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Dinner Party Etiquette: What to and What Not to Bring to the Table

Many people express confusion and uncertainty when it comes to dinner party etiquette. Is one expected to bring the host of a dinner party a gift, and if so, what kind? Is it a good or bad idea to bring food or wine, and should the host be expected to serve what you bring during the party or not? What are the dos and don’ts of bringing – and accepting – such gifts?

The answers to these questions may depend on the particular details of the party one is hosting or has been invited to, but there are certain general rules of etiquette that should be kept in mind. Following these rules can help avoid awkward situations, hurt feelings or embarrassment, and ensure that everyone has the best experience possible at a dinner party.

The Host or Hostess Gift

While not a requirement for accepting a party invitation, it is generally considered thoughtful and proper to bring a gift to the hosts of a dinner party as a way of thanking them for their hospitality. The host has likely put a great deal of time, effort and money into organizing the party, and while a guest should not be expected to “pay their share,” a small gift is almost always appreciated and shows one is appreciative of these efforts.

A bottle of wine or spirits is nearly always a good idea as a gift, unless you know the party host does not drink. One doesn’t need to be extravagant; simply select a nice bottle of wine in the $10-25 range for most occasions. If you don’t know much about wine yourself, ask for a suggestion from the salespeople at your wine shop. Other possibilities for host gifts include homemade specialties such as jams and other preserves, cocktail mixes, a fresh floral bouquet, or a gift basket of gourmet delights such as cheese, nuts or fruit. Gifts.com has a wide selection of Host/Hostess Gift ideas to order or use as inspiration. It is more the thought that counts with a host gift than the amount of money spent.

Drink it now or later?

As mentioned, a bottle of wine is one of the most common hostess gifts typically given at a dinner party. When I recently held a holiday party, I received about a half-dozen bottles of wine as gifts – actually just about the number which were consumed throughout the course of the evening by the 30 or so guests in attendance. Yet only one of those gifted bottles was actually opened and drunk that evening; the rest that were consumed all came from my personal wine selections for the night.

Typically if you are bringing a bottle of wine as a host gift, it is meant for the host to enjoy after the party is over. Remember that the host has likely planned specific wines and other beverages to complement the food being served. Or, the host may have purchased some decent but less-expensive bottles knowing they would be consumed quickly by guests looking more to have a good time than to appreciate a fine vintage. Do not be insulted if the host accepts your bottle of wine, thanks you for it, and leaves it un-opened that night.

The exception, of course, is if you have been invited or asked to bring wine to the event specifically to be enjoyed that evening. That is, if it is a wine-tasting party, or an informal gathering of friends and family where you are known to be the one to bring wine that others will enjoy. But don’t bring good wine to a party because you think (or know) the host’s taste in wine doesn’t meet up to your personal standards of wine snobbery. If your evening would be so ruined by having to drink Paul Masson or Yellowtail instead of a vintage French Bourdeaux, then stick with drinking water that evening. Or, subtly offer or suggest in advance that you’d like to provide the wine for the party or meal – don’t just show up with a bottle of your own, pop the cork and start drinking.

Bringing Food to the Party

Bringing food to a dinner party can be fraught with potential complications, and should generally be avoided except in certain circumstances. Obviously, if a party is presented as a “pot-luck” then you should most definitely bring food with you – but only one or two dishes. Don’t be an over-achiever and try to bring an entire meal all by yourself. Also be aware of specific cultural, religious or ethical situations which might make your food unwelcome in certain households. I wouldn’t recommend showing up at a vegetarian’s house with a giant roast turkey or meatloaf, nor bringing bacon-wrapped scallops to a Kosher household.

If a host has made it clear he or she is planning a very specific, themed menu, do not bring food for the night as it may make the host feel as though you do not trust or like his or her cooking. One can – and always should – ask before bringing food, to find out if it would be appreciated or not. While I love to cook, I am not big on making elaborate desserts. Before my holiday party this year several people asked me if I “needed anything” for the table, and I told them if they so wished (although it was certainly not required) they could bring a dessert. This worked out perfectly as we ended up with a nice array of cookies, brownies, pies and candies that were mostly all consumed before the night was through.

If you are thinking about bringing food to a dinner party because of your personal dietary concerns, discuss this with the host first or decide if you should actually accept the party invitation at all. For instance, if you have certain food allergies that severely limit what you can eat, or if you are vegetarian and not sure there will be options available for you to consume. It is not the host’s responsibility to cater to each and every one of their guest’s dietary needs or restrictions, although a good host, if holding a small intimate dinner party, may make the effort to ask guests in advance if there is anything particular they cannot eat.

How a host should handle unwanted food

So how should a host handle the situation if a guest does bring unwanted food to a dinner party? The host should always be gracious in such circumstances. Thank the guest for their efforts, and go on and put that Green Bean Casserole or Tuna Bake out on the table, unless there is some overwhelming reason why it is completely unacceptable (for instance, the host or one of their guests has an extreme allergy and should not have such food items in their vicinity; there are religious or ethical reasons why the food is not allowed in the house or on the table) The host and others are not required to eat what the guest has brought nor compliment it excessively, but should not make the guest feel embarrassed by their faux pas of bringing the unwanted food. That said, putting a slice of that store-bought Sara Lee pound cake they brought next to your homemade Tiramisu on your dessert plate won’t kill you nor ruin the evening, and is likely to leave your guest feeling happier as well.

Taking home the leftovers

If you’ve brought food or wine to a party, it is generally considered bad etiquette to expect to take home your leftovers unless it was a pot-luck event. What you brought was a gift to the host, and for the host to decide what to do with or not. As such, don’t bring over a casserole in your best French bakeware, or cookies on your antique silver tray. Use disposable, simple containers – if the host plans to serve your food that evening, they can re-plate it if desired to match the rest of the dinnerware.

Family and informal gatherings can and may have different rules. For instance, at our family’s large holiday meals, typically the leftovers are divided up so that everyone gets to go home with some of their favorite items. A host may offer guests to take home a plate or container of dessert treats, if everyone was too full from the main meal to enjoy them all. That said, if the host subtly makes it clear he or she would like you to take back the remaining ten pounds of potato salad you brought over, please do so without taking it as an insult. She may simply not have room in her fridge for all that leftover food, and does not want to see it go to waste.

Sources:

* Host/Hostess Gifts at Gifts.com.

* Chowhound: Not About Food – message forum.

* Personal experience.

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