Potluck dishes can get a bad rap: the food options can feel a little underwhelming and, well, dated. If you've ever been to a church picnic, for instance, you know there's always that one ancient slow cooker full of questionable beef dip that not a single person is adding to their plate. That's because technically anything can be a potluck or picnic food-but some things shouldn't be.
Thankfully, a new generation of potluck fare is fresh, flavorful, healthy, and easy-to-transport. It's also simple to portion in advance so no one has a lingering worry about who-scooped-what-when.
Safety is paramount for al fresco events-especially these days-so no matter how room temperature-ready your perishable dishes might be, always ensure they stay out no longer than two hours at a time. Keep away from what the USDA calls the "danger zone" for potluck foods: cold foods should be kept under 40°F (while transporting and setting up) and hot foods should be separated and kept above 140°F while transporting, setting up, and storing. Consider investing in not just an insulated cooler or picnic bag, but portable cooler mats that help dishes maintain just the right temperature. Also, don't try to be a hero and bring something gorgeous, but melt-prone: no one will enjoy your expertly frosted buttercream creation if it's gone molten all over the table. Try something light like this ambrosia salad instead.
The recipes below are leagues beyond potluck go-to's like turkey wraps and tiny meatballs but still take less than an hour (most under 30 minutes!) to come together. You can make several of them a day or two in advance and store them on the counter or in the fridge.
To Start: Beer Cheese with Pretzels and Crudite
I'm from a region of Kentucky where people deeply appreciate a good dip or spread at a potluck. Think: dill-forward Benedictine finger sandwiches; pimento cheese on crackers; beer cheese with pretzels. Served room temperature with homemade pretzels (if you're feeling fancy), beer cheese is consistently a home run. It's a smooth, rich dip that any cheese-lover will appreciate for the hint of hoppiness that lends it an extra tang. Here's a recipe I've used for years that works best if made the day before, to allow flavors to marry in the fridge.
For Constant Snacking: Tinned Fish Bar
Tinned fish--whether Spanish sardines or spicy olive oil-packed tuna--is having a moment right now (for deliciously obvious reasons). Already cured, room temperature-ready, and infinitely portable, a tinned fish spread just looks gorgeous. At family picnics lately, I've been setting it out with different types of toasted crostini (marbled rye, sourdough, challah), different condiments (tarragon mustard is my go-to), and five to six tinned fish options that let everyone build their own briny creation. It's the ultimate last-minute, affordable, put-together picnic plan. Start your tinned fish hunt right this way.
Meaty Main: Empanadas
Single-serving and infinitely adaptable when it comes to fillings, empanadas can shape-shift into an easy, hearty main course for any potluck. (Eat them one-handed with one hand while mixing and mingling!) You could go with traditional beef and cheese, sure, but why not add in some olives and feta, or even buffalo chicken? Breakfast empanadas work if you're hosting a sunrise picnic, and by using store-bought dough, the cooking time is as simple as filling the half-moon shaped pastries, popping them in the oven according to instructions, and packing them up in your favorite insulated picnic basket. Homemade dough can also easily be made ahead of time and frozen. A favorite empanada filling of mine employs venison!
Veggie Main: Spicy Garlic Noodles with Tofu and Cucumber Salad
Pasta salad is classic potluck fare for good reason, but I don't want to worry about the potential risks of a mayonnaise-heavy dish...even when dining indoors. There are, however, few things more refreshing on a blisteringly hot day than a vegetarian cold noodle salad--particularly one laden with cucumbers, heavy on the garlic and ginger, that eschews any thick, creamy ingredients.
Side Dish: Cherry Tomato Panzanella
Every summer when my garden starts to overflow, I whip up a panzanella salad made with halved cherry tomatoes, a chiffonade of basil, rough-chopped cucumbers, hand-torn croutons, a sprinkling of capers, and a quick vinaigrette (minced garlic, vinegar, stone-ground mustard). It's big enough to last as lunch for the week. This throw-it-together dish is also ideal as a make-ahead potluck side item, working beautifully to help clear out your produce bin--sliced pepper! left-over corn!--while simultaneously impressing friends and family with its bursts of color.
Dessert: Millionaire's Shortbread
Millionaire's shortbread was given its high-roller name for a reason: It's an ultra-rich combination of chocolate, caramel and shortbread layers that form a decadent bar cookie practically made for easy transport, slicing, and serving. It's also so simple--coming together in less than an hour, plus waiting time for it to set up--that I've sometimes joked that it should be called "get rich quick" shortbread. Here's a great recipe for first-timers that utilizes store-bought shortbread.
To Sip: Nashville-Style Fruit Tea
For a refreshing, under-the-radar picnic sipper that doesn't overpower with sugar, a pitcher of Nashville-style fruit tea is my drink of choice. Combining cooled black tea, pineapple juice concentrate, orange juice concentrate, and maybe a little lemonade, it can be made up to five days in advance so that you'll be ready to go come potluck day. Garnish with fresh mint and, of course, plenty of ice. As do all of these recipes, it sings of summer.