How to Be the Best Guest at Thanksgiving Dinner

What to bring, what to do, and what not to forget (Hint: It’s in the name of the holiday)
November 20, 2018 Updated: November 21, 2018

This Thanksgiving, most of us will be enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labor.

But as a grateful guest, though your responsibilities may not be as daunting as balancing 10 different dishes with 10 different cooking times at once, they’re just as important. This guide is for you.

As you show up to dinner at your parents’, friend’s, or distant relative’s house this year, consider what you can bring to the table. Your goal: to make the life of your generous but undoubtedly harried host, who so kindly offered you a seat at their table and labored away for hours—days—to prepare you a feast, as easy as possible.

Patched together from the wisdom, experience, and horror stories of frequent hosts and fellow guests from around the country, here’s your ultimate guide to being the Thanksgiving guest with the best.

Communication is Key

First things first: call your hosts ahead of time.

Once you receive an invite, get a sense of “their vision for the holiday,” says homemaker Jessica Chiappetta, who hosts Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family every year. That includes the dress code, if not specified; the theme, if there is one; and any particular traditions, if you’re unfamiliar, or in case they’re to be changed or added to this year.

Ask if you can bring anything specific, or do anything to help lighten the workload. If you’re close, you can offer to arrive early to help with setup; otherwise, plan to show up on time and not a moment sooner.

If you have any dietary restrictions, now is the time to make them known. “It’s not a burden,” assures Jasmine Guillory, an Oakland-based writer. “I want people who come to a meal I make to have food to eat, and I feel awful if you don’t, but telling me at the last minute makes things super stressful.”

A few days before the feast, call in again to confirm all is well. Unforeseen issues may have suddenly arisen, and you can swoop in as the star guest who saved Thanksgiving dinner.

To Bring or Not to Bring (a Dish)

With the dawn of the Big Day comes the indisputable rule of any dinner party guest: Don’t show up empty-handed. Yes, even if your host insists that you do (it’s a trap!). The only disputable part is what should fill your hands.

That should be a dish of your own if, and only if, the host has asked you to bring one, and you’ve confirmed exactly what it’s going to be beforehand. Now is not the time for a surprise casserole—your host probably already has two.

“Unexpected food, while lovely and generous, can derail the kitchen when it is in full-on prep and cook mode,” explains Christina Welter, a San Francisco-based restaurant writer. “If you are bringing food, confirm what is needed … well before you arrive at the party,” she adds, and don’t count on using the oven (there’s a turkey in there!) or any counter space for finishing touches. Both are prime real estate, likely booked out long in advance.

If your dish must be warmed before serving, though, let your host know and decide how you’ll do it in advance, says Nicole Haase, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If you’re relegated to the microwave, take note that a metal pan or oversized dish might not be the best choice of carrier.

On that note, do bring your own serving dish and utensils, too; bonus points if they double as a hostess gift you can leave behind.

Come Bearing Gifts

Even if you’re relieved of potluck-contributor duties, show up with a gift.

Flowers, a classic option, should come already trimmed and arranged in a vase; a homeless bouquet will send your already frazzled host rummaging through cabinets with yet another thing to find.

Wine is always welcome, consensus says. If you bring a bottle to serve, call ahead to ask what your host would prefer, and if it’s white, be sure it arrives chilled. A special bottle, though, should not be squandered on the masses; make it clear, with a note or a whisper and a wink, that the host is to keep it to enjoy at a later time.

Of course, wine isn’t the only option—“In my world, the best guests bring bottles of sparkling water [or] soft drinks,” says Danielle Oteri, founder of Feast On History and Arthur Avenue Food Tours in New York City. “It‘s a genuinely helpful [and] low-pressure gesture that everyone can enjoy.”

Author Julia Turshen, in her recently published cookbook “Now & Again,” offers another alternative: “Although wine is usually the go-to bottle to carry to someone’s house, I highly recommend swapping it out for olive oil,” she writes. “It’s a little unexpected but so highly useful for any person who loves to cook. Plus, the price range and variety of options are pretty much the same as wine.”

Unique, personalized gifts can be extra sweet. Julia Skinner, a chef and fermentation specialist in Atlanta, Georgia, brings a small jar of homemade pickled okra to every dinner. Meanwhile, Margaret Littman, from Nashville, Tennessee, makes sure no furry dining companions go forgotten—“If my hosts have pets, I take treats for them instead of humans,” she says, “like fancy, turkey-shaped dog treats. There’s so much human food at Thanksgiving, no one needs more, and people seem to appreciate that I think of something personalized.”

Especially thoughtful guests might think ahead to the next morning. Your hosts have tackled the monumental task of dinner; consider covering their morning-after breakfast. Bring a batch of homemade granola, a bag of excellent coffee beans, or, Turshen suggests, “a loaf of challah, a dozen farm-fresh eggs, and a bottle of good maple syrup. You will be setting up your hosts for French toast success.”

Offer to Help—But Do as You’re Told

Once you’ve arranged your flowers, tucked away your wine, or set down your dish—exactly where your host wants it—ask how you can help.

“Be ready for anything,” says Katie Ziskind, a family therapist based in Niantic, Connecticut. “It may be watching her 3-year-old for 30 minutes while she finishes cooking, or [it] may mean washing potatoes.”

Understand, though, that sometimes the best help may be none at all. Dinner is a carefully orchestrated event, and improvising your own role might make you more hindrance than help. (The same goes for post-dinner clean-up.) If your host refuses assistance, stay out of the kitchen and out of the way, and do exactly as you’re told.

A vital moment is the one just before the start of the meal. “When the hostess says, ‘Please, everybody go relax in the living room now while I put on the finishing touches,’ that means you,” says New Orleans designer and artist Claudia Lynch. “There’s always one guest who ‘knows’ the ouster doesn’t include them, and plops down at the counter to keep me company. Thing is, I need that counter space—and a little quiet time for the balancing act of getting everything to the table at the same time—so get outta my kitchen!”

Mind Your Table Manners

At the dinner table, the usual rules of etiquette apply. Silence your phone and keep it tucked away. Take it easy on the alcohol. Be attentive, engaging, and courteous, and make respectful conversation with other guests—“That includes talking with great aunt Sally, who’s in a wheelchair, and my 11-year-old nephew, who wants to talk Minecraft,” says Rose Newnham, a mom and writer living in New York City.

And, of course, tuck in.

But between bites of turkey and cranberry sauce and three different kinds of pie, don’t forget your most basic responsibility of all: thank your hosts. Gratitude is the essence of the holiday, after all, and Thanksgiving dinner is no easy feat.

Be generous, sincere, and specific with your compliments to the chef. If you’re so inclined, propose a (short) toast. Never complain, and “avoid ‘my horse is bigger than your horse,’” says Justin Lavelle, etiquette expert and chief communications director of PeopleLooker. “When a host has slogged away for hours making a holiday dinner, the last thing a person should do after tasting a dish is to bring up an even better, secret recipe that his or her great aunt, twice removed and related to a famous chef, passed down.”

Be grateful for the food you have, the loved ones gathered around the table, and the precious moment you’re sharing. In the grand scheme of things, it’s fleeting.

“Thanksgiving dinner is the one meal that takes days and days to prepare. And sadly, it’s also the dinner that is eaten in minutes,” says cookbook author Jorj Morgan. So for her, as a host of 40 Thanksgiving dinners and counting, “the best gift a guest can give me would be to linger at the table for a while.”

“Perhaps not rush off to see the score on the game, not rush to clear the plates, not rush to the easy chair to take a bit of a nap, not rush to change out of your good clothes,” she says. “Just sit back, sated, with a grateful smile, and relish the deliciousness of the meal. That makes all of the efforts well worthwhile.”