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What do you bring to a potluck when you have no time?

Potlucks are a great way to get together with friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, or other groups and share a meal. The key to a successful potluck is having a variety of tasty dishes that everyone contributes. However, finding the time to prepare a dish can be difficult with busy schedules. When you’ve been invited to a potluck at the last minute, it’s easy to stress about what you can bring that will be ready in time. With some clever shortcuts and store-bought items, you can throw together a dish to share without spending hours in the kitchen.

Ready-to-Serve Appetizers and Sides

Bringing ready-to-serve appetizers and side dishes is the easiest option when you’re short on time. You can purchase high-quality prepared foods from the grocery store deli or prepared foods section. Some good ready-to-go options include:

  • Cheese and cracker platter
  • Veggie or fruit tray
  • Hummus or other dips with pita chips or crackers
  • Guacamole and tortilla chips
  • Pasta or potato salad
  • Coleslaw mix
  • Prepared antipasto or charcuterie platter

It’s simple to pick up one or two of these items on your way to the potluck. Opt for generous portions, as appetizers and sides tend to go quickly. You can transfer items to your own serving dishes if you want to present them nicely. Deli items may also allow you to customize flavors or ingredients. For example, select your favorite toppings on a veggie tray or choose a unique pasta salad flavor.

Pre-Made Entrees

For heartier contributions, look for fully or partially prepared entrée items at the grocery store. Options like these only require some quick heating or final touches:

  • Rotisserie chicken – grab a couple cooked chickens and serve with a side dish
  • Meatballs – cook frozen meatballs in sauce in a slow cooker or on the stovetop
  • Sausages – simmer flavors like bratwurst, Italian, or andouille in a slow cooker with onions, peppers, and seasoning
  • Stuffed pasta shells or manicotti – simply heat and serve
  • Prepared lasagna or casseroles – bake conveniently packaged pan lasagnas or casseroles like enchiladas, mac and cheese, or King Ranch chicken according to package directions

Most grocery stores now carry many convenient heat-and-eat entrée options in their freezer and refrigerated sections. You can jazz them up with extra seasonings, toppings, or sides.

Simple Slow Cooker Meals

Slow cookers make it easy to start a recipe in the morning and have it ready to transport to the potluck by dinner time. Here are some easy slow cooker options:

  • Chili – Brown ground beef with onions and garlic. Add canned beans, tomatoes, seasonings, and stock. Simmer on low 6-8 hours.
  • BBQ pulled pork – Place pork roast and BBQ sauce in slow cooker. Shred cooked meat after 8 hours on low.
  • Meatballs – Cook frozen meatballs in your favorite sauce for 3-4 hours on high.
  • Chicken wraps – Shred cooked chicken breasts. Toss with buffalo sauce and ranch. Serve in wraps with veggie slaw.

Let the slow cooker do the work while you go about your day. The hands-off approach makes it convenient for busy schedules.

Quick Breads and Muffins

Baked goods like quick breads, muffins, and scones can easily be whipped up the morning of the potluck. Try recipes like:

  • Banana bread
  • Pumpkin bread or muffins
  • Cranberry orange muffins
  • Lemon poppyseed muffins
  • Cornbread
  • Blueberry scones

Many of these are simple dump-and-mix batters. Let the treats bake while you get ready and then transport them right from the oven. They’ll be sweet, fresh additions to the potluck lineup.

Pre-Made Desserts

Pre-made desserts from the grocery store bakery can be just as satisfying as homemade. Pick up a few easy desserts like:

  • Pies – apple, pecan, pumpkin
  • Cakes – marble, carrot, lemon, cheesecake
  • Sheet cakes or cupcakes
  • Cookies – chocolate chip, sugar, gingerbread
  • Donuts or pastry rings
  • Brownies or blondies

Complete the dessert table with a tub of ice cream. These purchased treats help round out the spread when you’re short on time.


Drinks are an important part of any potluck. Consider grabbing:

  • Sodas – regular and diet
  • Bottled iced teas, lemonades, or juices
  • Flavored sparkling waters
  • Wine or beer
  • Punch – make ahead or purchase
  • Coffee or hot tea service

Having drinks covered makes hosting easier on the main potluck organizer. Non-alcoholic options work well for luncheons or community events.

Other Shortcut Ideas

If you want to contribute something homemade without spending all day cooking, here are some more ideas:

  • Sheet pan meals – Roast proteins like sausage, chicken, or shrimp with veggies on a sheet pan. Toss with oil and seasonings.
  • Salads – Fast no-cook salads like Greek pasta salad, broccoli slaw, or Sudi potato salad.
  • Sandwiches/wraps – Assemble quick sandwiches or wraps ahead of time and keep ingredients separate.
  • Adult lunchables – Make charcuterie “lunchables” with cubed cheese, meat, crackers, nuts, and fruit.
  • Taco/nacho bar – Set out taco shells or chips along with seasoned meat, beans, toppings, and cheese.
  • Crockpot dips – Keep warm in a crockpot, like buffalo chicken, artichoke, or chili con queso dips.

These ideas call for minimal ingredients and last minute assembly. You provide fresh homemade options without spending hours cooking and cleaning.

What to Avoid Bringing

Some items are better to steer clear of when you don’t have much time to prepare. Avoid:

  • Dishes that require lots of last minute cooking, chopping, or mixing
  • Items with ingredients that are hard to find or specialty stores
  • Foods that don’t transport well and could spill or spoil
  • Untested new recipes – stick to tried and true
  • Anything that requires a lot of hands-on effort like decorating cakes or piping frosting
  • Fussy presentation – keep it simple

Skipping time-consuming, delicate, or intricate foods means less stress when your time is limited. Focus on sturdy items and crowd-pleasing flavors.

Tips for Last Minute Potlucks

Here are some extra pointers for surviving a last minute potluck invite:

  • Check if there are any specific items the host needs like entrees, side dishes, desserts, or beverages. Offer to bring something they lack.
  • Prepare as much as you can in advance, like chopping ingredients or mixing dough. Refrigerate prepped items.
  • Use disposable pans or platters for easy transport and no returns.
  • Tell the host if you’ll be late so they can coordinate serving times.
  • Bring serving utensils, napkins, cups, or other items to help the host.
  • Make an extra batch or two if possible so there are leftovers.
  • Ask fellow guests to text you what they’re bringing so there’s a good variety.
  • Relax and have fun – potlucks are for enjoying friends and food, not perfection!

With smart strategies and convenient shortcuts, you can still contribute to a potluck when pressed for time. The main thing is showing up and spending time with the important people in your life.

Potluck Dishes Based on Time Available

Use this guide to select your perfect potluck dish based on how much time you have before the event:

Time Available Recommended Dishes
1 hour or less Store-bought appetizers, side salads, desserts, breads, pre-made entrees, beverages
2-3 hours Simple slow cooker or sheet pan meals, muffin batters, no-cook salads, sandwiches, wraps
Half day Lasagnas, casseroles, hand pies, jar salads, cut fruit and veggies, decorated store-bought cakes and cookies
1 day Chicken dishes, enchiladas, chilis, hearty salads, hand-decorated desserts, specialty beverage dispensers
2+ days Time-intensive recipes like roasts, hand-crafted desserts, customized charcuterie boards

No matter your schedule, focus on sharing food and fellowship. With the right strategies, it’s totally possible to whip up a potluck contribution at the last minute!


Being asked to a potluck when your calendar is packed can seem overwhelming. However, with the right approach, you can still participate without spending days preparing. Pick up ready-made appetizers, entrees, and desserts from your local market. Opt for easy bake or slow cooker dishes you can assemble quickly. Bake up fast breads and muffins while you get ready. Avoid time-consuming recipes with fancy decorating or components. If you only have an hour, keep it simple with beverages, deli salads, and store-bought cakes. The main thing is showing up with a dish to share – perfection is not required! Use these tips to survive last minute potluck invites when time is short.