May 6, 2014 at 1:36 PM ET
As much as you might love your friend’s signature potato salad, potlucks can start to feel a little predictable, especially when they’re always with the same group of people. Mix up your next spread—and maybe even spark a little competition—by laying down a theme:
Assign a secret ingredient.
Immediately, bacon comes to mind for this challenge, but the results don’t have to be all fatty. There’s this elegant bacon-asparagus pasta dish from recipe developer Alison Ebright, perfect for spring, and just think of the cocktail possibilities. Or, go a little “Iron Chef” and throw people a curveball ingredient like coconut or chickpeas.
Select a letter.
If you don’t mind your spread getting a little, um, eclectic, pick a letter at random. Yes, you could end up with tomatillo-chicken tostadas alongside tater-tot casserole on “T” night, but that doesn’t sound terrible to us!
Go with an era.
Some of the best dishes are from old family recipes—chances are, there’s a favorite dish that your mom, aunt or grandma made that just screams 1950s, ’60s or ’70s. (I have a Lime Salad Jell-O recipe from my grandma that I’m pretty sure used to count as a vegetable back in the day.) Have everyone bring a retro family favorite—or send them scouring through old magazines and cookbooks for bizarre-yet-delicious recipes. And don’t forget about the ’80s and ’90s—we all kind of miss sun-dried tomatoes and pizza bagels.
Pick a city.
Base your party on a city or state—this is an especially fun idea if you and a bunch of your friends are ex-pats from the same place. A bunch of former Chicagoans living in New York might bring iconic classics like Italian beef, or old restaurant favorites like Rick Bayless’ queso fundido. Or, go broader and make it international! Pick a place you all want to go—you get the picture.
Put them to work.
Pasta-making, canning, sushi making—if one of these projects have always been on your culinary bucket list, force yourself to commit to it by inviting people over to participate. Everyone will learn something and get to enjoy the results, and you’ll have extra hands in the kitchen.
Stage a springy wine tasting.
Red wines have worn out their welcome by this point in the year—figure out which summer wines you want to stock up on by throwing a little wine tasting where everyone brings a bottle of white or rosé to sample, along with a little appetizer or canapé. One wildly popular option: the just-released 2013 J.K. Carriere Glass White Pinot Noir, a cantaloupe-colored variety from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Keep paper and pencils on hand so that guests can remember their favorites.