How to Be a Gracious Dinner Guest. To me, nothing is a better way to get to know someone than to invite them to dinner at your own home. This posting goes along with my “How to Get Great Restaurant Service” article which is also full of tips on eating out in general. Start your New Year with a resolution to be a gracious dinner guest!
Anyone who knows me in person also knows that, IF ASKED, I will tell you the truth. This “gift” has helped me far more in the business world than I ever expected…and also helps immensely in my private life. A lot of what I’m going to say might surprise you (the fact that I actually said it) yet I think much needs to be said in this era of supposedly “anonymous” social media commentary and rapidly declining social manners. I’ll take the comment that I might not be reporting very “mannerly” or “graciously” here and that’s ok with me.
How to be a Gracious Dinner Guest? Let’s get started:
When you are invited for a meal at someone’s home, please respond to your host or hostess in a very timely manner. If the offered date doesn’t work for your calendar, ask if you can suggest alternative dates. It’s possible that your host or hostess is otherwise engaged with other events and not as flexible on those dates but it doesn’t hurt to ask. When my husband and I are inviting guests for dinner, and we find out that our guests are not available on that date, we may suggest a few additional dates if we provide a subsequent invitation.
If you plan to bring a host or hostess gift, please be mindful. If you want to give flowers, a lovely idea is to bring a potted orchid plant or pre-arranged cut flowers already in a vase. Or, you could contact your local florist to send pre-arranged flowers earlier in the day. Bringing a bouquet of freshly cut flowers is a nice gesture yet will require you host/hostess to stop everything to cut each flower stem and place it in a vase of water. Here’s a secret: I am a huge fan of potted indoor African violets and all sorts of outdoor garden plants in case you are ever coming over for dinner at my home! Additionally, cookies or chocolates or a homemade item from your own set of cherished recipes are always a special treat.
Should I offer a bottle of wine as a host or hostess gift? Sure. Just be certain that your host or hostess actually does imbibe before you bring alcohol. Also, don’t expect that your wine will be served with dinner as the menu and wines have likely already been selected to complement each other. If your host or hostess has a favorite wine, gifting that same wine would be a very nice gesture. And please don’t sample the gift(s) prior to presentation. Once, we were presented with three opened bottles of a wine bottle trio (red, white, rose) gift set that the guests had “tested” before they arrived. About 2/3 of the wine was still in each bottle and corks from totally different wine bottles were used as the stoppers. Needless to say, I poured the remainder of the opened bottles down the sink after they left. Who knows whether they drank from the bottles directly or poured the samples into glasses.
Please be ON TIME. That means don’t show up three hours late or even half an hour early. If you are early, sit in your car until the appointed time. If you can’t make it on time and will be late, contact your host or hostess immediately to let them know, especially if other guests have been invited. Don’t show up at 830PM for a 6PM dinner invitation because, well, you were “otherwise engaged in the hot tub” and “forgot” about the dinner invitation (yes, that actually happened more than once with one couple). You might arrive to find that your hosts and the other guests went ahead with dinner without you. And you won’t likely be invited back.
Never invite additional guests without your host/hostess’ request. Remember that it’s possible that your host is grilling steaks, for example, and only purchased six steaks…and you brought person #7…well, you get the idea. I believe I have mentioned previously in another posting about a woman who we did not know well was invited to our home for Happy Hour along with some other good friends who were in town for a family event. After our friends and the woman arrived, we found out that the woman had also invited her husband and one of his business colleagues to stop by our home as well. The men, who we had never met, were supposed to be having a business dinner together but decided to come over to our home instead — for a “free” meal. By the time the two men had arrived, we had finished the champagne and consumed all the appetizers and were winding down the Happy Hour. Since the woman’s husband was under the impression that we were serving “dinner”, he requested that I make some sandwiches for himself and for his business colleague. And he wanted me to open a bottle of wine for them to drink as well. It continues to amaze me of the lack of manners and the privileged expectations of some people.
Assume, if you have children, that your kids are not invited unless your host or hostess specifically invites them. We don’t have children so we don’t have a “child proof house” and nor do we have high chairs or changing tables. Get a babysitter or relative to watch the kids for your “parents’ night out” and you’ll also have more fun. That is, unless you are the mom who called her 14 year old twins SEVEN TIMES during the parents’ time here for dinner. Yes, she did!
If you have any food allergies/aversions/dislikes or religious commitments, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell your host or hostess. There is nothing more wasteful, not to mention annoying, than to ask a guest about food preferences and be told, “Oh we eat everything,” only to find out that you don’t eat bread, tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, onions, seafood, meat, spinach, black beans, cilantro, walnuts, etc.
Conversely, if you don’t like the taste of something on your plate, just push it aside or eat it anyway. Don’t make a big deal about not liking something. Your host or hostess may ask, but again, if you don’t eat mushrooms, and a mushroom dish is served, that’s on you for not mentioning it previously. As a hostess, I usually go over the menu with the invited guests to ensure everyone will be able to eat everything on the menu. Nothing bugs me more than someone who is not upfront because they don’t want to sound “picky.” If you don’t eat bread, and you know you’re not going to eat it, then don’t take a piece of the sliced baguette that is being passed around the table. If I’ve made that lovely free range organic chicken in a main course dish and you leave all of the chicken on your plate, believe me, I would not have served you that chicken as it will go to waste. Sure, my dog likes “people food” leftovers, but I’d rather not give it to him. This brings up the “starving children in China” story I used to get as a kid when I didn’t eat what was on my plate. If you don’t like something, tell me ahead of time and I won’t serve it to you.
If you are an insect magnet, be sure to let your host or hostess know if you don’t like to sit outside. Interestingly, some guests love to eat “al fresco” outside on the patio or deck. Some guests don’t like it at all. If we are going to eat outside on the screened porch, I usually don’t mention the location because it’s relatively insect-free. However, if we will sit outside near the ponds or on the open deck, I will let my guests know ahead of time. We will use insect repellent lanterns and candles yet they are not always 100% effective. I still remember being eaten alive by mosquitoes when I didn’t know we’d be eating outside at a relative’s house — after dark — and I had dressed in a short-sleeved cotton shirt and linen shorts as it was summer. I didn’t bring mosquito repellent. Needless to say, after that evening with about a hundred mosquito bites, I ALWAYS take mosquito repellent just in case we’ll be sitting outside. Additionally, some people are deathly allergic to bees. Just be sure to speak up so you’re not putting yourself at risk.
While you are visiting, please mind your manners. Behavior that might work for you at your kitchen table at home might not work at someone else’s home. One of our regular dinner guests dearly loves to put buttered knives directly onto my tablecloths which this guest does not do at home. Remember that food grease can stain and that tablecloth just might be a treasured family heirloom. Go along with the dinner conversation topics as it’s not your home. Refrain from bringing up political or religious issues or other controversial issues unless you are asked your opinion. Don’t tell “gross” stories about your brother’s colostomy bag while others are eating. And remember to use your napkin, not your shirt sleeve. Frighteningly enough, I have actually SEEN that at one of my dinner parties. Keep your napkin in your lap, and don’t wipe your mouth and put your soiled napkin, soiled-side-down, back on the tablecloth. And yes, I have seen that as well. It’s also probably not a great idea to tie your napkin around your neck unless the main course is buttery lobster or crabs. Most likely, your host or hostess will have lobster bibs available.
Regarding cellphones: Turn off your cell phone or at least mute it while you are having dinner at another person’s home. There’s plenty of time to check your email, texts and other messages when you get back to your house. If you do need to make an emergency call to check on your teenaged children who are home without a babysitter, then please step away from the dinner table to do so. I don’t mind if you photograph the food for your Instagram account. Just turn off the sound on the phone and pay attention to the conversation.
On alcohol: Let your host or hostess pour your wine or liquor. Don’t just “help yourself” unless you are offered that option. A dinner guest once poured about 1/4 of a bottle of a special pre-Civil War cognac into a large brandy snifter to enjoy after dinner. I was moving the finished dessert plates to the kitchen so I wasn’t able to intervene before the event had already happened. During a Happy Hour, another guest helped herself to a tasting of several cordials including opening brand new bottles “to try”. One of the unopened bottles was a special liqueur that was given to me by a dear friend as a gift for a landmark birthday and certainly not for guests’ consumption unless offered! If you have a specific drink that you like, and your host or hostess asks, be sure to let them know. Too often I’ve been asked for diet sodas or other beverages that we don’t keep in the house. If Perrier and Pellegrino are not interchangeable to you, please speak up prior to your visit.
If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t let your host or hostess pour a glass for you and then you leave it untouched. Just tell them not to set a wine glass at your place setting, or politely refuse the wine pour with an “Oh, no, thank you.” These days, no one thinks twice as to whether others are drinking, or not. In fact, when I’m the designated driver, I will politely refuse alcohol at others’ homes or at restaurants. Of course, if you are invited to Buckingham Palace or a similar venue, you may be expected to toast your alcohol-filled glass even though you may not drink alcohol.
And leftovers. Don’t be “that guest” who asks (or demands!) to take home the leftovers from dinner. Even if it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas and the food was delectable, let your host or hostess offer leftovers before you embarrass them (and yourself) by asking in front of the other guests. It’s better to ask for the recipe, if available, and make the dish at home for yourself.
If you want to help with clean-up, please don’t take it upon yourself to do so at my house. I prefer to take care of the clean-up myself. And please don’t stack the dirty dishes on the table with food still stuck to them. I once had a guest “help out” only to find chicken bones had clogged up my dishwasher. He had not removed the bones from the backs of the plates which he had stacked up and then didn’t rinse them off before he “helped” by putting them in the dishwasher.
Remember that your host or hostess has gone to a lot of effort to invite you over and serve a meal. If you are not a great cook, don’t like to entertain at home, or maybe you feel that you have a messy house, then RECIPROCATE by offering to treat your host or hostess to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants at a later date. And YOU need to pick up the ENTIRE check. Or, as your host/hostess gift, you could offer a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant to be used by them on their own schedule. Some guests don’t realize the time and effort expended by the hosts/hostesses to cook a nice multi-course meal and then clean up afterwards! Also, inviting your host or hostess to a potluck picnic and asking them to bring a dish to “make up” for their dinner invitation is not the same. Invite them for a meal, without others, whether at your home or out. I can’t stress this more in being a gracious dinner guest. Even if you serve a simple meal of burgers, hot dogs, store-bought potato salad, and a local bakery pie, I’d still be happy to let YOU entertain ME! Conversely, it’s easier for us to meet some reciprocating guests at a restaurant as their treat if there are food allergies/aversions and that way people can order what they like to eat.
This posting is likely a bit “direct” for some readers, however, I think a lot of these things need to be said as etiquette seems to have become less and less important these days. I’m certainly not “Miss Manners” although I’ve seen my share of inappropriate behavior over the years. My husband and I try to be gracious hosts yet we do expect good behavior on the part of our guests.
Order your own copy of Miss Manners’ book on Amazon.com:
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