Spending time with friends and family at a potluck is a great way to celebrate summer. When everyone brings their own dish and shares a special recipe, piece of their culture or their creative inspiration, a potluck becomes an opportunity for great conversations and connections. If you’re one of the millions of Americans trying to stick to a diet or simply eat more healthily, however, that summer potluck might be a source of stress.
Whether you’re looking for a summer potluck salad that is sure to be a hit, a healthy potluck dessert recipe or just want to bring the dish that everybody can’t stop talking about, here are some easy summer potluck recipes to help you out .
What to Bring to a Potluck
Choose your dish ahead of time.
Once you’re invited to a summer potluck, it’s time to decide what to bring. When it comes to potlucks, “planning ahead is the key to success,” says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia.
Make something you know you can eat.
Especially if you’re someone with dietary restrictions or allergies, Jones recommends bringing something that you know you can eat. That way, if you get there and aren’t sure what’s in other dishes, you can count on knowing that yours will be safe.
Set a realistic timeline.
Additionally, Jones says to “be realistic about the amount of time you can commit. A lot of times people will commit to these dishes and then realize they don’t have time to prepare because they didn’t realize how much time was involved.”
When you do your grocery shopping, pick up all of the ingredients you’ll need for your dish and leave plenty of time to prepare it before the potluck. Luckily, these summer potluck ideas are easy, delicious and adaptable to many different diets and food restrictions.
Summer Potluck Guide
Read our expert guide to ensure the tastiest and healthiest summer potluck dishes.
Create a watermelon bowl.
Cesar Sauza, a registered dietitian at AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, recommends a fruit-centered summer potluck dish. One fun way of upgrading a classic fruit salad is by creating a watermelon bowl. Cut the watermelon in half crosswise, scoop out the fruit and use the rind as a bowl. Mix some grapes, strawberries, pineapple or even cucumber cubes with cubes of watermelon to create a well-presented potluck centerpiece. If the watermelon doesn’t rest evenly on the table, Sauza says to cut the rind that touches the table slightly to create a flatter bottom.
Turn fruit kabobs into an activity for kids.
Another fun way to bring fruit to a potluck, Sauza says, is by creating fruit kabobs. Pick out a few fruits at the grocery store that aren’t super ripe, so that they still stick on a kabob. Grapes, strawberries, pineapple and melon are some options that won’t fall off easily. Cut them into cubes and pierce with a wooden skewer for an easy, mess-free fruit option.
Prepare a fun activity for kids by washing and cutting the fruits beforehand, but keeping them in separate bowls. Then, “let the kids put it together themselves,” Sauza notes. “Each one of their kabobs looks a little bit different, and you can see their personality come out a little bit. The one thing we make sure to do is to have different colors (of fruit).”
What about sugar in fruits?
Watermelon sometimes gets a bad rap because some people worry it’s too high in sugar. But Sauza says that the sugar content in watermelon is “actually very minimal because it’s mainly water.”
When it comes to picking out fruits for your salad, Sauza recommends buying whichever fruits are cheapest at the grocery store, as long as they look fresh too. Cheaper fruits doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad – they’re just what’s in season.
Fruits are a great healthy summer potluck food for several different reasons, Sauza says. They’re high in antioxidants and vitamin C, and watermelon in particular is “very high in vitamin A.”
Overall, he says the main health benefits of all fruits are that they are high in fiber and provide necessary hydration and electrolytes for a hot summer potluck day.
For a heartier option, and one that’s easily customizable to a variety of different diets and restrictions, Jones recommends a Mediterranean lentil salad as her go-to easy potluck salad. An added bonus: Skipping the classic salad greens means you don’t even have to worry about this salad wilting in the hot summer sun.
Mediterranean lentil salad
To make this salad, start by cooking lentils as your base. Then, add chopped or diced cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and feta cheese. To take a Mediterranean lentil salad to the next level, add a variety of different colors of tomatoes. Jones says, “I think it makes the color pop, and then I don’t just want to eat it, I also want to photograph it!”
She says that lentil seeds “are good for fiber and protein, and the salad is gluten free and vegetarian. It’s really such a great option for people with different dietary restrictions.”
Fiber from lentils helps you feel more full, so eating a helping of this Mediterranean potluck recipe will make you feel less inclined to snag a cupcake after dinner.
Kate Patton, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition, offers another variation on the lentil salad. She suggests adding even more beans to make a hearty, plant-protein packed dish. While she usually doesn’t recommend canned foods, canned beans are a great way to get inexpensive protein and nutrients into your diet.
In order to make this type of bean/lentil salad even heartier, Patton says to “take chickpeas, black beans, cannellini beans and Great Northern beans, drain them and mix that with extra virgin olive oil, some kind of vinegar, onion, garlic and whatever veggies you have.” For a Mexican-inspired twist on the bean salad, “start with black beans and peppers, and add cilantro and quinoa.”
While many people are used to eating warm beans, she says they’re tasty at any temperature and “very versatile.”
Patton also says that “most Americans don’t get enough plant-based protein,” but this is an easy summer salad that can help you up your plant protein intake.
Another tasty classic potluck recipe option is a pasta salad. Patton suggests skipping the cheese and “instead, throwing in a protein like chickpeas if you want to make it a full, well-rounded meal. You have some carbs from your pasta and protein from your beans.”
You can even add peppers, she says, or any other in-season veggies to make it an even healthier and more colorful pasta salad.
Another great reason to choose a pasta salad is that it’s easy to swap out ingredients for people with different dietary restrictions. To make a gluten-free version, you can buy corn or rice flour-based pasta. Or for an easy keto potluck idea, substitute the pasta for spaghetti squash and stick to the peppers but skip the chickpeas.
Embrace substitutions for healthier brownies.
Dessert tables can be one of the most mouth-watering parts of a summer potluck. For an easy potluck dessert recipe, Jones suggests what she calls “healthy brownies.” All this takes is substituting applesauce for the butter or oil that the boxed mix calls for.
If you’re really ambitious and plan ahead, you can even make healthy brownies from scratch. But Jones says “it’s easier just to get a box recipe and just substitute. It’s not a secret recipe or anything,” but it’s definitely a great way to enjoy a brownie at a summer potluck.
Some summer potluck foods might sound enticing at the moment, but won’t make your body feel good and healthy.
Avoid sugary drinks.
Sauza says the number one thing to stay away from at a summer potluck is sugary beverages. He says they’re “the number one leading cause of obesity in children.”
While sugar from fruits is absorbed through the stomach and isn’t as hard on your body, “when you drink sugar, it’s going to go immediately into the bloodstream. So it’s going to cause immediate spikes in blood sugar, which pretty much is getting your body to produce excess insulin, which could lead to things like weight gain, for example.”
Stay away from processed foods.
In general, Sauza also recommends that people avoid “added sugars and really stick to more of the whole foods.” Some common summertime foods like ketchup, barbecue sauce and processed bread have surprising amounts of added sugars. He says to stick with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins “as it’s not really processed meats like hot dogs.” In fact, some of the whole proteins like chicken, fish or beef are “some of the healthiest things that you’re going to find at a potluck because they’re less processed than some of the other foods.”
Social Health Support
Spending time with family and friends or meeting new people can also be great for your social health. One of the best parts of any potluck – whether that’s a Thanksgiving potluck, a Sunday breakfast potluck or a classic Fourth of July pool potluck, Jones says, is connecting with people and talking to them about what food they brought. Jones loves how “people’s faces light up when they talk about how they contributed and how they made food.”
She encourages people to ask others about where their recipes came from. “Maybe they talk about Aunt Susie’s recipe that was passed down for generations, and they’re still making it. And then you learn about each other’s families and where they’re from. Then you remember three years later when you see that person again, about Aunt Susie.”