Many of us attend family pot-luck parties throughout the holiday season. If you're bringing a dish to someone else's house, here are a few tips to help you out.
Never assume the host will have enough serving spoons for your dish and everyone else's. Often, they forget this too. Keep some inexpensive nylon spoons around just for pot-luck dinners and bring one along with the dish. Be sure to label your spoon and dishware so you get it back. If you're feeling generous, bring some spoons for others who will undoubtedly forget theirs.
Towels & Potholders
I always toss a few kitchen towels or even paper towels into the bag with the food in case I need to do a quick cleanup. You should also bring a couple of pot holders since this is another thing your host probably won't have enough of. Again, label them if you want them back.
Pyrex makes a number of insulated bags that fit their various casserole dishes. They usually come in a set with the dish they're made to fit. However, I've been known to use them for any dish that will fit.
To keep a dish warm, cover tightly with plastic wrap and then place aluminum foil over the plastic. Place the whole thing into the insulated bag. The plastic will keep the food and moisture in the dish while you're driving and the foil and insulated bag will help keep it warm.
If you don't have Pyrex bags, the insulated reusable shopping bags available for about $3 at most grocery stores will do just fine. Flexible cooler bags work well too. I personally love to use my LL Bean canvas Boat 'n Totes to carry food. They don't keep it warm but they're heavy and do a good job at keeping things from falling over during travel.
One last travel tip: The foot well of the back seat is a great place to put a large pot or slow cooker as the seats can be pushed-up against them to prevent tipping. If the pot or bag is heavy enough, you can often place it on the back seat on top of a thick towel and buckle it in like a child. It sounds silly, but it works. The trunk is probably the worst place unless you can bungee the item down.
Heating can be a pain in the butt at a pot-luck, especially when everyone intends to heat their food in a single microwave oven. Always preheat your entree and attempt to keep it as warm as possible during travel to keep on-site reheating time to a minimum. If your contribution can be reheated in the oven, use an oven-safe dish so you have the option of using that while everyone else uses the microwave.
If your entree happens to serve well in a slow cooker, be sure to bring an extension cord and warn your host that you'll be needing an outlet near the buffet. The same goes for those new electric "steam tables". If you're serving something soupy, don't forget to bring a ladle and something to rest the ladle on to keep your host's tablecloth clean. To keep the food in place during transport, cover the ceramic pot firmly with plastic wrap and place the cover on top of the wrap. Use some string or a small bungee cord to hold the lid on. Slide it under the lid handle and hook it to both side handles.
Special Service Pieces
I often bring soup, stew, chowder, or chili in a slow cooker and the host doesn't usually think to buy disposable bowls or spoons. If you're bringing something that requires specialized service pieces, be sure to bring those pieces along as well. Toppings (such as crackers for soup) and sauces (ketchup, mayo, mustard, etc.) are also something you should bring along and have a serving bowl for them as well.
If your food contribution is something not easily recognizable or a specific serving method is recommended, provide a small card in front of the dish that explains what it is, how to serve it, and how to eat it. For example, you may have a pot of gumbo that is intended to be served over white rice. Your card might indicate the name of the dish, "Chicken Gumbo," and say something like, "Serve over white rice with a sprinkle of chopped scallions." For spicy dishes, it may make sense to indicate whether it is mild, medium, or hot.
I've often been to pot-luck dinners where a guest brings a dish that caters to his or her own special diet so that he or she will have something to eat. Inevitably, that person ends-up last in line and the dish is empty by the time he or she gets there. If the dietary restriction is for medical reasons, consider putting a small portion aside and asking your host to hold it for you in another room. If you intend to simply share, make sure you make a double or triple batch so it won't run out by the time you get there.
When bringing pies, cakes, lasagne's, or other items baked as a whole, pre-slice it before placing it on the table. I can't tell you how many times I've brought a French Meat Pie to a party and people cut such generous slices that only a half-dozen folks get to enjoy it. In the case of dessert, people seem very reluctant to be the first one to cut a cake or pie and they'll go for the brownies instead. Pre-slice these and remove one piece. It's a small, yet necessary subliminal message that it's okay to grab a slice for yourself.
Getting Your Dish Back
If you're going to a party hosted by someone you don't see on a regular basis, consider purchasing an inexpensive yet elegant dish or platter to hold your contribution. Explain to the host that the platter or dish, once empty, is also a gift for him or her to keep. This tackles the problem of food and a hostess gift all in one shot.
Another option is to bring clean disposable plastic containers (Ziploc, Gladware, Etc.) to hold leftover food. At the end of the party, scoop the leftovers into the containers to leave with the host or give away to other guests and take your dirty serving piece home. Bringing a plastic grocery bag or two along to transport the dirty dishes is handy as well.