Skip to main content

Potlucks and Cookouts: 20 Crowd-Pleasing Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

potlucks-and-cookouts-twenty-crowd-pleasing-recipes

The only really good foods are those cooked in the sauce of love.

— Eric Dierker (Yes, THAT Eric Dierker)

Why Is It Called "Potluck"?

The word potluck first appeared in print in two 16th-century works(a) by Thomas Nashe, a contemporary of William Shakespeare. “Potluck” originated from the custom of keeping leftovers. Rather than toss out the odd bits of meat and vegetables at the end of the day, inns and taverns would place them into a pot to be kept warm for drop-in guests. Those who arrived late received the “luck of the pot.”

Initially, the potluck was mere happenstance but by the 19th century, it had become known as a communal meal in which all participants contributed to the feast.

(a)Strange News (1592), and the play Summer’s Last Will and Testament (performed in 1592 but not published until 1600).

Why Do We Love Potlucks?

Potlucks are no longer "making do" with what is on hand.

Simply put, they are heaven on Earth for those who love to eat, and they are salvation for those who do the cooking.

As the host of a potluck, you need not worry about the expense of purchasing all of the food for a crowd, or the labor involved in preparing the food.

Potlucks make entertaining calm, casual, and carefree.

A potluck party can be as small as two or three couples sharing a meal, or as large as the guest list for a multi-generational party, a club membership, a church gathering, or an entire suburban neighborhood.

How to Plan a Potluck

  1. Determine how many people will be invited.
  2. Plan the type of meal and how cooking assignments will be made. Here are some suggestions.
  • Assign foods by menu category (appetizer, salad, main dish, side dish, dessert).
  • Assign specific foods to be prepared (you can even provide the recipes).
  • As the host, you might prepare the main course and ask guests to provide salads and/or desserts.

Potluck Food Safety Tips

  • Proper temperature. Ensure that hot foods are fully heated before packing them for transport. Likewise, insure that cold foods are completely chilled before placing them in a cooler. Do not rely on your ice chest to chill your food to the proper (safe) temperature). I use an insulated casserole tote to keep my "hots" steamy and my "colds" chilly.
  • Don't co-mingle. Do not pack "hot" and "cold" food items together.
  • Perishable food. There are some foods that are high on the list for risk of spoilage—meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and dairy products. Be especially careful with these foods. It is best to not bring these to the potluck if you are traveling a long distance.

Recipes In This Article

Appetizers

  • Slow-cooker barbecued meatballs
  • Mini corn dog muffins
  • Chicken enchilada roll ups
  • Easy pesto tortellini skewers
  • Ultimate 7-layer dip

Salads

  • Chicken macaroni salad
  • Chinese salad
  • Broccoli salad
  • Three-bean salad
  • Basic potato salad

Main Dishes

  • Chicken noodle bake
  • Hot dogs for a crowd (slow cooker)
  • Carb Diva "un-meaty" vegetarian chili
  • Macaroni and cheese with cauliflower and tomatoes
  • Carb Diva's chili macaroni casserole

Desserts

  • Carmelitas for a crowd
  • Apple cinnamon cake with apple cider glaze
  • Polka dot fudge bars
  • "When Harry Met Sally" chocolate cake
  • The perfect carrot cake (Carb Diva style)

Appetizers

Slow-cooker barbecued meatballs

Slow-cooker barbecued meatballs

1. Slow Cooker Barbecued Meatballs

This recipe has been around for as long as there have been slow cookers (crock pots). And now that precooked meatballs are available in the frozen-foods section at your grocery store there is no excuse to not make these even—only three ingredients. It doesn't get any easier than that.

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces chili sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups grape jelly
  • 2 pounds frozen meatballs

Instructions

Add the chili sauce and grape jelly to a slow cooker. Stir to combine. Add the meatballs and stir to coat. Cover and cook on low for 4 hours.

Mini corn dog muffins

Mini corn dog muffins

2. Mini Corn Dog Muffins

If you love the taste of corn dogs, you are going to love this easy recipe for mini corn dog muffins; they're a crowd pleaser, especially with kids.

Chicken enchilada roll-ups

Chicken enchilada roll-ups

3. Chicken Enchilada Roll-Ups

These chicken enchilada roll-ups from TheGirlWhoAteEverything.com are a great appetizer, easy to make ahead, and easy to serve.

Pesto tortellini skewers

Pesto tortellini skewers

4. Pesto Tortellini Skewers

I found this pesto tortellini skewers at FoodySchmoodyBlog.com. Funny name for a great blog. These skewers can be served at room temperature or chilled, making them the perfect choice for potlucks, barbecue's, and brunches.

Ultimate 7-layer dip

Ultimate 7-layer dip

5. Ultimate Seven-Layer Dip

KraftRecipes.com has a great selection of recipes that are easy to prepare and economical like this ultimate seven-layer dip.

Salads

Chicken macaroni salad

Chicken macaroni salad

6. Chicken Macaroni Salad

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces salad macaroni, cooked according to package directions, drained and rinsed
  • 2 cups diced cooked chicken
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup baby spinach leaves
  • 2 tablespoons finely minced red onion
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 cup chopped black olives (optional)
  • 1/2 cup low-fat or non-fat mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Combine the first 8 ingredients (chicken through olives) in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Whisk together mayonnaise, mustard, salt, and pepper in a small bowl.
  3. Pour dressing over chicken mixture; toss gently to coat. Chill well before serving.

7. Chinese Salad

Several years ago we hosted a family Easter Brunch. My niece Leslie brought this dish to share, and gave me the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1 flavor packet from a package of Ramen noodles
  • 1 head of cabbage, shredded
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 2 packages of Ramen noodles, crumbled

Instructions

  1. Mix together oil, sesame seeds, and almonds. Sauté over low heat in a small skillet until lightly browned. Watch carefully so that it does not burn. Set aside to cool.
  2. Once the sesame/almond mixture is cool, stir in sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar, and contents of one Ramen seasoning packet. (Discard the 2nd seasoning packet).
  3. Place cabbage and onions in a large mixing bowl; pour almond/vinegar dressing over and toss to coat.
  4. Just before serving add crumbled Ramen noodles. Stir again and serve.


NOTE: There are several ways to adapt this recipe:

  • Cooked diced chicken or cooked shrimp may be added to the salad.
  • Grated carrots can be added to the cabbage/onion mix
  • One bag of pre-shredded cabbage/broccoli/carrots/red cabbage can be used in place of the head of cabbage

8. Broccoli Salad

One would think that a salad named for a green vegetable would be healthy, but most broccoli salads are undercover fat bombs loaded with mayonnaise, Cheddar cheese, and bacon. This slimmed-down version is adapted from a recipe that appeared in Cooking Light magazine in June 2002.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups small broccoli florets (about 1 1/2 pounds)
  • 1 cup seedless green grapes, halved
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup lightly salted cashew nuts, broken
  • 1/3 cup light mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup plain fat-free Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar

Instructions

  1. Combine the first 6 ingredients (broccoli through cashews) in a large bowl.
  2. Combine mayonnaise, yogurt, sugar, and vinegar in small mixing bowl; whisk to blend. Pour dressing over broccoli mixture, and toss well. Chill for 1 hour.


9. Three-Bean Salad

I have seen many versions of this salad; this one is from my mother-in-law's recipe box:

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 can (16 ounces) of red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can (16 ounces) of yellow wax beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can cut green beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 red pepper, seeds removed and cut into 1/4-inch wide strips
  • 1/2 cup minced red onion

Instructions

  1. In a small bowl whisk together vinegar and mustard until well blended. Beat in oil.
  2. Place the remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Pour dressing over; gently toss to coat. Cover and chill for 1 hour.


Basic potato salad

Basic potato salad

10. Basic Potato Salad

This recipe is adapted from the “Classic Potato Salad” by Betty Crocker. I have included the sour cream, dill pickles, and minced radishes that my mom always used in her potato salad.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 medium stalk celery, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely minced (about ½ cup)
  • 1/4 cup finely diced dill pickle
  • 2 tablespoons finely minced red radish
  • 4 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped

Instructions

  1. Cook potatoes according to the directions given above.
  2. Combine mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add potatoes, celery, onion, pickles, and radish. Toss to combine and coat evenly with the mayonnaise mixture. Stir in eggs and toss gently. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours for flavors to blend.

Main Dishes

Chicken noodle bake

Chicken noodle bake

11. Chicken Noodle Bake

Ingredients

  • 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup light cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup nonfat sour cream
  • 1/2 cup nonfat mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 2 T margarine
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup skim milk
  • 1 10-oz can chicken broth
  • 1/2 tsp. ground sage seasoning
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 6 cooked lasagne noodles
  • 3 cups diced cooked chicken breast or leftover rotisserie chicken
  • 1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Place the first four ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until smooth. Add onion, bell pepper, and 1/4 cup of the parsley. Pulse until combined. Do not over-process (you want to have chunks of vegetables—not a puree). See aside.
  3. Melt margarine in a medium saucepan. Add flour and cook for 1 minute; stir in milk and broth and whisk until well blended and thickened. Stir in ground sage, salt, and pepper. Remove from heat; set aside.
  4. Coat a 13x9-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Place 3 of the cooked lasagna noodles in the bottom of the dish. Top with half of the cottage cheese mixture, half of the chicken, and then half of the sauce.
  5. Repeat layering with 3 more cooked lasagna noodles, and then the remaining cottage cheese mixture, chicken, and sauce.
  6. Combine bread crumbs and parsley. Sprinkle over casserole. Bake uncovered in preheated oven for 30 minutes.

12. Hot Dogs for a Crowd

Stephanie O'Dea is a New York Times best-selling author, creator of the blog AYearofSlowCooking.com, and the genius behind the concept of cooking hot dogs for a crowd.

potlucks-and-cookouts-twenty-crowd-pleasing-recipes

13. Carb Diva's "Un-Meaty" Vegetarian Chili

I created this recipe for Vegetarian Chili for my daughter who, almost 20 years ago decided to remove all meats from her diet. Instead of relying on commercially-made veggie crumbles (faux ground beef) I use finely diced mushrooms for their meaty texture and umami flavor.

14. Macaroni and Cheese With Cauliflower and Tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 1 large head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds), broken into small florets
  • 1 15-ounce can stewed tomatoes, drained
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 2 cups shredded medium Cheddar cheese, divided
  • 1 cup shredded gouda cheese or smoked gouda cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup fat-free sour cream
  • 12 ounces dry penne pasta

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Cook cauliflower in a large pot of salted water until tender (about 10 minutes). Drain and set aside.
  3. Over medium heat in a large open pan saute cooked cauliflower in 2 tablespoons olive oil until it begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add drained stewed tomatoes and continue to cook for 1 to 2 minutes to meld flavors. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Melt 2 tablespoons butter or margarine in a saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and stir for one minute. Whisk in cream; cook until sauce thickens. Add 1 cup cheddar cheese, the gouda, parmesan, and mustard, and continue to cook until all cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Whisk in sour cream and remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  5. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain, and return pasta to pot. Stir in cheese sauce.
  6. Butter a large casserole dish and spoon in 1/3 of the pasta mixture. Cover with one-half of the cauliflower mixture and 1/2 cup of reserved cheddar cheese. Repeat layering, finishing with 1/3 of the pasta mixture.
  7. Bake uncovered in the preheated oven until heated through and bubbling, about 30 minutes.
Chili macaroni casserole

Chili macaroni casserole

15. Chili Macaroni Casserole

This recipe for chili macaroni casserole is embarrassingly easy. Should I even call it a recipe? I just know that it can be easily doubled (or tripled) for a crowd, and grownup and kids love it.

Desserts

Carmelitas for a crowd

Carmelitas for a crowd

16. Carmelitas for a Crowd

PinkPiccadillyPastries.com is a fun blog full of inspiration for your next tea party. And that is where I found this crowd-sized recipe for carmelitas.

17. Apple Cinnamon Cake with Apple Cider Glaze

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar (divided)
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 teaspoons cinnamon (divided)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 pound Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and diced
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons apple cider

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 325° F.
  2. Butter and flour in a 9-inch square baking pan and set aside.
  3. Mix flour, 1 cup brown sugar, granulated sugar, 2 1/2 teaspoons of the cinnamon, salt, and ginger in a large mixing bowl. Add the oil and stir until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Transfer 3/4 cup of the mixture to a small bowl. Stir the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon into this reserved mixture and set aside. This will be the topping on the cake.
  4. Mix baking soda and baking powder into the remaining flour mixture. Add the apples. Whisk together the buttermilk and egg in another bowl. Add the buttermilk/egg mixture to the apple mixture and stir just until combined.
  5. Pour batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle reserved topping evenly over the batter.
  6. Bake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool slightly.
  7. To make the icing whisk together the powdered sugar and apple cider and drizzle over the cake.

18. Polka Dot Fudge Bars

Ingredients for dough

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups oats (not quick-cooking or instant)

Ingredients for filling

  • One 12-ounce package chocolate chips
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. In a mixing bowl cream together butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, and mix until well blended. Stir in vanilla.
  3. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. Stir into butter/sugar mixture.
  4. Stir oats into the mixture.
  5. Spread 2/3 of the dough into a greased 15x10-inch pan.
  6. To prepare the filling place chocolate chips, milk, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan. Simmer, stirring constantly, over low heat until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Stir in walnuts and vanilla.
  7. Spread chocolate mixture over dough in pan. Dot with remaining dough.
  8. Bake for 25-30 minutes.
When Harry met Sally cake

When Harry met Sally cake

19. "When Harry Met Sally" Chocolate Cake

This recipe has many iterations; some add bananas (yuck), some use maraschino cherries. But this cake, with gobs of chocolate, coffee, ice cream syrup, and whipped topping is (in my humble opinion), the best, the ultimate. And if you have ever seen the movie "When Harry Met Sally" you will know exactly what I'm talking about.

The perfect carrot cake

The perfect carrot cake

20. The Perfect Carrot Cake (Carb Diva Style)

My favorite cake, my all-time must-have cake, the one I dream of, the one I request for my birthday is this sublime carrot cake. Honestly, if you love the people you with whom you are sharing a barbecue, picnic, or potluck, you need to make this cake for them!

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups shredded carrots, raw
  • 1 cup flaked coconut
  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Grease and flour a 9x13-inch cake pan.
  3. Sift together the first 6 ingredients (flour through nutmeg) and set aside. Place the sugar, oil, applesauce, eggs, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Mix together with a spoon.
  4. Add the dry (flour) mixture, and then stir in the carrots, coconut, walnuts, and pineapple.
  5. Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Cool and frost with your favorite cream cheese frosting.

What makes this recipe work?

  • The addition of applesauce serves two purposes--first, it substitutes for some of the cooking oil. And the acid of the apples reacts with the baking soda to provide more lift (leavening) to this dense cake batter.
  • Flaked coconut and pineapple provide some natural sweetness.
  • Chopped walnuts contribute texture and a satisfying crunch.

© 2016 Linda Lum