There’s nothing like a school or daycare potluck to bring on a burst of competitive parenting.  Personally, I dread the cheerful closing, “Bring a dish to share!” because I instantly start to think about how everyone in the room is going to judge my lack of Martha Stewart skills. I’m useless at baking, and barely have the time to make a grilled cheese for dinner, let alone a layer cake or ginger scone for a party. That starts at 4:30pm. On a school night.

When it’s friends only, they know my schedule, my quirks, and still like and appreciate me.  And I feel the same way about them. I once had a potluck for a bunch of working moms, and we had seven containers of hummus and one dish of paleo-friendly chocolate truffles. Everyone had a good laugh, and ate a lot of hummus.

But when it’s other parents, it can trigger all sorts of insecurities. It’s easy to start comparing my potluck choices to other parents’ potluck choices, which is really just a proxy for comparing life choices and values. Good mothers bake cookies from scratch. How can they expect me to cook something when I’ve just returned from a 3-day business trip? I can’t let anyone know that I make my kids scrambled eggs for dinner three nights a week. Maybe I should take a day off from work so I can bake something spectacular. My family recipes include hot dog casserole and shake and bake chicken – I can’t let anyone know!

We all make different choices in life about our careers, our time, our family life, and how we make our kids feel loved and valued. This results in a unique – and special – family experience for everyone, with good parts, bad parts, fun parts, and not-so-fun parts. Instead of focusing on how the grass is greener in homes with cookie-makers, why not celebrate our unique choices? Your family is number one in its category because there is no other family quite like yours. That’s something to celebrate, not something to hide.

And a potluck is a perfect opportunity to explore and define your unique family brand. Basically, there are three elements to a potluck dish:

  1. What you prepare
  2. How you present it
  3. Your marketing strategy

Each element is a way for you to own and celebrate the choices and priorities of your family. There’s really no right or wrong way to approach it, and it’s a way to channel any competitive feelings into something that’s pretty fantastic and fun.

What you prepare:

Buy it or make it from scratch? This is the first key question and wholly depends on your level of culinary expertise, interest and passion for cooking, and amount of time you have to prepare a dish.  You could have ALL day long to make a really complicated dish and you LOVE to cook.  You could have ALL day long to make something and HATE to cook.  Or you could have negative five minutes to stop at CVS on your way from the office.  If you make it from scratch, it can be easy, complex, baked, thrown together, from a recipe, or improvised.  If you buy it, you can go to the corner market, your favorite takeout place, the farmer’s market, the convenience store, or Whole Foods. Luckily, what you actually prepare is the element that matters the least.

How you present it:

Again, this is about naming your style.  Family heirloom?  Recycled materials?  Takeout containers? Custom Tupperware?  You could make your serving dish the centerpiece of it all or you could make a statement with your commitment to recycling.  For example, my husband is a huge chips and salsa fan.  If we just decided to bring chips and salsa to all potluck events, we could purchase a dish that allows for a salsa trio plus two kinds of chips.  We ALWAYS have chips and salsa in the house, so anytime the potluck email comes, we’d be ready to go.

Your marketing strategy:

This, of course, is the most important element.  Your marketing strategy puts your unique spin on whatever it is you bring. If you show up with unwashed berries and a plastic bowl you just bought at Whole Foods (true story, I swear) along with a shameful pout on your face, you are NOT a winner.  Are you soft or snarky? Are you organic or processed? What’s your unique brand?

When you put these three elements together, you end up with your unique family potluck brand. There are unlimited ways you can put this together into a total package, but here are some ideas:

  • Cooking just comes naturally to me: Think fried rice with last week’s leftover veggies served with chopsticks.
  • I know it’s not special, but it’s one of my kids’ favorites: Bonus if this is something like spicy fish tacos or escargot.
  • Don’t mess with my heritage: It’s a family tradition to bring <<fill in the blank>> to parties.  This could be home-made empanadas or store-bought spaghetti and frozen meatballs.
  • Lean-In: I was so busy teaching my daughter how to be a breadwinner, I didn’t have time to teach her how to bake bread. But we bought a $7 loaf at the best bakery in town.
  • My porcelain is beautiful: Buy it at Whole Foods; put it in a dish you own.
  • It’s what they want anyway: A pizza, french fries from the local fast food joint,  over-sugared grocery store cupcakes, M&Ms.
  • Whole and simple: Think berries, olives, cheese
  • I am so sensitive to your allergies: Gluten-ovo-lacto free dish, like a glass of water.
  • I’m efficient at outsourcing: Something catered from the local deli or grocery store
  • The fun is in the preparation: Make your own tacos, sushi, bruschetta
  • Classy and classic: Cheese and crackers, crusty bread and olive oil
  • It just looks impressive: Pasta with fresh tomatoes, spinach, and a moldy cheese or feta dip made in your blender
  • I like to garden: Tomato and basil with balsamic.  (Doesn’t need to actually be from your garden.)
  • Your allergies do not concern me: Something full of gluten, eggs, and dairy. You probably want to avoid the peanuts unless you want to be a toddler killer.

In the world of work, school, and parenting, it’s easy to sharpen your kitchen knives or frosting tubes at the first word of potluck.  I’m a competitive person and I like to win, but I really don’t like the whole game of judging other mothers and fathers. We all work hard to create families and traditions that work for us, so why not show them off instead of keep them in the closet for public events? I strive to place first in a unique category that I define, a category that no one else will know even exists until I name it.  And it’s totally me and reflects my values as a working professional, feminist, and mom and the values I hope to instill in my kids.