as family reunions, may also be called potlucks.

A Typical Potluck:

  • Each dish must be large enough to be shared among a good portion, by not necessarily all of the expected guests.
  • Guests may bring in any form of food, ranging from the main course to desserts.
  • In the United States, potlucks are associated with crockpot dishes, casseroles, dessert bars and jello salads.

Here are some synonyms for the word “potluck” used around the world.

  • potluck dinner
  • spread
  • Jacob’s join,
  • Jacob’s supper
  • faith supper
  • covered dish supper
  • bring and share
  • shared meal
  • pitch-in
  • carry-in
  • bring-a-plate
  • smorgasbord
  • dish-to-pass

Smart, Healthy Choices:

Potluck buffet spreads can be loaded with temptations, but with the right approach, you can serve up some healthful choices and not feel deprived. For example:

Grilled veggies — served hot or cold — add nutritious variety to the table. Vegetable skewers with zucchini, summer squash, mushrooms and peppers are easy to make and with the addition of cubes of lean meat, they make an entree. Even casseroles can be healthy options with the right ingredients.

Remember salads, too, such as coleslaw, potato salad or macaroni salad made healthy with generous amounts of colorful chopped vegetables and low-fat mayonnaise or plain low-fat yogurt.

For a sandwich buffet, think about whole wheat pita pocket halves. You can serve them with stuff-it-yourself fillings such as lean meats, fish, reduced-fat cheese, tomato and spinach leaves.

Once you arrive at the gathering, take a walk around the table to decide which foods will work for you, then aim for a balanced and colorful plate.

Choose veggies first so you won’t overdo other foods. For starchy vegetables, such as potato salad, keep in mind portion control. Portions at a potluck should be much smaller than at a regular meal because you’re eating a wider variety of foods.

For meat entrees, stick to lower-fat basics such as oven-“fried” skinless chicken, grilled fish or lean ground beef or turkey burgers on whole wheat buns.

For barbecue prepared food, practice moderation — no more than two saucy spareribs because many purchased sauces contain ingredients that are high in fat.

Throughout the potluck, be sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Make sure sodas, iced tea and lemonade are sugar-free.

Be discerning about desserts. Try to avoid packaged cookies or other sweet treats that are loaded with fat and sugar. Seasonal fruits are a good choice, or bring your favorite dessert to share.

Make sure hot foods stay hot (above 140 degrees F) and cold foods stay cold (below 40 degrees F).

What is your favorite dish to bring to a “Potluck”?  Here are a few of mine:

Crowd-Sized Minestrone

20 servings


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 8 cups chicken broth or 8 cups water
  • 8 cups low sodium tomato juice
  • 2 cups dry red wine or 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons dried basil leaves
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 medium green cabbage, chopped ( 6 cups)
  • 4 small zucchini, chopped
  • 4 medium carrots, sliced ( 1 cup)
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 56 ounces diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 4 (15 ounce) cans beans, rinsed and drained ( such as kidney, garbanzo or great northern)
  • 20 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to drain
  • 2 cups small pasta (orzo, ditalini, alphabet, elbows)
  • Grated Parmesan cheese


Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Cook garlic and onion in oil about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onion is tender.

Stir in remaining ingredients except cheese. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer 1 hour. Serve with cheese.

Make Ahead:

Refrigerate tightly covered no longer than 48 hours.

To Reheat: Cover and heat soup to boiling over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Italian Sausage, Peppers and Onions for a Crowd

Serves 20-25


  • 5 lbs Italian hot and sweet lean pork or turkey sausage, cut into 3 inch pieces
  • 8 mixed colors bell peppers, sliced into strips
  • 4 vidalia onions, sliced thin
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced into slivers
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 cup water


Put sausage in a roasting pan large enough to fit the ingredients.

Top with onions, peppers, garlic and oregano. Add water

Cover pan with heavy duty foil and bake for 2 hours at 300 degrees F.

Cheesy Spinach Lasagna Rolls 

Serves 12


  • Salt
  • 1 pound (16-18) uncooked lasagna noodles
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup plus 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
  • 1 large egg, beaten to blend
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 cups cooked spinach, squeezed dry
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella
  • 3 cups prepared marinara sauce


Preheat oven to 400°F.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add noodles and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well and gently transfer to kitchen towels on the countertop.

Whisk the ricotta, spinach, 1 cup Parmesan, mozzarella, egg, salt and pepper in a bowl to blend.

Spray two 9 x 13 inch casserole dishes with cooking spray; set aside.

Working with one noodle at a time, spread with 1 tablespoon of marinara sauce and about 3 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture.

Starting at one end, roll up noodle snugly then arrange in pan either seam-side down or standing with the rolls close enough together to hold each other closed. Repeat with the remaining noodles.

Pour remaining marinara over assembled rolls, then sprinkle the remaining 4 tablespoons of Parmesan over the lasagna rolls. Cover each dish tightly with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until the cheese on top becomes golden, about 15 minutes longer.

Braised Italian Steak

Serves 12


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for browning meat
  • 1 lb fresh sliced mushrooms
  • 2 onions, sliced thin
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2/3 cup flour
  • 5 pounds boneless round steak, 1/2 inch thick
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 4 cups crushed Italian  tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • salt and pepper to taste


In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Saute the garlic, onions and sliced mushrooms in the oil for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are tender. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Cut round steak into serving-size portions ,about 4 inches by 4 inches. Pound the flour into the steak pieces and transfer to the Dutch oven. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper; brown round steak thoroughly on both sides, adding more oil if needed. You may need to do this in batches, removing browned meat to a plate.

When browned, return all the meat to the pot and add the beef broth, tomatoes, Italian seasoning, onions and mushrooms. Cover and simmer on low heat for about 2 hours, or until meat is very tender.

Check for drying out and add a little water if needed. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

Italian Fruit SaladItalian Fruit Salad

Makes: 16 servings


  • 2 pounds seedless watermelon, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes or balls (8 cups)
  • 6 cups seedless green grapes, halved
  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
  • 4 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
  • 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoon honey


In a large bowl combine watermelon, grapes, blueberries and basil.

For dressing, in a small bowl whisk together vinegar and honey.

Pour dressing over fruit; stir gently to coat. Cover and chill for up to 8 hours.