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Millennials may be opting for smaller turkeys these days, but Thanksgiving is still a very big deal. If you’re cooking for your family or hosting a group of friends, you’re undoubtedly already knee-deep in glossy holiday issues of cooking magazines, recipe-testing, and generally freaking out about the big meal ahead. But for those of us who will be attending Thanksgiving dinner as a guest, there’s still some preparation to be done; it’s not as simple as just showing up in your favorite elastic-waist pants and stuffing your face with three kinds of pie.
Following a few common-sense guidelines on how to be the perfect guest will not only minimize your host’s stress, it will also help ensure you get invited back next year.
Don’t show up early.
Punctuality is indeed a virtue, and I’ve long had it drilled into my head that arriving on time actually means you’re late (15 minutes early is in fact on time). That rule does not apply to holiday gatherings in someone’s home: Arriving early may very well send your host into a panic, as they’ll likely still be running around trying to prep appetizers/chill drinks/get dressed/corral their pets and/or children. Ask your host, “What time should I arrive?” and take their answer to heart; showing up an hour late after everyone’s already sat down to eat is almost as bad as being early.
Tell the host in advance of any food allergies/concerns.
If you’re vegan or have a gluten or nut allergy, tell your host in advance! This is not so they can tailor the entire meal to your needs; it’s merely to make them aware of your circumstances so they don’t feel terrible on the day of when there’s nothing for you to eat. If they like you enough to invite you into their home, they probably like you enough to use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth in the [insert side dish here] to make it vegetarian-friendly, or serve the candied walnuts on the side instead of tossed in with the arugula salad.
But serious allergies or vegetarian/veganism aside, don’t expect your kindly host to cater to your ketogenic/paleo/all-meat diet of the moment. Offering to bring a dish that suits your own dietary needs or preferences is also strongly encouraged to take some pressure off the cook, whether it’s your famous mapo tofu, a sugar-free pie, or a vegan side of cauliflower and kale.
Bring a gift.
Much like sending thank you cards, bringing your a host gift is one of those old-school etiquette rules that’s just as relevant today as it was in the era of Emily Post. It’s just plain good manners.
Unless your host is a known teetotaler, it’s hard to go wrong with booze: A bottle of wine is always good; a dry sparkler, such as cava, pairs well with anything and is appropriately celebratory. (Some will insist that a gifted bottle of wine should be unchilled or otherwise accompanied by an aside that the host need not feel pressured to serve it now, in case they already have a carefully curated selection of wines to go along with the meal. In reality, it’s highly unlikely that your host is a control-freak amateur sommelier, but if they are, congratulations! You’ve hit the friend jackpot. Otherwise, the vast majority of people will be glad to have more booze on hand to serve to their guests.) A sixer of beer also works; think local craft or interesting import, not Michelob Ultra.
Other nice, non-alcoholic ideas include a wedge of fancy cheese (something versatile with a longer shelf life, like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano) they can utilize now or later; a fancy candle; bougie hand soap; or a unique variety of tea or coffee beans.
Offer to help in the kitchen.
Preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd is no small feat, even for the most experienced cooks, so definitely offer to lend a hand. Vague offers of “Can I do anything to help?” are almost always politely refused, so be specific about what you’re offering: “I’m great at chopping onions!” “Want me to stir the gravy?” Even if you’re totally useless in the kitchen, you can probably be of help elsewhere: “Need some help chilling that Champagne?” “I have an awesome Spotify playlist if you want some chill dinner music.” (Note: If you foist a Dave Matthews Band marathon on your host, don’t expect to be invited back next year.) “Want me to play fetch with the dog so he’s not underfoot?” You get the idea. No matter what anyone says, cooking for and hosting a crowd is stressful — so make yourself useful.
Gracefully dodge political arguments, if you’re so inclined.
For those safely ensconced in a bubble with like-minded friends and family: Enjoy bitching about the current state of our nation’s politics to your heart’s content! But some of us will have to share a dinner table with relatives or acquaintances who may hold views we find questionable or even abhorrent. When and where to engage in political discourse is very much a personal decision, but a holiday dinner at someone else’s home may not be a place you feel comfortable doing so. If your best friend’s Uncle Larry starts ranting about migrant caravans and you’d prefer not to engage, simply deflect with an innocuous comment: “I’m really curious about what’s in these mashed potatoes.” If the discussion gets particularly heated, getting up from the table to refill your water glass is not out of bounds.