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Five Tips For Surviving the Company Potluck

Is your office having a holiday potluck this year? Yes? My condolences.

I always feel a certain amount of trepidation whenever I'm facing down a large potluck spread of homemade items prepared by God Knows Who. As I gaze down into the casserole dish boasting ingredients I kind of sort of recognize (hmm, is that spinach?), I'm lost in my own 8" x 12" pan of panic-induced pondering. Who made this? How was it prepared? What's in it? Are any of the ingredients expired? Did a cat, dog or toddler sneak a lick or pick when the cook wasn't looking? And the biggie: Will I get sick if I eat it?

The rational side of me knows that the mystery meat peeking out from underneath the undetermined red sauce in the 9" x 17" baking pan is most likely fine, and it's not like I'm wandering into the kitchen at my favorite fast-casual dining establishments to watch the food preparers do their jobs. But still: I have a far higher trust of restaurant-prepared food than of potluck food, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a fear of the unknown? My potluck-loving friends think I'm sort of weird -- a few of them literally gasped when I shared my fear of potlucks -- but I've simply never felt like there is a pot of gold awaiting me at the end of this committee-mandated culinary rainbow. A stomach ache or foodborne illness, maybe, but not much else.

Go ahead and put me on the record as saying the office potluck is a ritual to be endured, not embraced.

Companies, however, aren't about to stick a fork in this tired tradition because they can save a chunk of money by having employees go BYOD (Bring Your Own Dish). Paranoid potluck haters -- a desperate, silent group comprised of more people than one might think -- can feel like sending out an urgent SOS as soon as they get the memo to bring a huge appetite and a hamburger tater tot casserole. So...how to deal, especially this time of year? Here are my five tips for surviving the company potluck:

1. Eat beforehand. You forgot about the potluck and you're already full. So sorry! You shouldn't have gone to Quizno's beforehand, right? Oh, well, maybe next year. (Not.) For now, you'll just grab a soda and watch your co-workers graze on that homemade sweet potato garnish dish. Oh, are those store-bought cookies? You can always make room for dessert...

2. Bring something store-bought. On that note, go ahead and bring something you bought at the store. There's no shame in it anymore -- really! You're a busy professional who has better things to do than to remember how to use an oven. Okay, the office cooks will look down their noses at you but you'll increase the chances of certainty and your fellow potluck-hating co-workers will love you for it. Anyone with allergies will appreciate having a few nutrition facts boxes to read, too. Stand back and bask in the warm glow of watching your chosen item get snapped up faster than a loose football in a championship game. Think of it this way: You're on a mission to make it okay to buy instead of bake. Feels good, doesn't it?

3. Say you're on a "special diet."
I'd love to try some of your macaroni salad, but I'm on a quote-unquote special diet! Suddenly you can't eat, well, most of anything and it just so happens to be company potluck day. Funny how things work out. You might also say that you're starting a diet or "watching your weight" and then hope your co-workers will overlook the bag of Bugles you snarfed down yesterday at your desk. If anyone asks for details, make them up as you go along. For you, talking means you're not eating. Sure, you're potentially telling a white lie, but we're in the middle of an obesity epidemic so if anyone gives you any crap about not wanting to eat your weight in cream of chicken soup just cite a few national statistics. You're welcome.

4. Arrive late to avoid the stampede. You're running late because you were "on the phone with a customer" or "had to take care of something." By the time you arrive, the potluck will be pretty picked over since your co-workers will have been through the line at least once. You'll have to settle for the last slice of Domino's pizza. Darn it! Go ahead and take one for the team. At most workplaces, arriving 15 minutes late should suffice.

5. Aim for small portions. We've all done it: You fill your plate with food, nosh on something that tastes like wallboard, and then wish you hadn't put so much of it on your plate. It's Murphy's Law that the potluck item that takes up the most room on your plate is the one you'll like the least, too. Suddenly, you feel incredibly conspicuous, especially to the cook who made the dish. Will she notice that I hate what she made? So, so busted. Soggy Chinet plate full of food meet overflowing garbage can when no one is looking. Next time, go small and then go home -- or through the Taco Bell drive-thru.

Don't worry; you'll survive. Now get to work on your company potluck avoidance plan. Don't be afraid to get creative. Good luck.

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