Picnic and Potluck Smarter With Tips from a Pro

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Kristin Donnelly

Modern Potluck cookbook author Kristin Donnelly.


Picnic season is here, and thank goodness. We’re all ready for charcuterie and lemonade in a park in the sunshine. Kristin Donnelly, author of the cookbook Modern Potluck, knows a good bit about how to organize, prepare, and cook for a picnic. From her deviled-egg strategy to her advance-planning tips, she’s got lots to share.


Here, Kristin helps you figure out how to make sure your picnic or potluck is all that and a bag of chips—and that everyone doesn’t show up holding a bag of chips.

How do you handle picnic and potluck planning?



For fewer than 10 dishes, do it all over email, to be honest. Have everyone chime in, a “reply-all” type deal. If it’s a larger potluck or picnic, a google spreadsheet works really well. Other people can see and work around [what’s on there]. If you want to be controlling as a host, you can see if there are duplicates… and reach out. Some people have created apps and everything; those make it more complicated in the end.

What to do about booze, which can be the most expensive piece?

A lot of times if I’m hosting at home I provide water, a couple of large bottles of wine, and some kind of main dish. If you’re all going to a park, I’d say—if it’s a large enough group, somebody brings drinks. If it’s one of those “everybody’s gonna drink wine,” have a couple people bring drinks. A spreadsheet will help accommodate this.


Any tips in terms of equipment and silverware?



With a large enough group, have categories [on your spreadsheet] for plates. My daughter’s preschool does this, and people sign up for plates and napkins. Also, servingware and serving spoons, don’t forget them. If you’re the host or organizer, make sure you have extra. If you’re bringing a dish, I think it’s good to bring a serving spoon with it.


Anything worth investing in for transporting everything?

picnic basket

The Williams-Sonoma picnic basket


Big coolers are great, but soft coolers with a strap that you can carry if you’re a frequent potlucker—that keep something cold when you transport it—are great.


On to the food. Should people avoid dressing salad early so it doesn’t wilt?

bean salad


You could also just choose a salad that you can dress in advance—something sturdy with beans or greens with sturdy leaves like cabbage.


Have any tips for what people should bring, generally speaking?


I think it’s nice when people can bring things that can hang out at room temperature so you don’t have to worry about keeping things cold. If it’s a really hot day—say a 90-degree day— you have to think about food safety in a different way. (The USDA has stringent guidelines on “the danger zone.” Read them! –Editor) Starchy salads and cooked meats can only hang out for about an hour. People could broaden their idea of things that are good at room temperature. Yes, salads, but grilled meats are also good at room temperature, like thinly-sliced steak. Cooked salmon is good chilled: by the time you bring it to a picnic, it’s lost that frigid chill from the refrigerator and is just slightly chilled.


What about that classic, the deviled egg?

deviled eggs

In my book I talk about the three ways you can transport them. Two are just putting them in some kind of container like a muffin tin or a deviled egg carrier that holds them in place. I do think the best way is to bring the whites and filling separately pipe them right there at the party. (Then you don’t get that skin on the filling that dries out.) If you don’t fill them in advance you can stack all the whites in a container. Put filing in re-sealable plastic bag. Snip the tip and arrange eggs on a platter. It’s fussier but also nicer.


People must love that!

It’s a cool party trick.


What about sweets?

slab pie

If you’re going to a park where it’s bare-bones and you’re bringing everything in, it’s nice if—especially for dessert—you can eat with your hands and a napkin. I like bringing things that can be cut into squares rather than messy slices. Slab pie over round pie. Similar with cake. It feels easier to hold a square.


Like lemon bars?

lemon bars


Yes. Consider finger food for snacking and [square] desserts for bare-bones picnics. You don’t need tons of utensils and plates. Once you do salads, those are hard to avoid.


Any common no-nos you see?


Sometimes I feel like when people don’t like to cook they overcompensate by buying tons of stuff. Like two bags of chips and two dips or three things of supermarket cookies and pies from Costco. I’m always of the “just bring one nice dish” philosophy, whether you make it or buy it.


You also wrote a cookbook on cauliflower. Any good picnic dishes in that?


Yes! There’s an antipasto cauliflower salad (with mozzarella, red wine vinegar, artichokes and salami) and a Sicilian cauliflower salad (with currants and pistachios). Both would hold up.


What to do with leftovers?

If you’re hosting at your house or you’re the organizer of a picnic, it’s nice to bring takeout containers or Tupperware for leftovers, so people can have the option of making up a little plate for themselves the next day. If you are at a house, it’s nice if possible to not leave your dish there for the host to clean and deal with. I feel like it’s years before you get it back. If you know you’re leaving early, bring something you don’t need back at all, ever.

2 comments about “Picnic and Potluck Smarter With Tips from a Pro

  1. Picnic and Potluck Smarter With Tips from a Pro - Recipes

  2. Barrie Anne

    Nice ideas! However, I live in a large, picky, Southern family. 5 are Vegan, some don’t eat onions, celery, mayo, and various other foods. 8-9 are Diabetic and have to be careful of carbs, sugar,bread, potatoes,etc. I try to make something Diabetics can eat, a dessert, and a salad!! Thanks for tips and recipes!!


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