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Food52’s Top 5 Tips for Hosting a Successful Summer Potluck

In the summer, you'll find us eating and drinking outside as much as we possibly can. So when it comes to throwing parties, we turn to potlucks to make hosting as stress-free as possible -- and to maximize our time out-of-doors. From picking the right recipes that can withstand a day in the sun to finding creative ways to add decorative (and edible!) flair, here are our top 5 tips for hosting a successful summer potluck.

1. Embrace the Make-Ahead Meal

Pan Bagnat: Le French Tuna Salad Sandwich

Photo by Sarah Shatz

As tempting as it might be to just divvy up all the potluck dishes to guests, as potluck host, you have to bring at least one recipe to the table for camaraderie’s sake. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be something that requires hours of pre- and mid-party attention when you should be enjoying your company. Pan Bagnat, literally "bathed bread," is a great alternative to the standard burger and dogs, won’t have you stuck behind the blazing-hot grill for the duration of the party, and can (should!) be made the night before.

In this recipe, a decidedly Nicoise tuna salad is pressed between two garlic-and-oil slicked halves of a baguette and left in the fridge overnight, which allows all of the juices to soak into the bread. We chose to include both of the optional ingredients -- crisp green beans, briny artichoke hearts -- and were glad we did. The resulting sandwich is a riot of colors, flavors and textures – and since you made it ahead of time, you can enjoy it right alongside your friends and family.

2. Have Time to Spare? Ask for Ingredients Instead of Finished Dishes

Shrimp Boil

Photo by Thirschfeld

If make-ahead dishes aren’t your speed or you simply enjoy the company of others as you cook, ask guests to bring ingredients for a seafood boil and let everything steep and soak up the spices while you enjoy a cold one (or two – these things take time!). Hosting a big “throw it in the pot” party allows everyone to participate equally – the novice cook brings just as much to the table as the experienced one, and there’s no pressure to perform. Of course, some guests like to show off their cooking chops a little. More power to them! Let that crew be in charge of bread, dessert, and drinks.

3. Get Organized at the Grill

Ian Knauer’s Sticky Balsamic Ribs

Photo by Jennifer Causey

Okay, we get it: you’re a purist and the grill is your temple. But that doesn’t require you to act as short order cook. Give the burgers and dogs a rest and opt for something you can make mostly ahead of time, keep warm, then finish on the grill in front of your guests.

These ribs call for a sweet and spicy balsamic glaze, which is perfect for grillmasters looking to show some finesse with their fire pit – but they also require an 8 to 24 hours marinade and a low-and-slow roast in the oven, which yields incredibly tender meat. Keep the baby backs warm in a low oven until guests arrive, then get them hot and shellacked on the grill. You can do this with several racks at a time, too.

4. Ditch the Dairy

Potato Salad with Arugula and Dijon Vinaigrette       

Photo by Sarah Shatz

We’re fans of mayo, just not the sun-baked variety. This summer, ask potluckers to ditch the creamy condiment and other dairy items and bring lighter takes on the classics. Replace the mayo in potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw, and the like with vinaigrette, serve berries with sweet balsamic syrup rather than whipped cream, and top burgers with chargrilled onions and apple slices (radical? Maybe. Crowd-pleasing? Indeed.) Trust us, you won’t miss the perspiring pre-sliced cheese.

5. Don’t Forget to Decorate!

Lemonade Ice Cubes

Photo by Sarah Shatz

It’s easy to forget that potlucks are parties, given the more laidback atmosphere and the fact that your guests have assignments (bring food), but there’s something to be said for putting a little effort into the decorations to ensure a festive vibe – especially since you’ll have extra time away from the kitchen thanks to your food-bearing friends.

Flowers and paper lanterns aside, these lemonade ice cubes are just one example of a creative yet easy way to add (edible) flair. Just add a berry or two to each compartment of your ice cube tray, pour lemonade over top to fill halfway, freeze for an hour, fill the gaps with more lemonade (this way, the berries remain in the middle and don’t float to the top) and freeze until party time.

What are your summer potluck-hosting tips? Share your comments below!