There's an unspoken understanding that takes place the moment you accept an invitation to someone's house for dinner: The hostess agrees to make you feel awesome, while you, her guest, agree to be pleasant and appreciative. When both of these things are in sync, great times over great meals happen.
So what are the secrets to being a great dinner guest? Here are five things to do to make yourself a guest to remember.
1. Arrive 15 minutes late (but no later).
Arrive a little late, you say? Yes, that's right. Unless your host is a super host who prepped everything days in advance and spends the last hour before the guests arrive killing time with a cocktail (and we know those people exist, rare and wonderful breeds), most hosts appreciate a little wiggle room to finish setting the table, straightening up the living room, or changing clothes. It can be stressful when guests show up before you're ready for them (definitely don't arrive early!), but a slightly late arrival is usually perfectly acceptable and welcome.
Just make sure it's not too late. Anything later than 15 minutes (20 max) toes the inconsiderate line and puts a burden on your host to decide whether to wait for you or go ahead and start the evening.
2. Bring a small gift.
A great dinner guest never shows up empty-handed. A bottle of wine is customary, but don't feel like you're stuck to that: A jar of jam, local honey, or preserved lemons would all be lovely, or something small for the kitchen, like a cheese knife or pretty wooden spoon. You could even bring a produce or herb bouquet, if your host is someone who'd appreciate the fresh ingredients. The big thing is just to offer a little something that says, Hey, thank you for doing this and inviting me to be a part of it!
Another side of this rule is to ask the host ahead of time if there's anything you can bring for the meal — a side dish or dessert, for example. Your host may take you up on that offer, or just say, "Nope! Just bring yourselves!" If she says the latter, you should ignore her and still bring a little gift. It's the polite thing to do!
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3. Toast your host, then keep an eye on her glass.
Whether or not your host makes a toast when everyone sits down at the table, you should follow with a toast of your own. Simple, short, and heartfelt is best — thank them for their friendship, for inviting you into their home, and for taking the time to make the delicious food you're all about to eat.
Then once the meal is underway and the bottles of wine open on the table, keep an eye on your host's glass and offer to fill it whenever it gets low. Your host is probably keeping an eye on your glass (as good hosts do), but who's looking out for her? She's worked hard to put on a good meal, and offering to fill her glass is a small, thoughtful way to indulge her. I'm still always a little touched when one of my dinner guests offers to fill my wine glass; it shows they're attentive, and looking for small ways they can help out and show their appreciation.
4. Ignore your phone.
There are some exceptions to this rule — your babysitter just texted, or you're having a table-wide discussion on the year Back to the Future came out, and someone needs to set the record straight — but other than that, the coolest thing you can do as a dinner guest is to totally ignore your phone.
Don't text people under the table (you're hiding the phone, yes, but you're also looking down at your hands for a good three minutes, and it's obvious and distracting); don't check Facebook or your Instagram; don't scroll through your email. If there is an emergency and you must respond to something immediately, excuse yourself and do it away from the table. (The bathroom is a good bet.)
It's true that depending on how formal or informal the dinner is, or how close the group of friends, having phones out is not a big deal at all, and if you need to check it at the table for three seconds, it's fine. But in general, just ... don't.
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5. Show the Big 3: enthusiasm, curiosity, and gratitude.
Jenny Rosenstrach, author of Dinner: A Love Story (and blog of the same name), cites "enthusiasm, curiosity, and gratitude" as one of the 41 ways to be a good dinner guest — and that's exactly right. Those three characteristics are the key to being a most welcome presence at any table! Be enthusiastic about the evening and food; be curious about the host, their home, your fellow guests; and be thankful for everything, so much so that you send a thank-you note, email, or text the next day. Do this, and you are a rockstar dinner guest.
Bonus tip: Reciprocate!
If you really want to take your dinner guest cred over the top, reciprocate! Invite your friends for a meal so you can take over hosting duties for a night. All good feelings all around!