Potlucks: How To Celebrate The Healthy Way


Potlucks are common this time of year. Unfortunately, they also tend to be dietary landmines. Salads are topped with creamy dressings, baked potatoes are piled with cheese and sour cream, and most casseroles are high in cream, cheese and salt. And that's before you even get to the desserts.

“Potluck meals can be challenging, especially if you’re trying to be mindful about fat and calories,” says Halle Saperstein, clinical dietitian at Henry Ford Health System. “Not only is there pressure to try everything on the buffet, but the sheer variety of options can be overwhelming for people.”

Potluck Do’s and Don’ts

The word “potluck” literally means “luck of the pot,” so most people bring their favorite fat- or sugar-laden dish in an attempt to impress. But don’t fret. Even when you’re faced with a buffet of tempting party foods, Saperstein’s potluck do’s and don’ts can help ensure you indulge wisely.


  1. Bring a healthy dish: The idea of a potluck is to bring a dish for everyone to share. To get the most nutrient bang for your buck, make a low-calorie, low-fat dish loaded with healthful ingredients, such as veggies, legumes and fruit. So even if everything else on the table is a dietary disaster, you’ll have at least one dish to eat that’s both tasty and good for you. Good picks include Lightened Up Spinach Dip, Brussels Tots with Plum Sauce, Sauteed Asparagus with Ginger and Cocoa Date Truffles.
  2. Peruse the pickings: Before you load your plate with your favorite high-fat fare, take stock of what’s at the table. Healthy potluck favorites include raw veggies and dip, shrimp cocktail and fresh fruit, so fill your plate with those options first. Then if you still want to indulge, you’ll have less room for holiday heavyweights like mashed potatoes and gravy.
  3. Watch your portions: If you’re really craving high-fat, high-calorie indulgences, make sure to keep your portions small. You can get too much of a good thing. If you are trying to watch your portions, consider that the carbohydrate portion should be no larger than a tennis ball, your cheese portion should be no larger than your thumb and the meat portion should be the size of a deck of cards.
  4. Drink water: It’s easy to mistake thirst for hunger. So one of the best ways to minimize the number of calories you eat is to make sure you’re sufficiently hydrated. A bonus: Drinking a glass or two of water can keep your mouth and hands busy while you mingle.


  1. Arrive hungry: Before you hit the party, eat a fiber- and protein-rich snack, such as an apple with peanut butter or raw veggies dipped in hummus. That way, you won’t be tempted to eat everything on the buffet table.
  2. Eat food past its prime: Don’t eat food that has been sitting out for more than two hours. A large casserole dish at room temperature is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. For safe food storage, store leftovers in shallow containers and place in the refrigerator promptly after that two-hour time period.
  3. View it as a “cheat meal”: It’s tempting to view your potluck party as a license to overindulge. A better approach: View it as a regular meal and eat as much (or as little) as you would at home.
  4. Drink too much: Potluck meals and alcohol are not a good combo. Not only does alcohol contain calories, but it also lowers your inhibitions. The more you drink, the more you’re likely to eat.

Enjoy the Pickings

The holidays only come around once a year, so if you’re a fruitcake or fudge fan, go ahead and splurge. Just make sure there’s room in your calorie budget by skipping year-round favorites like cheese and crackers.

“If you do overindulge, one meal is not going to sabotage your life,” says Saperstein. “Just be mindful while you’re eating so you really enjoy your food.”

Most important, if you’re the potluck coordinator, make a list of what everyone is bringing so you can make sure there are a few healthy, low-calorie options — and also so you don’t get five people making lasagna.

Need ideas for healthy potluck dishes? Check out our recipe ideas.

To find a registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Halle Saperstein, RD, is a clinical dietitian at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital and enjoys teaching the importance and benefits of a healthy diet.

Categories: EatWell