The Perfect Thanksgiving Guest: 12 Tips

Suzette Standring
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The heroes of Thanksgiving are the family cooks. They chop, slice, dice and roast. Like mathematicians, they figure out how to stagger five roasting pans over eight hours using one oven.

They make it look so easy, greeting guests with a breezy, “Come on in!” even as they tick off a mental to-do list with General Patton-like precision.

Call it etiquette. Call it manners. If there are two turkeys in the room, don’t you be one of them. Here are some tips and new ideas to lessen the stress on the Thanksgiving chef.

1. Note to hosts: why not assign each invited family/couple/separate guest to bring one full course complete with an accompanying wine? As in Ted and Alice bring the appetizers. Rick and Jason show up with soup, with salad courtesy of Aisha and Dan. You cook the turkey and sides, and Brad and Angie can bring the desserts.  This way, everyone shares the effort and each course is paired with the perfect wine.

2. But if “just bring a dish” is the norm, then here’s a helpful approach. Ask the cook what to bring and be open to an assignment. This avoids three sets of marshmallow yams for twelve. Besides, the cook may have a special menu in mind and will want dishes in keeping with that vision. Check first before bringing your special Icelandic Herring.

3. Those on special diets, be accommodating. Chances are your gracious host is aware of your allergies or preferences and will make provision. But if your food requirements are strict, be safe and bring your own grub (to share!).

4. Your hosts slave away for days (to create the illusion that they live that cleanly all the time). Why not call and offer to order the Thanksgiving centerpiece or a flower arrangement? Have it delivered a day or two ahead of the party. You’ll rate high on the Guest-O-Meter.

5. But if you must arrive with flowers, then bring them prearranged and ready for placement. No hostess wants to trim giant sunflowers and root around for a vase with sixteen cauldrons bubbling in the background.

6. Gifts like soaps or bath salts are much better — or in keeping with the seasonal motif, a bottle of Wild Turkey — for private enjoyment later.

7. Be reasonably punctual or suffer the “stink-eye” for being the reason the turkey overcooked for two hours, waiting for you to arrive. (Note to hosts: Try tricking the chronically late with a fake arrival hour. Starting at six? Tell them it’s at five. Voila! Right on time.)

8. As to uninvited guests, it’s a no-no to slip extra passengers onto your ticket. Have mercy on the family cook who labored over the menu and a “tablescape” worthy of a magazine cover. Thanksgiving is not the time to arrive with six tag-along friends who were on their way to play soccer but thought they’d stop in for a quick bite.

Great conversation is why you’re here, unless you’re an obligatory family member. If something more than an appreciative belch is required from you, then here’s what not to talk about:

9. No ailments. Nix the nattering on allergies, food pathogens or how you “spit up a piece of beef the size of a golf ball” during a choking incident. Just stay quiet there under your surgical mask. The dessert bell does not signal your chance to point out how “white sugar really is a poison.”

10. Don’t discuss people unknown to other dinner guests. Like the plots to movies we will never see, please don’t “start from the beginning” so we can all better understand your relationship with your twice-removed cousin who married into your step-uncle’s family.

11. There’s always a well-meaning guest who insists on washing up. The road to hell is paved with broken china. Ask first. If the hostess hesitates, it’s a sure sign she prefers to break her own Baccarat.

12. Memory making is the Holy Grail for those who spend days wrestling with rutabagas. But guests in their zeal “to help clear the table,” break the spell of camaraderie by leaving the table en masse. So if your hosts tell you, “Don’t bother. Just sit and enjoy yourself,” then do it. Happy conversation is music to their ears.

On Thanksgiving, our nation gathers in gratitude. And at the end of the day home cooks everywhere will slump into chairs, flush with holiday meal success, and will indeed exclaim, “Thank God!”

And we, too, bow our heads, so grateful to have been included.

This column ran in Huffington Post in November 2008.  (And it still holds true today!)