What’s not to love about a potluck? You make food, other people make food, you bring that food together and then you eat! Potlucks are a bedrock of frugal living, of community-centered living, of family-oriented living, of social living, and of living for people who like to eat. How could something so inherently frugal–so inherently about food–not be talked about on Frugalwoods until now? We cite the oversight and seek to remedy.
To all you Frugalites out there, keeping the frugal real while detoxing from the overconsumption and commercialism of the holidays and trying to forget about your uncle asking you for the fourth time at Christmas dinner why you drive a car that’s ten years old, know that you are not alone.
Kick back on your Craigslist couch (yes, I know you washed the removable cushion covers before you brought it home), cozy up with that afghan you knitted (no one notices the dropped stitches, I promise), put your feet up on the coffee table your friend handed down when they moved to California, pour some boxed Malbec into the wine glass you found for free on the side of the road, and scroll on down. You’re among friends now. Potluck friends.
Potluck Friends Are The Best Friends
I’m not just saying this because they make food and bring it to your house. Although I’m kind of saying this because they make food and bring it to your house. I’ve long been a potluck evangelist, but I was forever evangelizing to the wrong crowd until… we moved to Vermont. Lord have mercy, for I have come home. Truly I say to you, Vermont is potluck country. Forget the Green Mountain state, this place is the Potluck State. I daresay Vermont has expanded my definition of potluck and eroded my previously limited conception of when, where, for what occasion, and with whom a potluck could occur. Honey, we have potlucks for everything out here.
I surmise this is due to the following:
- There are few restaurants here, none near our home, and zero delivery options.
- The centers of socialization in rural Vermont are: our homes, libraries, churches, the great outdoors, town hall, the town center, and the schools. None of these places serve food.
- Vermonters are frugal AF. I am one of the least frugal people I know in Vermont. For shame. I can’t even tell my neighbors I write about frugality lest they laugh me out of the room in my clothes that are newer than 40 years old. Vermonters know how to stretch a dollar and live on very little and are the most self-sufficient people I’ve ever met (this coming from a person whose husband does all of our plumbing, electrical, snow plowing, firewood harvesting, gardening, and woodworking–he doesn’t even scratch the surface of true Vermonter self-sufficiency).
- Vermonters are good cooks. Since everyone cooks at home all the time, just about everyone is a good cook. Those of us who are not good cooks (looking at myself here… ) are usually teamed up with someone who is a good cook. To whit: I was asked once–and exactly once–to bake pies for the annual chicken dinner fundraiser for our volunteer fire department. I was never asked again. My pies are ok, but they are nowhere near the echelon of pies baked by the Vermonters. I am now asked to bring vinegar and cooking oil for the the annual chicken dinner fundraiser for our volunteer fire department and I do so with pride. I buy that vinegar and oil like nobody’s business.
- We live in a small town and you need each other in a small town. We are reliant on one another for everything from help building houses to refuge when the power goes out to childcare to emergency rides when a car dies unexpectedly. This community web of interdependence is fostered through shared meals at regular intervals.
I have participated in potlucks for all of the following:
- Frame raisings (for building houses, barns and, in one instance, a yurt)
- Every Sunday after church (what’s church without a coffee hour of goodies afterwards?)
- Birthday parties
- July 4th parties
- Labor Day parties
- Christmas parties
- Easter parties (I made the bunny ear cake!)
- Ok, all kinds of parties
- Dinner parties (oh wait! That’s just another kind of party!)
- Volunteer board meetings
- Events at the library
- Town meeting day (what’s town meeting without a potluck lunch afterwards?)
- Church luncheons
- New baby parties
- Book clubs
Everyone Loves A Potluck
While Vermont culture is steeped in potlucks, perhaps potlucks are not so common in your neck of the woods. Lucky for your friends and neighbors, they have you to bring them the good news!
It might feel daunting or embarrassing to be the one to suggest potlucks in lieu of dining out, but I’m willing to bet your compatriots will be glad you did. Over the years, I’ve received reams of testimonials from readers about the enthusiastic reception their potluck suggestions have elicited. I cannot tell you how many people send me thrilled emails along the lines of:
I was nervous about suggesting at-home potlucks, but once I did, my friends were receptive because they want to spend less on going out too!
So keep those emails pouring into my inbox (so that I can read them, smile, and avoid doing something noble like cleaning the grout in my kitchen).
In fact, you don’t even have to take my word for it. Here’s what Sam–the subject from the case study, Reader Case Study: Debt And Dreams In Queensland, Australia–had to say on the topic:
…when we spoke to friends about not wanting to go out and spend money on entertaining, they were so relieved as they too had been feeling the financial pressure. Amazingly, our social life is better than it has ever been and costs about $10 a week on average.
Aha! See!? It’s not just me.
The One Rule Of Potluck Dishes: Keep It Simple
Don’t sweat your potluck dish. Seriously. No one likes sweat in their food. Figure out a solid recipe–one that’s easy for you to make, that you enjoy eating, and that doesn’t have expensive ingredients. I’ve never seen anyone bring caviar to a potluck. Not saying it couldn’t happen, just saying I’ve never seen it. Also not saying I wouldn’t eat caviar if someone did bring it.
Don’t make boeuf bourguignon (unless you really want to!), don’t make filet mignon (unless it’s your lifelong dream!), don’t make Baked Alaska (I don’t even know what that is, but it sounds complicated!). Stick to recipes you know and with ingredients that don’t cost a million dollars.
One of my very fave items to make for potlucks are these from-scratch brownies by King Arthur Flour. They’re easy, quick, cheap, and delicious. Don’t make them when you’re home alone and hungry… not that I’ve ever done that…
I also want to introduce the sometimes controversial approach of buying pre-made foods for a potluck. I endorse this approach if you don’t have time to cook for a potluck because: it will still be cheaper than going out for dinner/drinks. Not doing potlucks because you don’t have time to cook and don’t want to spend money on pre-made foods and instead spending three times the amount at a restaurant does not make sense. Even I, oh calculator-user and one of low math skills, can tell you that.
More Than Money $aved
You knew I was going to go here because I cannot help myself. But you guys, I’m serious! Potlucks have so many benefits beyond the money saved by not going to a restaurant/bar/movie theatre/hip young persons hang-out location:
- Potlucks build deep, lasting connections. When you’re able to linger over a meal and aren’t rushed by wait staff or sweating over who will pay which part of the bill, you can connect more deeply with friends. When you cook for another person and host them in your home, you invite a more significant relationship.
- Potlucks provide an opportunity to hone your skills. For me, personally, my from-scratch brownie skills are ON POINT. And, the preschool Thanksgiving feast potluck was the first time I ever made pie crusts from scratch! If you’re up to it, cooking for potlucks is a chance to stretch your culinary skill-set.
- Potlucks are SO MUCH EASIER when you have young children. We’ve taken our kids to restaurants approximately three times. Conversely, we take them to potlucks almost every week. Potlucks are more relaxed, there are toys to play with (or we’re outside), there are other children/pets to cavort around with/mask their screaming, and it’s just generally a better atmosphere for little kids. Plus it’s loads cheaper than ordering a meal your kid ends up not eating at all… like not even a lick (even though it’s something they love and promised they’d eat and then they spend the entire car ride home complaining of starvation-like symptoms).
Do you have to like potlucks if you’re frugal? No, but it sure does help.