Potlucks with Pizzazz

Share these innovative dishes with your friends and family
By Erica Tasto

Warm weather isn’t the only reason you need to throw a party this season—and neighborhood block parties, family reunions, and potlucks are all ripe with opportunities for you to showcase your inner chef. If you’re bored with the same old buffet line—cold cuts, pasta salad, and puppy chow—here are some unique, healthy ideas to bring to the table.

>> Layered Dips and Salads

Reinvent appetizers with fresh flavors, colors, and textures that will leave room in your belly to sample the other foods. Starting with heavy foods increases the chance that you’ll overeat. You may be tempted to fill up on apps and still go back for the main meal. Choose nonfat Greek yogurt instead of sour cream for that trusty taco dip, and go meatless if you suspect the main meal will have meat. Layered foods offer multiple tastes and textures, which may trick you into feeling like you’ve eaten more than you actually have. Make salads with uncommon food pairings to achieve unique flavor combinations—green beans, radishes, hearts of palm, beans, sliced avocado, and hardboiled eggs are great places to start. Mix and match with salad staples such as tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and carrots. Sub spinach or kale for plain ol’ lettuce.

>> Main Meal Balance

Calorie-heavy casseroles don’t have to be your go-to; instead, opt for dishes that contain a balance of protein, veggies, dairy, and nuts. Added crunch can be achieved by cooking vegetables until they are just crisp (be careful not to overcook—if other ingredients require longer cook time, consider adding the veggies separately so you don’t compromise the crunch) or by adding nuts (think almonds or walnuts) as a garnish. For those who crave a few more carbs, offer a sandwich option—set out whole grain bread or pita pockets for hot dishes, salads, or dips.

>> Sweet and Spicy Sides

Generally, more colors mean more nutrients—don’t be afraid to toss some strawberries or grapes in your pasta salad, or go noodle-free and make a bean-based salad. Mix sweet flavors (red peppers, beets, pineapple) with spicy flavors (jalapenos, green onions, cayenne pepper) for a dual flavor profile. Instead of a tomato salsa, try a watermelon or mango salsa. Experiment with herbs and spices to enhance and create flavors. A dash of cinnamon, a pinch of paprika, or a bit of ginger could take your dish from good to great.

>> Fruity Desserts

Steer clear of sugary staples without sacrificing good taste. Choose desserts that include fruit—they tend to be lighter (both in taste and calories) and will add a cooling burst of flavor to the end of your meal. Fruit skewers with melon and berries, baked apples, and parfaits are all great options. If you’ve got a weak spot for chocolate, try apricots or almonds dipped in dark chocolate. You can also add nutritional value to your desserts by using spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and saffron.

Plan the Perfect Potluck

If it’s your turn to host the party, follow these tips to ensure that everyone has a fun and festive time.

>> Create options.

Send out healthy guidelines to guests in advance so everyone can plan to bring a nutritional dish. For example, the theme of your potluck could be “heart-healthy” or “anti-inflammatory.” Additionally, set individual dish guidelines to ensure variety—so, if two people are slotted to bring appetizers, have one sign-up spot for “dip” and one sign-up spot for “salad.” You can create veggie/meat or hot/cold boundaries, too.

>> Design a sensible buffet line.

Because everyone will sign up for their type of food in advance, you can make place cards indicating where each guest should place their item on the buffet table so that foods are arranged in a logical order. Start with salads and appetizers, followed by the main meal, side dishes, bread, and desserts. Don’t forget serving utensils—guests probably won’t bring their own to accompany their dish.

>> Separate accessories.

Place silverware and napkins on their own table so guests don’t have to balance them, in addition to their food plates, all the way through the line. If space permits, also set up a separate beverage station.


Try out these healthier alternatives to some traditional potluck favorites.

If You Make the Main Meal…



This dairy-free delight tastes like comfort food without packing on the pounds. Bake as-is, or add chicken, broccoli, carrots, or peas for a heartier dish.


>3 to 3 ½ cups dried cut pasta (e.g. macaroni, penne)


½ cup raw Brazil nuts

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 medium clove garlic

2 teaspoons arrowroot powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon onion powder

¼ teaspoon (rounded) dry mustard

1 cup water

1 ½ cups plain nondairy milk, unsweetened

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (optional, if omitted add extra milk)


¾ to 1 ¼ cups dry whole-grain breadcrumbs

½ tablespoon olive oil

Couple pinches sea salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees, then start cooking pasta. While pasta is cooking, blend all sauce ingredients in a blender or in a deep bowl with an immersion blender. When pasta is almost tender, fully drain (don’t rinse). Mix noodles with sauce, and immediately pour into a lightly oiled 8 x 12 inch baking dish. Mix breadcrumb toppings in a small bowl, then sprinkle over top of casserole. Cover with foil and bake for 17 to 18 minutes. Then, remove foil cover and bake another 5 to 7 minutes or until topping is golden brown and crisp. Don’t over-bake or the sauce will get too thick. Remove from oven and place casserole on a trivet—not on top of oven because residual heat from the oven will continue to thicken the sauce. Source: Let Them Eat Vegan! 200 Deliciously Satisfying Plant-Powered Recipes for the Whole Family by Dreena Burton. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012. Learn more at plantpoweredkitchen.com.


If You Bring an Appetizer…

Asian Fusion 7-Layer Dip


Take a break from traditional taco dip and bring this unique flavor combination to the party. Serve with pita chips, whole grain crackers, or fortune cookies!

1 ¾ cups plain Greek yogurt

½ cup sliced roasted red pepper

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon dried basil

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 ½ teaspoons green curry paste

¼ cup cilantro

Handful dried red chili peppers

1 cup water chestnuts, diced

1 cup raw cashews, coarsly chopped

¼ cup green onions, chopped

In a food processor, combine yogurt, red pepper, garlic, basil, salt, and pepper until mostly smooth. Spread green curry paste evenly on bottom of medium-sized bowl. Pour yogurt mixture over top. Sprinkle cilantro evenly on top, then add chili peppers, water chestnuts, cashews, and green onions.


If You Prepare a Salad…

Carrot-Ginger Dressing


Created by our friends at Pacific Foods, this unique recipe is an easy way to jazz up an ordinary salad.

1 cup Pacific Foods Organic Cashew Carrot Ginger Bisque

4 teaspoons rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon fresh grated ginger

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.


If You Cook a Side Dish…

Cinnamon Spice Sweet Potato Chickpea Salad


These sweet ‘n’ spicy potatoes make the perfect side dish to accompany any meal.

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2 -inch pieces

3 cups cooked chickpeas

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon cinnamon (or more to taste)

1 teaspoon sea salt (or more to taste)

2 tablespoons coconut oil, divided

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and line a large baking sheet with parchment or a nonstick liner. Peel and chop sweet potatoes. In a large bowl, add the cooked chickpeas, uncooked sweet potatoes, chopped onion, cinnamon, salt, and 1 tablespoon coconut oil. Mix well. Spread onto prepared baking sheet and place in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and place into a large bowl. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of coconut oil and stir well to coat. Add additional sea salt if preferred. Source: Angela Liddon, ohsheglows.com


If You’re in Charge of Dessert…

Fruit & Nut Bark


This easy recipe will satisfy your chocolate craving—with a little fruity crunch.

12 ounces dark chocolate, chopped, divided

½ cup dried cranberries

1/3 cup chopped pistachios

1/3 cup chopped dried apricots

¼ cup slivered almonds

2 teaspoons fresh organic orange zest

Heat 8 ounces chopped chocolate on the stove until completely melted, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining chopped chocolate until melted and combined. Pour the melted chocolate onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and spread the mixture into a ¼-inch thick rectangle. Working quickly, sprinkle the cranberries, pistachios, apricots, almonds, and orange zest evenly over the chocolate. Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 minutes to harden. Break or cut the chocolate into pieces. Source: Fast & Simple Gluten-Free by Gretchen F. Brown, RD


Peanut Butter, Grape & Chocolate Snack Bites


For a no-bake dessert that will please kids, parents, and their taste buds, give these bite-size chocolate balls a try.

¾ cup low-fat crunchy peanut butter

¼ cup Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made with Concord grapes

1 cup oats

1 tablespoon ground flax seed

2 teaspoons honey

3 tablespoons dark chocolate chips

1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat peanut butter in a microwave about 25 seconds, until thinned out. Remove from microwave and stir in grape juice. Add oats, flax seed, honey, chocolate chips, and vanilla; stir to incorporate. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Line a baking sheet with waxed paper or parchment paper. Using a teaspoon or a melon baller, form mixture into balls. Place in the refrigerator and allow to cool again for at least 30 minutes. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Source: Robin Plotkin, RD, LD, robinsbite.com