Surviving Potluck Season

It’s only a few days until Christmas, which means you’re already a handful of potluck lunches and holiday dinners in, if your calendar looks anything like mine this year.


On top of the normal social gatherings that revolve around food this time of year, the teachers at my school host a week-long culinary orgy in the week leading up to winter break, which they call the Eat-A-Thon. You get a group, sign up for a day Monday through Thursday, and you cater for the school that day (we have a small school- about 40 staff). Today, the Social Science and Math departments collaborated to have bring tamales! On Friday, everybody brings something, and we go out with a massive (belly) bang to start out out three week school break. No lie, the average staff member leaves the week between 5 and 10 pounds heavier than they started it.


Looking to your left and your right at any of these events, towards your colleagues and friends, you’ll see plates stacked high with combinations of food that… are unnatural, to say the least. Potlucks really bring out the weirdest in people- free food seems to take the idea of what a person would normally eat, or should put on their plates together, and throws them right out the fucking window. Cherry jello squares with banana slices melting on my creamy mashed potatoes balanced precariously atop some take-out low mean with a hot wing on the side? No problem, par for the course at a potluck. By the end, at least half of the people in the room are leaned back in their chair with a film of greasy sweat across their forehead, defeated.



I don’t like that feeling. I don’t like how that feeling makes me feel about how I’ve treated myself.




I have a few simple guidelines that help me approach these scenarios while maintaining my sanity:
1. Make it clear that your plate is not up for discussion.

This never-ending sea of mismatched calories is enough to cause anxiety for anybody. If you happen to be the resident “fit person” at the party, or the people around you know you’ve been losing weight, this can be further compounded by the feelings of judgement passed as it seems everyone’s eyes are on your plate- or worse, they come with the comments about what you “are allowed to eat,” what or what isn’t “on your meal plan,” how “you must be able to eat that because you’re just going to go work it all off anyhow,” exclamations of “I didn’t think you could eat carbs!” “Oh, cheat day, huh?”or pseudo-guilty comments about how they “really shouldn’t, and don’t normally eat these things, but…”

Can we just fucking not?

Let’s fucking not.

This is my number one complaint about potlucks, personally. As the campus bodybuilder, the contents of my plate are constantly under scrutiny, and before I’ve even made it to the end of the first table, I’ve fielded at least three of the above comments, and my patience for it is wearing thin.

At the first comment, I give a firm, “I’ll be happy to manage my own plate, thank you,” or “I came here to socialize the same as everyone else. Could we just enjoy this time?” does quite well in warding off further comments. A bit curt? Maybe so- but it’s nobody’s goddamn place to make your eating habits a topic of discussion when there is literally an entire world of other, more appropriate conversations to be had. People generally realize they’re out of line pretty quickly.

2. Don’t feel guilty about the food, or the calories- just choose things that are “worth it” to you.

Potlucks are notorious for being host to tables full of Costco chicken wings in crock pots and clamshells full of store-bought chocolate chip cookies the size of dinner plates. But sometimes… sometimes you get somebody (like me!) who uses it as an opportunity to showcase their kitchen prowess.

Why yes, yes I did make this maple cheesecake with gingersnap crust! (Don't you wish you came to my potluck events?)
Why yes, yes I did make this maple cheesecake with gingersnap crust and toasted cinnamon and sea salt pecans! (Don’t you wish you came to my potluck events?)

Nestled among the prepackaged brownies, you’ll find a homemade cinnamon cheesecake with dulce de leche swirls and homemade cinnamon whipped cream. Alongside that crock put of canned chili, you’ll find a platter of carefully constructed spring rolls, or mini frittatas. Are you going to be satisfied by those store cookies? I doubt it. They’re going to taste like the inside of a grocery store smells (admit it, that’s the most accurate description of grocery store cookies you’ve never thought of). But that cheesecake? I bet it’s divine- and I bet every mouthful will bring you a tiny wave of tastebud pleasure.

Choose homemade foods, echo con amor, or maybe things you only get seasonally, or things you don’t make at home (I’m looking directly at tamales on all counts, here…). You can get a Costco sheet cake any day you want, so skip it in favor of the rum cake your coworker only makes once a year. I typically try to avoid anything that came in a package at a potluck for this reason. Just because something is free doesn’t make it good. Don’t eat things just because they exist- choose things that are good. As you’re going through the line, just ask yourself, “do I want this, or am I taking it because it’s there? Will I feel satisfied by eating this? Is this worth it to me?” and I bet you’ll avoid a plate full of frozen lasagna and store-bought cake pretty easily.

3. Stop feeling obligated.

You did your part- you brought your famous spinach artichoke dip. You went through the line, decided what was worth it… but then, something wasn’t, or a coworker guilted you into a spoonful of their potato salad, and it’s really. not. worth it. What do?

Don’t eat it. 

The Clean Plate Club stopped existing when you moved out of your parents’ house. You are not obligated to eat a goddamn thing on that plate, and you don’t need to excuse it either. If your coworker wants to question you on your solitary bite of their dish, you can be honest (“it didn’t mesh well with my other items/I’m not a big garlic fan”) or you can go with the “getting too full,” option, or you can say nothing at all. In five mines, they’ll have forgotten completely. If you really feel bad about throwing away someone’s food, like, you’re seated next to them and don’t want to make them feel bad, I go with the pretend emergency. Quick glance at your phone like it vibrated, make wide eyes, then excuse yourself quickly as though you need to make a phone call. Take your plate, and return without it, saying only, “sorry about that, all taken care of!” But seriously, if you don’t love it, don’t eat it.

It’s really that simple. You are an adult, and you decide what to put in your body. Own it.


4. Just taste it. Just a little bit. Just the tip.

Cheesecake is good.

A sliver of cheesecake, a few mouthfuls of heaven, is good. Half of a cheesecake is… less good. One is going to leave a happy little twinkle in your eye, and the other, a heavy brick in your stomach.

Perhaps the hardest thing to manage at a pot luck is portion control.


With all of the piles and bowls and crock pots overflowing, it’s easy to take large servings of many items, but do you need four cookies and a brownie and apple pie? Or might you be satisfied trying a small piece of a couple of different desserts? To me, it’s always worth doing tiny tastes. Be that guy. Be the guy who cuts a brownie in half. Someone else will be grateful to take the other half, I promise, and you’ll be pleased to have tried that and a few bites of the receptionist’s peach cobbler without feeling like you’ve overshot your calories for the rest of the month.


5. Don’t deny yourself in the lead-up

I find that if I hit the buffet with a completely empty belly, I get absolutely ravenous and quickly lose control when confronted with massive quantities of food. If this is you, know this about yourself and own it- then try to stop it before it starts. Prior to hitting the food tables hard, don’t starve yourself to save calories. Instead, have a salad or some veggies and chicken or other lean protein, something low calorie but high volume, so that your  belly isn’t dying by the time you get there, encouraging you to gorge yourself. This does double duty by helping to make sure you get some protein and fiber, two things often conspicuously absent in pot luck fare.


Remember: You will not starve to death if you do not fill yourself to the point of feeling stuffed, and you do not need to feel as though just because food is in front of you and is free, you need to fill up so you don’t “miss out on the opportunity.”  This isn’t your last supper- there will be more food, another time.


6. Give yourself some slack, and some credit.

Of course, all of these tips require some form of self-control to  be exercised, and some element of self-knowledge, as well. Try to come into the event without anxiety, which I find only serves to make things worse. Approaching the food line already thinking, “this day is fucked,” isn’t going to help you make decisions that will make you happy. Come feeling confident that you can make decisions that will make you feel good physically, and without feeling deprived. Come feeling positive in your ability to treat yourself well without feeling left out.


Remember that this is a celebration, and unless you’re getting ready for a show date or trying to make a weight class, not every macro needs to be tracked, or even estimated all the time. There’s something to be said about enjoying a social situation without staring at your food tacking app half the meal, stressing over entering properly. Think about what you put on your plate. You can track it loosely later if you really want to, but be mindful and enjoy yourself in the moment.

Your diet will always be there after the party, but you can’t get back the moments you waste with your friends and family staring at your phone trying to figure out how many carbs might be in that homemade mac and cheese, and my guess is it’s a lot tastier if you eat it warm with a side of laughter.


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