Potluck anxiety: what is it and do you have it?

For the last several years I have worked in cultures that esteem the office potluck. Holidays, special events, retirements, and achievements all trigger the dreaded email announcing yet another opportunity to showcase culinary skills.

I have done my best to participate, but as I near retirement I have less enthusiasm for these affairs. And that’s not saying much since I wasn’t crazy about them in my prime.

You’ve seen the spectrum of dishes served at these gatherings. Everything from the office superstar who crafts an artisan bread bowl filled with hot crabmeat dip, to the person with self-esteem to spare who furnishes miniature hot dogs bubbling in barbecue sauce.

As for me, I wilt like abandoned kale in my vegetable drawer under potluck pressure. But I’ve finally broken through my denial to admit I have a condition known as ‘potluck anxiety.’

Cardinal symptoms

In the absence of potluck pressure, I can visualize gobs of edibles I could whip together to impress my coworkers. But do you think I can recall any of these recipes when a potluck deadline looms?

Instead, I pull an all nighter researching Pinterest for a simple, elegant medley that includes ingredients I have stocked in my pantry. Alas, in the wee hours of the morning I resign myself to the fact that nothing delicious can come from combining black olives, tomato paste, and cocoa powder.

Photo credit: depositphotos with edits by author

The making of a disorder 

I developed potluck anxiety gradually after exposure to repeated traumatic experiences.

Baked beans and a lawsuit: I made terrific baked beans and was basking in compliments when someone shrieked, “There’s a rock in my beans!” To my horror, a tiny stone impersonating a legume had escaped my scrutiny. After I forked over lawyer fees and dental bills, this batch of beans cost me more than my reputation.

Coleslaw AKA salmonella in a crystal bowl: Sporting a sweatband, I grated organic cabbage and carrots, binding the ingredients with a precise amount of Hellman’s. My grandmother’s crystal bowl and a few sprinkles of paprika made my contribution worthy of the cover of Bon Appetit.

Unfortunately, I left my masterpiece in a 95-degree car for four hours causing my coworkers to shun my victuals, and no amount of cajoling could convince them it was safe for consumption. Even though they said, ‘no hard feelings,’ a morsel of my inner Julia Child died every time I looked at my killer bowl of cabbage.

Crackers, cheese, pepperoni, and shame: In desperation last Christmas, I went to an unfamiliar grocery store, stumbled through the aisles looking for the deli, snagged pre-sliced cheese, pepperoni, and a box of Ritz crackers and arranged them on a cheap plastic Santa Claus serving dish for optimal presentation. I was successful disguising my laziness, but not my shame.

Heartburn in a crockpot: I used to make cowboy beans filling my vintage crockpot to the brim with ground chuck, canned beans, and generic barbecue sauce. After I said a tearful goodbye to my 20-year-old slow cooker, the same recipe looked pathetic in my new supersized model. When I quadrupled the ingredients so I didn’t appear to be a cheapskate, it meant upset stomachs for weeks as we plowed through the wretched leftovers.

How I’ve learned to cope

I have a confession. For the last three potlucks, I sashayed through the buffet line exclaiming over the choices and did not bring so much as a stale cracker.

You may say the potluck would become extinct if everyone adopted my callous actions, but I’m not worried. It takes decades to become a hardened smorgasbord criminal, feeling no remorse while you devour the goodies prepared by coworkers with a conscience.

Now that you know what it is, are you ready to explore the dark side of your soul and admit you share my condition? If not, would you mind leaving your favorite potluck recipes in your comments? I’m considering desensitization therapy.

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52 thoughts on “Potluck anxiety: what is it and do you have it?

  1. Molly, I have to admit that a potluck brings out the “Martha Stewart” in me. But when I moved to Arizona it brought a new found anxiety when the potluck bell rang in the summer months. All my New England “tried and true” recipes were either too “heavy” for the heat or could not survive even a short car ride in 110 degrees without arriving like an incubator from the microbiology lab. And those lovely dessert glazes or frostings melt and ooze off their targets. Thank heaven for California and Mexico providing us with an abundance of fresh fruit — also available all cut up at the local grocery when needed on short notice. A quick transfer to my favorite crystal platter saves me the embarrassment of arriving with the telltale plastic containers. I recently inherited a set of carving tools from my neighbor and was going to make a fruit basket carved out of a watermelon next time to satisfy my “Martha Stewart” gene — but I retired and now all those work potluck invites are gone. Take heart — there is an end to your potluck anxiety ahead!

    • I never thought about how living in such a hot climate would affect just about anything you would take to a potluck. Alas, I’m not out of the potluck business – we have them at church, too! Ugh! Can you pack up some of your ‘Martha Stewart’ tendencies and send them to me Federal Express? There is a work potluck on Thursday and a church potluck the following weekend. I may need to get some Prozac.

  2. I quite like potlucks…if I have time to make something. I like making sushi because it’s so much effort to make it for two people. Pot luck gives me the chance to make a big batch. I normally do lots of veggy options as lots of people are scared of the raw fish in sushi.

    When I’m crazily busy, I find the best thing is to buy some really yummy fruit. You don’t have to actually do anything, but everyone loves fruit. Especially if it is something you buy for a treat like cherries…

    • You are a potluck superstar, going to the effort of making sushi. I am guessing your sushi is beautifully presented, too. I like the fruit idea, and cherries is a great option. I wonder if I should also provide a little empty bowl for people to spit the pits into?

      • Making the sushi isn’t too bad…it’s just making the rice that is so much effort! I don’t have a rice cooker so it’s always a bit of a faff.

        Oooh, bringing a pot for cherry pips is always a good idea. I normally forget that part!

          • I know! I really want to get one. We just bought loads of furniture and kitchen things so I need to give the credit card a rest until my next pay cheque…but after that, it’s on the list!

  3. Aha, potlucks! I have bought salads/desserts etc. at the store, put them in my own bowl, and passed them off as my own. Several times. But to be honest, I’m so suspicious of potluck food that I usually only eat what I’ve taken 🙂

    • You aren’t alone in how you ‘cook’ for a potluck, Ruth, or in your aversion for the food that other people bring. I’d like to raise my standards enough to resist food from questionable sources, but hunger always prevails and I’ll eat anything. I suppose in a true survival situation I’d be the first one to start eating bugs. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  4. I keep a separate folder of recipes that would be good for a potluck, and whenever I find a new one online that’s where it goes. Because yes, I suffer from potluck anxiety. You know what’s worse than a series of failures, though? One great success that causes everyone to assume you’re bringing the Really Amazing Brownies to every event forever, so that the one time you can’t get your hands on the ingredients and have to bring cookies instead everybody asks, “but where are The Brownies?” Over and over. And over.

    Companies that “host” potluck events for employees need to stop doing that immediately and cater in at least half the dishes. We see what you’re doing, cheapskates! You don’t get credit for throwing a party if you make employees provide the actual party.

    • I didn’t think about the dangers of perching on the pinnacle of potluck success, since this has never happened to me. Wow! I don’t believe I’ve truly felt potluck pressure now that I’m aware of this phenomenon. I also never thought about the company being a cheapskate to host employee parties where the employees do all the cooking. You are absolutely right. This should be banned!

  5. Delightful! I enjoyed reading this- your mishaps sounds traumatic, indeed! I have just a few dishes I bring and whenever possible sign up for the chips and/or bringing the utensils! Thanks for bravely sharing your potluck disasters. Let the cooks, cook. And the eaters (me!) eat.

  6. I personally love potlucks, as I genuinely enjoy cooking and baking! Sometimes I spend 10 hours making a dessert, sometimes I make pre-cut Pillsbury cookies. We have a wide range in our office like that, and there’s no judgement if you bring a 2L of pop or a bag of chips instead of a gourmet masterpiece! To me, the important part is that you have done something, be it cooked or bought or set up or entertainment. In our office, there are a few people who don’t bring things/don’t want to participate and they usually just take the time to go for a walk on campus or run errands!

    • As long as she doesn’t attend the same potlucks as you, there may be a silver lining to this sister-in-law thing. First of all, I’d try to extract as many dinner invitations as possible to her home. This will reduce your expenses for eating out. Secondly, if you praise her skills enough, she might be willing to whip something up for you to take to your next potluck. Win, win!

  7. sorry, no recipes from me, except this: For years at work, I brought my special caesar salad. Giant bowl? check. three bags of romaine? check. Yummy croutons? check–hopefully Mrs Cubbisons garlic ones. Bottle of Cardini’s caesar dressing? check check checkkkkkkk! it’s so yummy…why? anchovies! Bag Shredded parmesan cheese? yep. Recyclable canvas Trader Joe’s bag to transport it all? checkity check! 10 minutes before serving? throw it all in the bowl and don’t forget the salad tongs. I always brought home an empty bowl 🙂 I used to have a boyfriend (man friend) who couldn’t eat unidentified home-made potluck food. If it was KFC or a something store-bought it was OK. He might have been onto something 🙂

    • What didn’t I think of this, Terri? This is a great idea. I have a Whole Foods bag I can use for transport and really bedazzle them. I know other people who are rather queasy about potlucks too. You never know…..

  8. Funny post! I have a friend who doesn’t cook who always brings non-food items to pot-lucks. A small cooler of ICE is her specialty, and it is always appreciated greatly.

    Another few of her favs are the good kind of paper plates (the ones that can withstand a full plate of gooey/gloppies) and cute little dessert plates. People used to count on her for the non-foods and nobody ever asked her why she didn’t contribute to the eats.

    If you can find an old copy of Peg Braken’s “I Hate to Cook Book,” she has a really ingenious and incredibly amusing suggestion about how to handle Potluck Anxiety once and for all – lol – rock hard dip she keeps in the freezer between Potluck calls. Nobody ever eats the stuff. 🙂
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  9. Molly, the best thing about a potluck is that there are so many dishes, no one realizes who made what. Just be sure to change up your serving bowl each time, place it on the table quickly, and you stand a good change of remaining incognito! Thanks for the laugh.

  10. I used to live in a neighborhood that had about six cocktail parties at the clubhouse each year, and some folks would try to outdo one another with the hors d’oeuvres we were supposed to bring (that anxiety-inducing thing). When I changed my diet after being diagnosed with CAD, I started bringing cut-up vegetables and hummus to parties so I’d be assured of having something healthy to eat (and I had plenty since so few opted for the healthy choice!). Problem solved!

    • I don’t think I could bear the pressure of six cocktail parties a year, Roxanne. I think I would feel like I was in the midst of a Stephen King novel, AKA a nightmare. But hummus is an excellent idea and I make a very good homemade hummus. I may have to draw the line with cut up vegetables due to the effort involved, but I bet the hummus would be delicious with my favorite: Ritz crackers!

  11. I went to a potluck once that had ONLY desserts—NOTHING ELSE. While some would think “Nirvana!”, in truth I think we all drifted into a coma and the conversation suffered for it. From that day forward I vowed to always bring a protein dish that suited ME—-and if no one else liked it, oh, well, too bad—home it came for leftovers. I suggest getting comfy with two potluck-worthy dishes you could make in your sleep and no more, and always keep those ingredients on hand at the ready. Also useful for bereavement dishes needed quickly… Life is too short. (said the woman with a Home Economics degree)

    • This is great advice, Elise. I wish I had figured this simple solution out years ago. I would have saved me a lot of anxiety. For our church suppers I put frozen meatballs in a crockpock with BBQ sauce and heat for a few hours on low. But it just seems so lazy and unimaginative. But maybe something lazy and unimaginative is better than a big, fat nothing, right?

  12. I think many of us suffer from this to some degree (even those of us with recipe blogs). It’s a lot of pressure. I tend to stick with dessert – both to bring and to eat :).

  13. And I thought I was the only sufferer. I feel such better knowing I not alone. And hilarious, as you always are.

  14. I, too, suffer from potluck anxiety. I have a particularly hard time when I’m assigned a specific category or when the potluck is deemed mandatory. I have a mandatory potluck and am assigned the main course in August – it’s a double whammy.

    I attended a potluck yesterday with two of my daughters and took sweet and sour meatballs at my 12 year old daughter’s request. Mix together a 12-ounce jar of chili sauce with a 10-ounce jar of grape jelly. Heat them and stir together until the jelly melts. Pour in a slow cooker. Then add 2 pounds of frozen meatballs (purchased in a bag at any grocery store). Cook on low for four hours. (If you like more sweet, you can use up to 18 ounces of grape jelly.)

    • I might have a panic attack at just the thought of a mandatory potluck, Crystal. Yikes! Is that even legal? If it is, then it shouldn’t be. Anyway, you have my sympathies, but you seem well prepared with your recipe. Thank you for sharing, BTW. It sounds like a winner, just like you!

      • The mandatory potlucks I’m talking about are meetings for kids who are involved in a school club or activity. The leaders schedule mandatory informational meetings at mealtime, make it a potluck, and then get better attendance since “everyone has to eat anyway.” If each club does this once or twice a year, multiplied by the number of kids and then by the number of their activities….I would rather not do the math. Ha ha.

  15. I’m moving over to your way of thinking. I slaved over a crock pot of chili a year ago for a potluck and realized in a sea of 30 chili crock pots, nobody would have noticed if mine wasn’t there. Next time, I’m opening a can of Denisson’s and calling it done if I have to bring anything.

  16. Thanks for the chuckle! I dread those potluck days as well! Although, I have a few tried and true recipes that I keep for those moments when I can’t think of anything else!

    • That’s the smart way to go, Lisa. To develop a list of potluck options on a day without pressure. I do make a good coleslaw so have relied on that on more than one occasion. I need to develop a few more options, though. And this is not just a work thing either. We have two potlucks at church coming up in the next 2 months. I’m going to pray about it!

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