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Tomorrow I'll be going to a potluck that will be attended by around 20 people. I'm not good at cooking, so I'm planning on bringing something from a bakery.

What is the etiquette with regards to the amount of food/drinks you bring to potlucks? I wonder if what I bring needs to be enough to serve everyone, or if it would be okay if it's only enough to serve some big fraction of the people? If it helps, I'm in the US.

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    Btw. it's also a good idea to ask the host if they have an overview of what kind of food individual guest will bring. This avoids having almost no main dish because most guests bring easy to prepare desserts :-) – puck Jul 17 at 6:45
  • No. How could the bringer know how many people were invited, let alone how many would turn up? – Robbie Goodwin Jul 18 at 0:57
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    Consider buying many small pieces, so many people can have a piece. (E.g. for cupcakes/muffins, I had good experience with the small ones (maybe 2-3 cm in diameter).) – Paŭlo Ebermann Jul 18 at 19:50
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    Note that answers may depend on whether the food item is something with pre-determined servings. A sheet cake can be cut into whatever size folks want, and will therefore stretch based on demand. If you bring a dozen giant muffins, it's quite likely that folks will just take a muffin, eat half of it, and you'll run short. I assume that's precisely why the little mini-cupcakes were invented; to provide finer granularity over portion size. – A C Jul 19 at 14:41
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    The amount of food you bring should be (size of your party) * 1.x, meaning enough to feed the group you come with, and 1 or more people. If everyone does that, there will be sufficient. Not everyone will get to eat/try everything, but everyone will get to eat. – Andrew Lewis Jul 19 at 19:18
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In general, if everyone brought a dish large enough to serve everyone, there would be far too much food. Suppose you expect 20 people and there are 4 "slots" to make a meal, consisting of an appetizer, an entrée, a side, and a dessert. If each person brings a dish for 20 people, everyone could be served with only 4 people bringing a dish. If all 20 people bring a dish each for 20 people, you'll have enough food to serve 100 people, not 20! No one wants to see 80% of the food at their event go uneaten, so everyone bringing a dish big enough for everyone is not ideal.

With this in mind, it's usually acceptable to make a dish that won't serve absolutely everyone, so long as there are other options in the same category. You wouldn't want to be in charge of the sole entrée item and arrive without enough to feed everyone, for example. If you're bringing one of many desserts, on the other hand, you should be OK bringing just one reasonably sized cake or batch of cookies, even if not everyone will get a piece.

I've personally had luck with this approach at a large work event of perhaps 75 people. It would have been unreasonable for everyone to make a dish to serve 75, so I made a dish that could serve perhaps a couple of dozen people, and it seemed many people did the same. There was still lots of leftover food overall, and although some of the most popular dishes were finished, it would have been very hard to predict which ones those would be in advance.

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    Nice answer. I've also been to potlucks where there's a signup list, with ratios along these lines for about 20 people: 3-4 on drinks, 3-4 on desserts, 4-5 on mains, 3-4 on snacks, the rest left open to politely allow some room for people who can't bring much. Sometimes mains were split into meat, veggie, pasta dishes and so forth. Each person then brings enough for about 20 ÷ 3, 4, 5, or however many are signed up in their category, plus a little extra just in case, of course. – Euchris Jul 17 at 13:54
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    Don't forget disposable utensils/plates, other table items, as well as helping set up and tear down as categories on the sign up list. In the before times we had a very large annual work potluck and the organizers used that to slightly reduce the quantity of food. Not enough, as there were always a ton of leftovers, but a bit. – user3067860 Jul 19 at 1:06
  • There is a small problem with the reasoning. Usually, in a potluck, you expect to eat a little bit of everything, not a normal portion. – Taladris Jul 19 at 2:40
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    @Taladris: For small groups people try to eat a bit of everything. For large groups that is impossible, but they still take very small servings to try to sample many items. I find people eat about 50% more than usual in the effort, so people will eat 6 normal servings. If you bring 8 normal servings there is some margin. I have found that works well. – Ross Millikan Jul 19 at 3:58
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    Spot on @RossMillikan - which would lead me to the conclusion that the OP should bring enough that a decent fraction of attendees could sample their contribution. Something that can be sliced or made smaller than normal can be very welcome to allow broader sampling. – Chris H Jul 19 at 9:02
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The basic principle is that total food brought equals (or slightly exceeds, to be safe) total food consumed. Thus, each person who will be eating a meal should bring at least one whole meal's "worth" of food, in terms of quantity, notwithstanding that the specific food by itself may not make a healthy or appetizing meal.

You can think about this in a couple of ways: enough of your food to fill a plate or two (since most people eat a plate or two of combined foods), or about 1000 calories of your food (since most people eat about that much for a hearty meal). The host/organizer is responsible for providing guidance to guests on what to bring, if it is considered important to have a balance between different types of food.

It is normal that your food will run out before everyone can try it -- especially in large potlucks, and especially if your food comes in a few large portions that each constitute a large fraction of a meal. If you want everyone to try your dish at a large gathering, consider pre-cutting into smaller portions as a hint, or making your dish some kind of sauce or topping where "a little goes a long way".

A source (from Canada, but very similar to US culture) says:

The standard rule is to bring enough to feed the people in your own group, plus a little extra...

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  • Hey nanoman! Welcome to IPS. I wanted to bring our citation expectations to your attention, and I'm wondering if this answer is based on your personal experience with US potlucks? If this is based on your experience, could you edit this to include that explicitly (instead of implicitly), like how much do you bring and how does that turn out? In the case of etiquette questions, it's also acceptable to instead link to some kind of etiquette guide instead of explicitly including your experience, but please include some backup! – Tinkeringbell Jul 17 at 9:04
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    @Tinkeringbell Thanks, I added a source, but I think this is actually the kind of question that can be answered with common-sense a priori reasoning. Total amount of food (whether by weight, volume, or calories) is additive and conserved when people mix different dishes to form their meals. So the guideline has to be something like this, in order for everyone to have enough, but avoid massive waste. – nanoman Jul 17 at 9:14
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    Thank you for the edit. As for the common sense: It's just fairer for this site to request sources/experience for all answers equally: Otherwise, you get whole discussions about what is/isn't common sense... and common sense isn't nearly as common as people like to believe: what may be common sense to me may not be to others due to differences in our cultures, the way we were raised or the experiences we had. IIRC, there's a culture where you're expected to leave some food, otherwise your host will think you didn't have enough. Bringing just enough to a potluck there might be rude! – Tinkeringbell Jul 17 at 9:30
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It depends, so you should ask the host (or even the group at large).

There are several factors which could determine the answer:

  • How perishable is the food?
  • If there's leftover food, can/will the host keep it?
  • If there's leftover food, can/will you bring it back with you?
  • If there's leftover food from someone else, can/will you bring it back with you?
  • How many people are coming?
  • What are other people bringing?
    • Do you eat what are other people bringing?
  • Is the event primarily a potluck, or a non-eating event that happens to include potluck (so people may be busy and eat less)?
  • Are there dietary restrictions?
  • Are you bringing an easily-divisible food like vegetables, or one where you need to take either nothing or a lot, like big cupcakes? (Taking one cupcake for everyone might be a bit much. Taking enough food so that everyone can get a little of it might not be).
  • Are you bringing something 'unusual', or something you know everyone likes?
  • How expensive is the food?
  • How time-consuming is it to prepare the food?
    • Does it change with amount?
  • How much time/money are you willing to devote?
  • etc.

There are far too many things in play. Hence... just ask. "Hey, I plan to bring ___. Not sure how much I should bring. What do you think?" Possibly including some of the above. e.g. "If I bring too much, do you want it for your freezer? Or should I aim to not have leftovers?"

Personal experience: I generally bring enough so that I can have an entire meal if no one brings anything I eat, plus enough for everyone else to try some. And I always ensure I can take it back home when I'm done (e.g. there's a fridge I can keep it after eating so it's not left sitting out).

Whenever there's something uncertain (e.g. 'does everyone eat pork?' 'is there a fridge?' 'Will you want the leftovers (so I know to bring it in a disposable container)?'), I simply ask.

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  • "I generally bring enough so that I can have an entire meal if no one brings anything I eat" -- so you never bring, say, just a dessert or just a dip (something that would be unhealthy to eat your entire meal of)? – nanoman Jul 17 at 8:59
  • @nanoman I personally never have, no. But I'm also a picky eater so 'what if no one else brings anything I can eat' is more likely to be a concern for me than others. Which just leads back to my point of 'situations are always different, so it's best to just ask.' – Sarov Jul 18 at 2:19
  • @nanoman I do. And I seriously wouldn't mind dining out of a dessert once, but I never had to, cause even if some people in such events are clearly abusing the system, I never met an occurrence where nobody but me brought anything... – Laurent S. Jul 19 at 21:04
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Growing up in the Midwest, potluck dinners were a mainstay of my existence. They occurred after Lenten worship, Advent worship, and many Sunday festivals.

You aren't expected to feed everyone. That's just silly. Basically the expectation, at least where I grew up, was that you brought enough to feed your party and one or two more people. Some dishes go well, some don't - that's life.

No one will think less of you for not bringing enough. That's a much better thing than bringing nothing at all - that's just seen as being rude.

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    "You aren't expected to feed everyone. That's just silly." I don't think OP meant enough to feed everyone their entire meal -- but rather, enough for everyone to have a serving of that food as part of their meal. – nanoman Jul 17 at 7:47
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    @nanoman You're right about what I was thinking. – VKV Jul 18 at 19:22
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    If you have 20 guests, and everyone brings enough for one serving for everyone, then the party ends up with 20 servings for everyone! – gnasher729 Jul 19 at 19:08
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If you come on your own, bring a bit more than is needed to feed one average person (may be 50 percent more). If everyone does that than the party has a bit more food than the whole group eats, which is Ok because not everyone likes the same food and some things will be left over.

If the host warns you that some people tend to bring rubbish food (either very little or tasteless food that nobody wants to eat), then bring a bit more to compensate, if that's Ok with you and you can easily afford it.

Try to bring food that people can take a very small amount of, so they have a chance to try lots of different foods. And be prepared to take some food home, either your own or someone else. Perfect if none of your food is left :-) In case you go to a bakery, you could bring 20 tiny items if it is about 50% more than one person could eat if they had nothing else, in terms of mass.

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  • Hey gnasher. I'd like to again remind you of this site's citation expectations and ask you to clarify whether this answer is based on your personal experience with US potlucks? If so, please edit this to include that explicitly (instead of implicitly), like how much do you bring and how does that turn out? In the case of etiquette questions, it's also acceptable to instead link to some kind of etiquette guide instead of explicitly including your experience, but please include some backup! – Tinkeringbell Jul 21 at 9:38

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