Knowing your audience is half the battle when planning what to take to a potluck dinner. The further in advance you know about the dinner, the easier it is for the organizer to have people say in advance what they’ll bring. That way, you can more easily coordinate your dish to complement what others are bringing.
Learn in advance whether any guests have food allergies or dietary restrictions. That way, you won’t show up to a vegetarian festival with a pot roast under your arm, or accidentally make a nut-filled dish for a group of nut-allergy sufferers. Beyond that, find out about any dishes the organizer knows about, so you can avoid dish duplication. Taco dip is nice, but if everyone shows up with taco dip and no one brings an entree, those attending the dinner may be unsatisfied and hungry at the end.
Party platters filled with dips, small pieces of bread or crackers, and sliced raw vegetables are crowd-pleasers at potlucks. Trays of cubed sausages and cheeses with toothpicks also appeal to a broad audience, and are safe to leave out at room temperature during the dinner. Bring any special serving equipment your dish requires. Small knives for spreading dips, toothpicks to spear cheeses and tongs to aid sanitary retrieval of vegetables from the crudite platter are some suggestions.
One-pot meals are usually your best option for potluck dinners. Your grandma’s famous chicken and dumplings, a knockout pot of slow-cooked baked beans or a casserole-type dish like shepherd’s pie are all good options. These dishes feed a lot of people, and all they require to dish is a serving spoon. Avoid complicated dishes that are tricky to serve. An oven-roasted chicken is tasty, but not ideal for most potlucks -- unless the potluck in question is a chicken roast-off. Many meals you can cook in a slow-cooker are ideal. If you have a slow-cooker that seals well for travel, it’s even easier.
Go for broad appeal and simplicity with any dessert you bring to a potluck dinner. Bring a pan full of brownies or fudge that you’ve cut ahead of time, or a batch of cookies or cupcakes. Whole cakes and pies are welcome, but keep in mind that they’ll take more time and effort to cut, plate and serve. Most people also won’t turn down a nice scoop of ice cream -- with or without other desserts alongside it.