12/16/2013 12:00 EST | Updated 02/15/2014 05:59 EST

Never expect host will have room in oven or fridge and other potluck tips

TORONTO - Though the definition of a true potluck is that one must take a chance that whatever food is available will be acceptable — four dishes of scalloped potatoes and two Mexican layered dip platters, anyone? — most hosts and guests prefer a more balanced menu, combining savoury and sweet.

"I think if the hostess takes the reins, then it's going to be very successful thing because you're going to have all the bases covered and not have an excess in one area or another," says Jane Rodmell, cookbook author and owner of All the Best Fine Foods in Toronto, which offers a range of prepared and catered specialty foods.

"I think it's a good idea for the host or hostess to be proactive. Say, 'Love you to come over. I'm going to be doing the main course — the roast of beef or whatever it is and we're going to have it sliced cold, and all the condiments — and how about you bring ...'" Then make a suggestion or ask the guest's preference.

A collaborative dinner is a great way to entertain a large group over the holidays with less stress on the host.

"When you're doing a potluck it's to help out the host or hostess and you shouldn't cause any grief," cookbook author Rose Murray said in an interview from Cambridge, Ont.

"For instance, you should always take stuff that's sturdy and will hold. I'm thinking of things like wild rice salad instead of a green salad, dishes that will be fine served at room temperature rather than having to use the oven," she suggests.

"If you have one oven and four people bring something that needs different temperatures all at once this is kind of hard on the hostess."

Rodmell agrees. "I think you kind of really get the hostess in a flap if what you bring needs a lot of preparation," she says.

"I think it is very much appreciated by the hostess if you have consideration for the fact that the kitchen is likely to be crowded and not much room anywhere, in the fridge or in the oven.

"If it's anything like my house, I have a small kitchen and a regular-sized fridge and regular stove and everything gets very burdened very quickly so if you come with something that is to be served cool in a cooler bag it is going to be in a healthy atmosphere until it's on the table and consumed without worrying the hostess."

Bring a hot item fully cooked so that it just needs a short blast in the oven or a quick reheat in the microwave. Nearby neighbours can transport a dish hot in an insulated bag. Or choose a dish you can cook at home and serve at room temperature.

If the food is in a pot or bakeware that's designed to be used in the oven and on the stovetop, then it can be reheated on a burner. A slow cooker full of baked beans can be toted to the party and plugged in to keep the contents hot until dinner is served.

It's usually easiest if the host prepares the main dish. Coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, lasagna or a tajine are easy to eat with a fork and are good choices if people will be balancing plates on laps. For a New Year's Day open house, a ham with condiments and selection of rolls allows guests to build their own gourmet sandwiches.

Advise the host on the number of servings your contribution will provide, such as a green salad or pecan tart to serve eight. The host needs to have an idea of the volume of food to know whether to supplement it or ask another guest to bring something else to round out the meal.

"I think a hostess always appreciates hors d'oeuvres or appetizer-type things as long as you arrive in time," says Rodmell. "That's a fairly time-consuming thing to make, so if a guest offers that will save time for the host.

Take the food in whatever it's going to be served in, says Murray, who has 12 cookbooks to her credit, including the award-winning "Canada's Favourite Recipes" (Whitecap Books, 2012), co-authored with Elizabeth Baird.

She has downsized and while she still has lots of salad bowls, for example, they may not be as accessible as they were in her house. "At the last minute you don't want to be taking apart a cupboard to get a bowl."

Include serving utensils in case the host doesn't have enough and identify them with a label or a dot of nail polish on the back so you can track them down before departing.

Consider appearance. Take small containers of chopped and washed parsley or other herbs, chopped nuts, roasted pine nuts or chopped roasted red peppers. Garnish at the last minute so they keep their colour, texture and flavour.

Hosts should check whether there are any vegetarians or guests with food allergies or other dietary requirements and inform those preparing dishes.

If children will be attending, ask parents to bring something the kids will like to eat. Vegetable crudites and dip or guacamole with corn chips are popular choices.

For those who don't like working in the kitchen, suggest they contribute beer, wine, juice or sparkling water.

"I usually ask my daughters-in-law to bring what the children like to drink because we don't have things like pop and stuff around home," Rodmell says. "If they want ginger ale and things they will bring along that too. And it's always appreciated because it's heavy to carry."

Murray says she and her friends tend to hold more potluck gatherings as they grow older because it means less work for one individual.

"I like real potlucks, but not everybody is willing to risk having four dishes of potatoes and no meat," says Murray.

"I think it's kind of fun once in a while to do that. It won't kill you for one day to eat four desserts."