How to Be a Good Dinner Guest: 41 Rules

August 4th, 2014 · 48 Comments · Entertaining, Rules

We entertain a lot. For us, it’s the best way to combine two things that we love to do: See friends and cook food. Hardly a weekend goes by when we don’t have someone over, whether its our parents (grilled yogurt-marinated chicken), our daughter’s piano teacher and her husband (grilled fish tacos with pineapple salsa), or our favorite babysitter (Korean pancakes). This past weekend, we had a dinner party for eight, and, to lessen the host’s load a bit, everybody came with something delicious, which was lovely: Prosecco and cured meats, ingredients for a special cocktail, and best of all, Sara’s homemade graham crackers and homemade marshmallows for homemade s’mores, which — as we were eating them outside under the patio lights, dyyhhing of happiness and gratitude – really reminded us about all the things that make a dinner guest a good dinner guest. Forty-one things to be exact. Here goes:

1. Don’t start eating before the host sits down. Even when the host says, “The steak is getting cold! Don’t wait for me to sit down!”

2. If the host doesn’t remember to raise a glass before eating, there should be nothing stopping you from doing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be clever or profound. A simple “Cheers, thanks, it’s so great to see you guys” will do.

3. “Cheers to you guys, we honestly never thought you’d make it this long” will not.

4. Try not to come empty-handed. A small host gift is always appreciated, especially when that small host gift is a 90-year-old, leather bound, playing-card size book of English poetry from something called the “Little Leather Library” that happens to contain the very poem your host’s father read to her on her wedding day. (Linda and Hubert, you guys win Dinner Guests of the Year.)

5. A tiny Weck jar filled with homemade purple-basil infused simple syrup that, drizzled over some gin and ice, upgrades the evening’s cocktail hour exponentially? Yeah, that works, too. (Simone, a very close second.)

6. We are big fans of giving farm market host gifts — a dozen fresh eggs, good bacon from that upstate farm, the pomegranate chutney we can only get a few times a year — but there is nothing wrong with a bottle of wine, ever.

7. Sick of bringing wine? Good news: Olive Oil is the New Wine.

8. If you’re an extremely generous guest and you bring a $260 bottle of pre-chilled chablis to someone’s house, only to see the host put it in the back of the refrigerator and pour you a tall glass of the already-opened Yellow Tail Chardonnay instead, you must swallow hard and take what’s coming to you. This is known as the Host’s Prerogative, and it must be respected.

9. If you are an extremely generous guest and you bring a $260 bottle of pre-chilled chablis to someone’s house, and the host opens it on the spot, there is no need to remind everyone, with each sip, that they are drinking a $260 bottle of chablis.

10. While any gift is of course appreciated, think twice before you bring cut flowers. As nice as they are, they force a busy host to stop making dinner and root around for a vase.

11. Unless you bring then already arranged in the vase, that is. That them there is class!

12. If there is no clear seating arrangement at dinner, resist the urge to sit next to your spouse.

13. If there is no clear seating arrangement at dinner, resist the urge to break down along gender lines — there’s nothing more depressing than delivering on the stereotype, and realizing one side of the table is talking about book club and the other is talking about the Yankees.

14. The host should never be cooking alone in the kitchen while everyone else is enjoying an purple basil-infused glass of gin on the patio. It’s nice to hang out with him or her, offer to help, and if she declines, keep her company.

15. An aversion is not an allergy. Try your best to choke down what’s on your plate — even if you don’t like it.

16. Hands off the Sonos, bro.

17. Unless your babysitter is calling, don’t answer it.

18. For that matter, iPhones off the table. Unless what’s on your plate is too pretty not to instagram or it’s time to show a few good vacation pics, keep it in your pocket.

19. Speaking of instagram. Tagging your host in the shot of the grilled short ribs? Flattering! Moving your plate of the grilled short ribs to the spot on the table with the best light and prop-styling with salt cellars? Annoying. (I’m so sorry, Todd. I still feel awful about that night.)

20. When the vacation pics happen — and they will happen — feign interest in all 780 iPhone photos of your host’s trip to Istanbul, including the ones of stray cats.

21. Always a home run conversation topic: Your neighbors.

22. Never a home run conversation topic: Politics, religion, the weather, your carpool schedule, your bunions.

23. Three words: Enthusiasm, curiosity, and gratitude.

24. If you’re not the dinner party type, an open house around the holidays is a great way to deal with overdue reciprocating. Kill every bird with one stone.

25. Fifteen minutes late is a relief. Thirty is acceptable. An hour is borderline uncool, and an excuse to commence drinking without you. More than an hour, and there will be a voodoo doll in the drawer with your face on it.

26. Until you show up, in which case, the best hosts will forgive you on the spot.

27. If it’s a potluck and you are in charge of the appetizers, try not to arrive late.

28. If it’s a potluck and you are in charge of a side dish, you can’t go wrong with just-needs-to-be-heated-at-300° homemade mac-and-cheese. (Coming soon to a Playbook near you.)

29. If it’s a potluck and you are in charge of appetizers or a side dish…what’s wrong with you? Pro-tip: ALWAYS volunteer to be in charge of wine. No cooking, no on-site prepping and plating, no puzzling over portion size.

30. Go off, but don’t get sloppy. You don’t want to wake up the next morning, with your eyeballs pounding, and ask your spouse, “Were we the guests from hell?” Not that we’ve ever done that.

31. People never get tired of hearing they have a nice home.

32. It’s not a terrible idea to say how much you like what you are eating, even if what you are eating looks like what you gave the cat that morning.

33. And if you can’t bring yourself to express how much you love the food, express interest instead: How did you manage to get such deep brown color and moist consistency? Is this a family recipe? Where does one find abalone around here? 

34. Make yourself at home.

35. To a point. Like, maybe you and the host are old friends and you shared a college dorm room together, but it’s not suuuuper appealing, twenty years later, as the rest of the party is standing in the kitchen eating steak, when you come out of the bathroom and say, DAMN, WHERE THE MATCHES AT?

36. You’ve got 24 — maybe 48 — hours to send an email or text thanking the host for dinner. If you were there as a couple, it’s perfectly acceptable for one of you to send the thank-you, cc’ing the other. (Note to our future hosts: This has never been our strong suit.)

37. A handwritten note in the mail is just about the nicest thing a host can receive, but not in any way shape or form expected.

38. Or we could probably all take a cue from our mothers, both of whom forego the text, the email, and the handwritten note, and call… on the telephone… to say how lovely everything was. And also to gossip.

39. We love you guys and consider you dear friends, but we don’t really need to know about your sex life.

40. Don’t overstay your welcome.

41. If the host is yawning loudly and switching the lights on and off in the kitchen, you have probably overstayed your welcome. As PT Barnum once said — a guy who knew something about entertaining — always leave ‘em wanting more.

Cartoon by Robert Weber for the New Yorker. Forgive the small print. I couldn’t find a larger file and it was too good not to post.


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48 responses so far ↓

  • 1 brooker // Aug 4, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    HA HA HA. You forgot #42, if you are going to bring two guests with you, please make sure you tell the host! That happened to me last weekend and it was not pretty!!!! Love this.

  • 2 Jan @ Family Bites // Aug 4, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Oh, I love your lists. Cheers to another brilliant one!

  • 3 Karen B. // Aug 4, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    Great list! Add, “don’t bring a Macy’s bag full of tupperware to take the leftovers home”. I have had guests who did this and one time they took every scrap of white meat from my turkey on Thanksgiving and the last slices of pie. I learned to put the food away fast before they could get up from the table but they would still get out their dishes and start filling them asking ” where’s that blueberry pie? I just want to take a sliver for later”. I don’t entertain them any more.

  • 4 Jenny // Aug 4, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    @karen b: Wow. That wins some kind of horrible guest prize. But it’s also kind of hilarious.

  • 5 Awads // Aug 4, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    yup! we have family dinner parties quite regularly b/c i like to cook (from DALS!) and it beats getting sitters. i would add #42 don’t ASK what you can bring (it always stumps me). just bring wine!!

  • 6 Kristen // Aug 4, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    I haven’t even made my way through the list yet and I just had to comment and say that I’ve been using your ‘Olive Oil is the new wine’ trick since you posted it and I am obsessed! Always so well-received. Couldn’t love this blog anymore! :)

  • 7 Dana // Aug 4, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Love this list! Somewhat related to #12 — keep host company but don’t hover!! I try to make it look effortless, but it’s hard to carry on a full-blown conversation in our tiny, cramped DC kitchen … hence why I’ve put appetizers far away from me for you to enjoy :)

  • 8 Meghan Adair // Aug 4, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    I am dying of laughter over here!! Oy vey, this is good.

  • 9 christi // Aug 4, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Seriously – this tupperware thing must be WIDELY accepted. When my husband’s extended family comes they bring tupperware and have ZERO shame in taking ALL of something home with them. The hostess gift can be kind of dicey…. often when we go for the first time I have no idea what to take – and even when going for dinner there aren’t always a lot of “foodies” around.

  • 10 A Life From Scratch // Aug 4, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    I’m so with you on the flowers!! I always bring mine already in water in a mason jar :)

  • 11 Amy P // Aug 4, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Hostess gifts always stump me. I’ve brought a potted herb before to someone who had just moved and was hosting us for dinner – I think that’s the only time that I’ve felt I’ve nailed it. I don’t think expensive hostess gifts are necessary, especially if you plan to return the dinner invite. We live in the Pacific Northwest, and sadly, few of our friends are food-crazy so bringing them gourmet ingredients or specialty kitchen gadgets would likely just stump them.

  • 12 Evie // Aug 4, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    I love this! Especially the flower/vase rule. And why must guests always bring flowers? I almost always have mine arranged to fit the theme prior to the event. That being said, I will always welcome a beautiful orchid or a pot of lavender. And I would like to add, that whatever tiffs or trysts you’ve been engaging in with your spouse/family prior to arriving, should be left at the door. I want to be the hostess not the counselor.

  • 13 Sonya Cobb // Aug 4, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Printing this out for future reference! ;) And I totally agree with Awads – don’t ask what you can bring. I appreciate the thought, but love creative surprises (or wine) even more.

  • 14 Andi // Aug 4, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Except for the bit about flowers. I say this because I hosted a dinner party last week for which I forgot to buy flowers, and a guest who I told not to bring anything brought fresh-cut flowers from her garden. And it was our first chance to use a lovely vase we got as a wedding gift. As for vases, I .do. .not. .like. getting another generic florist vase. We had to get rid of half a dozen of them when we moved. So I guess the answer is to know your host with regards to flowers and vases…?

  • 15 Julie // Aug 4, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Yes to everything. I don’t know if this is a Seattle thing only because it’s such a casual town but it drives me a little batty that so many dinner guests bring a bag of groceries to the house to prep in our kitchen for their potlucks. I have to fish out my knifes and cutting boards and olive oil and salt, etc. Could we add a rule about bringing food to a potluck that only requires warming or grilling?

  • 16 Kristen // Aug 4, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    Best hostess gift I ever received was a loaf of freshly baked banana bread, fresh orange juice and a bottle of champagne. Breakfast of hangover champions!

  • 17 Juliet // Aug 4, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Yes to bringing wine, but also something non-alcoholic like exotic juices or fancy fizzy drinks. Don’t leave the sober drivers and pregnant women sipping flat coke all night!

  • 18 Ali // Aug 4, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    I disagree with number 1 and a lot of the others. as much as it’s a host’s job to make the guests feel comfortable, a big part of being a good guest is about making the host feel comfortable. it can be really daunting to throw a dinner party, so let the host do it their way and listen to what they tell you!
    I don’t know if it’s just me but there’s no subtext at my place. if I tell you we’re starting at 7.30, that means the house will be clean, I’ll be dressed, and food ready to go at 7.30. so turn up then! if I tell you not to bring anything, Do Not Bring Anything. “don’t worry about cleaning up, I’ll do it later” means exactly that. “no, I don’t need any help thanks” means I get nervous with people watching me, so get out of the kitchen.
    I guess this is a good list for if you get invited somewhere where you don’t know the people well, but I think each group of friends has their own set of rules…

  • 19 Ali // Aug 4, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    @Julie – just saw your comment. Yes! I hate that! I’m not a fan of potluck style dinners in general, so much Tupperware to wash up and keep track of returning, there’s always way too much food, and if one person’s dish doesn’t get eaten they start making awkward jokes about how no one likes their food. and what if none of it goes together well?

    Am I the only one who likes to plan out the whole menu, drinks and snacks to go together and do it all myself? is that weird? I like providing for my friends and I never expect reciprocal invitations or anything like that. I just really like cooking!

  • 20 Kat // Aug 4, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    So . . . yes, okay. Funny. And very true and insightful, and certainly we’ve all met people for whom this would be good advice. Yet maybe this is all better left unsaid, except between spouses? This reads very BA and not as laissez-faire DALS as we usually get from you. Don’t we all host because we enjoy it, and we want our guests (a.k.a. FRIENDS) to be comfortable and relaxed so that we can be the same, judgement-free?

  • 21 Jenny // Aug 4, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    Thanks for comments everyone. I have spent the last 12 hours answering calls from every guest we’ve ever hosted apologizing for every number you see above! Like all of the more humorous posts we do, this was meant to be silly and tongue-in-cheek — God knows, we have violated every rule here too many times to count, as we tried to make clear. It really is meant in fun, and we love nothing more than having people over — gift or no gift, cut flowers or no cut flowers, on time or an hour late. We’ve done a million posts over the past four years and sometimes the tone doesn’t come off quite right, but the larger point stands: We appreciate a good guest, we had ten of them in our house last week, and many hundreds of others who inspired this list. I hope this makes sense.

  • 22 Vale // Aug 4, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Todd you got called out! And as I can see myself in this situation, Thanks for taking one for the team :)

  • 23 Jenny // Aug 4, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    @Vale – it was not Todd who did anything wrong. It was me — I was calling myself out for being the awful instagramming dinner guest. (See my comment above re: we violate all these, too)

  • 24 joy // Aug 4, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    I love cut flowers! Love them! It only takes a couple minutes to get the vase, and I can easily delegate that to someone else. Plus, the flowers do not mess up whatever menu plan I had. Best hostess gift, far better than a pie or other dessert I didn’t ask for, especially if I said, “nope, no need to bring anything.”

  • 25 CB // Aug 4, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    I love your lists! My number one to guest is your 23…don’t be late!

  • 26 Cate // Aug 4, 2014 at 11:52 pm

    We once had a dinner party and a couple bought their dog and small child without asking. Both were incredibly annoying for our senior cat.

  • 27 Meaghan young // Aug 5, 2014 at 12:47 am

    So funny! Of course tongue in cheek! But what great thoughts! Reminded me of how much fun it is to have dinner guests! :)

  • 28 Judy // Aug 5, 2014 at 4:46 am

    I thought you were bang-on with the tone! Hilarious, and I’m sure I’m guilty of many :D My grandmother, on the other hand, was always faultless.

  • 29 potato queen // Aug 5, 2014 at 8:11 am

    My addition: if I tell you you don’t need to bring anything, I really really mean it! I want you to come to my house and hang out and enjoy whatever the heck we’ve put together. No obligation to bring a gift or a dish. Honest and truly!

  • 30 Carlinne @Cook with 2 Chicks // Aug 5, 2014 at 8:29 am

    I hosted Homecoming dinner for my son and his friends, their dates, and some of the parents. One of the parents brought me wine, the other olive oil and one of the boys brought chocolate covered pretzels! Wine, olive oil, and chocolate? Seriously happy hostess! This list caused several laugh out loud moments

  • 31 Carlinne @Cook with 2 Chicks // Aug 5, 2014 at 8:29 am

    I hosted Homecoming dinner for my son and his friends, their dates, and some of the parents. One of the parents brought me wine, the other olive oil and one of the boys brought chocolate covered pretzels! Wine, olive oil, and chocolate? Seriously happy hostess! This list caused several laugh out loud moments

  • 32 Margit Van Schaick // Aug 5, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Hey, this was fun! Of course, it’s tongue in cheek. Maybe we can have a game going where we each add at least one funny tip about hosting/guesting. Most important, this is the perfect time to start having lots of get-togethers, whether casual or more fancy dinner parties. There’s really no better way to get to know neighbors and engage in building a COMMUNITY. Thanks for the inspiration and several good laughs.

  • 33 Jean // Aug 5, 2014 at 11:12 am

    This is hilarious – you had me laughing the whole way through. And the Tupperware comments are pretty funny, too.

  • 34 Julie // Aug 5, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    #11 reminds me of the “I Love “Lucy” episode in which Lucy becomes disgusted at this very thing: the separation of the men in the living room talking sports, and the women in the kitchen talking/gossiping. Hilarious! And so hard to keep from happening.

  • 35 Elemjay // Aug 6, 2014 at 2:57 am

    Here’s another one – never turn up early. You are bound to find the kitchen looking like a bombsite, my husband still in the shower, and the whole place in uproar! 15 minutes late is SO much better!

    We have a lot of French friends – it is not uncommon for them to turn up 90 minutes late on occasion. By which stage everyone else had had 3 G&Ts and not much to eat and it’s starting to get messy…..

    I have done no 25 before – we were in a lot of trouble!!

  • 36 Marlene // Aug 6, 2014 at 8:56 am

    Love, love, LOVE this!

  • 37 Jessica // Aug 6, 2014 at 9:38 am

    As an allergic, I really wish people would stop tossing the allergy card around unless they’re actually allergic.

    I bring home-made things as a gift to the host, be it jam, pickles, relish, drunken fruit (fruit stored in rum and sugar for months). It’s always appreciated, sometimes more than bought gifts.

  • 38 Cate // Aug 6, 2014 at 9:41 am

    oh I agree with you Jessica. I used to teach cooking in Australia and would go to no end of trouble to accommodation allergies/food intolerances (sometimes at great expense) and then find *some* people would eat/cook with everything. I had no problem at all with legit allergies it was more the people who just wanted everything

  • 39 Jessica // Aug 6, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Homebaked biscuits, bread, freezable pastries and cookies always goes along very well.

  • 40 Jessica // Aug 6, 2014 at 9:54 am

    @Cate, oh yes. I experience that alot. People who say they are allergic to something is found to eat what they said they were allergic to. They just didn’t like that particular dish.

    It causes all sorts of problems for those that are allergic. That can die from nuts, milk, peanuts, stone fruits etc. I once had a serious reaction to pesto. I had asked the person who had made it if it was traditional pesto, as with pine nuts. I asked 3 times. She assured me that there were no addition of other nuts/stone fruit (almonds is technically a stone fruit). Then she said but oh, there are a few almonds in there… Ok, would you please get my purse where there’s an epi-pen and call 911, please.

  • 41 Cate // Aug 6, 2014 at 9:58 am

    @Jessica yes exactly. I have an epipen myself and I know what you mean

  • 42 Meredith // Aug 6, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    I thought I was alone in having guests that brought a bag of Tupperware along with them. Four different people, four (Walmart) bags of Tupperware…all of them were related though. They would take every scrap of everything. A lot too. For themselves and for people who couldn’t be bothered to show up “but who loved my cooking!”. And yeah, I do not cook for them anymore.

  • 43 Tina // Aug 6, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    As a food allergy parent, the rule in our house is that no one is allowed to bring food into our home. This is unfortunate, as we would love to consume the foodie finds or chocolate, but our home is our child’s safe haven, and everything in it must not kill her. So for our house, wine would be great, olive oil or fancy salt, or flowers, or better yet, a book you’ve loved or think I will love.. but not food. My favourite guest brings books for my daughter, which is amazingly generous. We can’t do potlucks, we can’t do food gifts, we can’t do bakeries or food from other people’s kitchens. We do advise guests of this, but some just go ahead anyway, saying “It hasn’t got peanuts in it” – but they don’t consider cross contamination and supply chain and everything else we’ve learned, so if you bring us food, it’s just as likely to head home with you again. As a result, we don’t give food gifts either (modelling good behaviour, not wanting to complicate someone else’s allergies). Host gifts, like teacher gifts, are so much harder when you can’t rely on consumables!

  • 44 Katie Thamer // Aug 7, 2014 at 1:35 am

    Your next book should be a collection of the brilliant lists yall come up with! Love them!

  • 45 Sue // Aug 8, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Most of this is common courtesy. I love your sense of humor in writing it in an insanely pretentious snob-from-hell writing style! I feel like a sucker admitting it, but at first I thought you were serious.

  • 46 Megan // Aug 23, 2014 at 3:15 pm


    I hate sitting near my boyfriend at dinner parties or dinners out with a lot of friends, because I end up hearing his stories again and he hears mine. Instead, we sit at opposite ends, we get updates on different friends and then we can update each other on our friends on our way home.

    It drives me crazy when couples insist on making everyone switch chairs so they can sit together, especially if the reason they can’t sit together is that they came late.

  • 47 Dina // Sep 4, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Very funny and insightful, I linked to this from my blog.

  • 48 robin // Dec 9, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Love this! Found it due to a search about “what is etiquette for asking hosts if there might be room at their table to bring a friend?” NOT a formal dinner with place cards, but something more family style like Thanksgiving. For example, maybe the originally-asked guest has a new friend who has nowhere to go, is still rather new in town. Thanks!!

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