Getting dishes from point A to point B―without it crumbling, spilling, or sliding―is no piece of cake. Here's how to keep everything intact, plus some helpful potluck pointers.

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vegetables and turkey in plastic containers
Reality:Ideally, when you refrigerate food, it should be cool enough to prevent it from fostering the growth of bacteria and from warming up the food around it to an unsafe temperature (above 40° F). But leaving food out to cool at room temperature also makes it a potential breeding ground for bacteria. Rich Vergili, a food-safety instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, recommends putting containers of hot food into cold water or ice baths to drop their temperature. Or break it up into smaller portions so it cools to a safe level quickly. Bottom line: The faster food cools down, the safer it is. Lower the temperature of containers of hot food by placing them in cold water.
| Credit: Sang An

Type of food: Hot casserole
Transport tips: Reach for a cardboard box and some bath or beach towels, advises Molly Stevens, coeditor of The 150 Best American Recipes (Houghton Mifflin, $30, Place the casserole in the box and pack rolled or folded towels around the dish, including a couple of layers underneath and on top to keep things from sliding and spilling. "The towels help keep the food warm," says Stevens. "And if any juices do slosh, the towels soak them up."

Type of food: Bite-size foods
Transport tips: Start by placing a kitchen towel on a baking sheet, says Susan Gage, founder of Susan Gage Catering, in Washington, D.C. Affix the towel to the sheet with tape (masking, packing, or duct will do), then arrange the individual items on the towel. Then wrap the entire baking sheet tightly with plastic wrap. To keep the sheet from sliding all over the trunk, Gage recommends placing it on a nonskid mat (the kind you would use to keep a rug in place).

Type of food: Pie
Transport tips: If you're dealing with a crumb crust, invert an empty pie plate on top of the pie, then wrap a large sheet of foil around the two plates to hold them together, suggests Gale Gand, executive pastry chef and partner at Cenitare and Tru restaurants, in Chicago. If you're dealing with a fluted crust, place a piece of double-stick foam tape on a baking sheet, place the pie on top, invert a large bowl over it, then tape the bowl in place, says Gand.

Type of food: Cold dishes
Transport tips: "Newspapers are really good insulation around a small container you need to keep cold," says Fran McCullough, coeditor of The 150 Best American Recipes. Place the sealed item in an insulated bag, a wooden basket, or a cardboard box, and surround it with crumpled comics (slip in some frozen ice packs, if you have them, for good measure). When you get to your destination, toss the soggy Sunday paper onto the recycling pile.

Potluck Politics

Just because you arrived with your designated dish intact doesn't mean your job is done. To ensure you don't add to your host's last-minute scrambling or stress level, mind the following potluck p's and q's:

  • Ask beforehand how many people your dish needs to feed.
  • Arrive with your food at the temperature it should be served. Chances are the oven will be spoken for, so travel only with hot items that also taste good lukewarm.
  • Bring your recipe in a proper serving dish. If that's impractical, call the host a day or two in advance and ask if she has a bowl of the right size. If not, bring one with your name and phone number taped to the bottom.