Thanksgiving is hard on our heels, which means we’re about to enjoy all kinds of pleasant (and possibly slightly less-than-pleasant) interactions with family, friends and acquaintances. We checked in with the entertaining gurus at Bon Appétit for their take on modern Thanksgiving etiquette for guests and hosts. Enjoy! And maybe take a few notes.
– Invite at least one non-family member to ensure that everyone is on their best behavior, help temper tensions, and extend the bread and salt of welcome to neighbors and friends. It’s especially fun to ask those, like the British, for whom Thanksgiving is a curious novelty.
– There must be music: a music-less house is missing something. Selections should be unobtrusive, fitting, and as far from a “holiday” or “dinner party” soundtrack as possible. (That includes Norah Jones.)
– No scented candles! Roasting turkey and stuffing should be the only aromas.
– Clean, tidy, clean again. Pay extra attention to your bathrooms, which should be well stocked and absolutely spotless.
– Organize your home so there is room for coats, a place for children to play, and somewhere for the adults to escape. (It’s perfectly acceptable to pile all of your junk into one room and declare it out of bounds.)
– If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving at a restaurant, the usual rules of etiquette apply. But remember that most of the staff would rather be with their families than serving yours. When the check arrives…tip like Sinatra.
– The ideal schedule allows adequate time for prepping and cooking, and lets you eat early enough to avoid indigestion but late enough to end the day on a congenial note. (If the meal wraps up at 4, you are both stuffed and starving by 8). Try cocktails at 4, dinner between 5-7, and departure around 8.
– In communicating timing, be sneaky. Don’t say when the meal is to be served, or your guests will arrive at the last moment.
– Ask some close friends or good conversationalists to come early and be the first guests. This deflects the awkward early phase and allows you to get on with prep.
– On Thanksgiving, your sartorial efforts should match the exertions of the cook. Make the dress code smart and let guests interpret that as they see fit.
– Guests should be prompt but never early. It matters not if you’ve flown around the world or braved the elements—wait in your car, or stroll round the block, until the appointed hour. Remember: The unexpected early guest is a pest.
– If invited to a Thanksgiving where you won’t know many people, do some recon on your fellow guests to help break the ice.
What to Bring
– Hosts should be clear if they want guests to help cook (“Would you make your amazing cobbler?”) or bring something specific (“Might you pick up some ice?”).
– Ignore the host who tells you “Just bring yourself!”—you should never arrive empty-handed. There are a range of goodies that can be used on the day or saved for later:
- Candied fruit or caramels
- Pumpkin-seed brittle
- Granola, for breakfast the next day
- A loaf of artisanal white bread or really good bacon for day-after sandwiches
- A small potted herb—like lemon thyme
– Homemade treats obviously show love, but store-bought is fine if chosen with care.
– Resist the temptation to bring wine (unless asked). Many hosts will have a plan for the wine they wish to serve, and for the same money you can buy some delicious bottles of olive oil, vinegar, or liquor. Not only can these be saved for another day, but your hosts will recall the occasion of your generosity every time they pour out a glug.
– Never surprise your host with food that needs oven time. The oven is prime real estate, and not to be trifled with. (A surprise trifle, however, is always welcome.)
– Hosts should take every care in creating a seating plan that encourages lively conversation, quarantines quarrelsome personalities, sparks new friendships, and accommodates the delicate.
– Married and established couples should be split up. Consider placing newly formed couples opposite each other rather than side by side.
– Thanksgiving is the ideal time to gently haze new additions to a family—like placing an eager young boyfriend next to a curmudgeonly uncle.
– If you have a large number of guests, consider rearranging the seating for dessert.
– Professional football is as integral to Thanksgiving as turkey and family tensions. If the television must be on, ensure it does not dominate, and turn it off during the meal. (Die-hard fans who cannot miss a single moment should consider staying home.)
– When playing touch football, be neither jock nor jerk. Tackling an eight-year-old is plain bad manners, even if she is precociously talented.
– Hosts are as responsible for the drinks as they are for the food. You should provide:
Either concoct a house cocktail or provide an arsenal of ingredients and garnishes.
Wine to go with the meal
It need not be expensive, but it should be thoughtfully selected—and plentiful.
Beer for non-wine drinkers
Don’t forget drivers & non-imbibers
Not drinking is bad enough without being offered nothing more interesting than soda. Below are some Bon Appétit suggestions:
- Sparkling apple cider
- Cranberry or cherry juice and seltzer
- Iced Earl Grey tea
- Blenheim ginger ales
- Homemade vinegar shrub
– The victorians played a parlor game where participants stood in a circle and tried to keep a feather aloft simply by blowing. Too soft a blow and the feather falls; too hard, and it flies out of the circle. This is exactly how conversation should work: where everyone cooperates to keep a subject afloat, without wallflowers or blowhards deflating things.
– Conversation should flow while avoiding the twin sins of offense and banality.
– The highest form of conversation is when, for a time, the entire table discusses one topic. Hosts should gently encourage and orchestrate general conversation; guests should participate, resisting the urge just to turn and gossip with their neighbor.
– If you notice someone stranded outside the conversation, invite him into your circle: “We were just talking about…”
– If you’re sat next to a conversational void, try one of the following gambits: “How has the last year been for you?” “How did you celebrate Thanksgiving when you were a child?”
– Argument is not conversation, and rudeness is never wit. Keep jokes short and stories shorter. Listen and laugh.
– Let kids be kids. It’s a long day—give them space to watch a movie or play outside.
– If you have time and energy, get kids to help prepare a simple dish. This will acclimate them to cooking and bestow a sense of pride when “their” dish is served.
– Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to intermix the generations—especially if grandparents live far from their offspring.
– Thanksgiving deserves a little pomp and ceremony. Hosts should prepare something to say at the start of the meal: grace for the religious, a toast for the secular. This moment of reflection allows those of all faiths, and none, to express their thanks for the food, family, and friends before them.
– If you’re not a confident speaker, your toast need only be brief and heartfelt.
– Separate toasts should be raised to the hosts, cooks, and absent friends.
– After the toasts, guests may be asked to share what they are especially thankful for. This is a charming way to learn something significant about everyone present.
– Phones are the nemesis of conviviality. Meals like Thanksgiving should be havens from the intrusion of work and social media. So Instagram your thumbs off before and after the meal, but in deference to the cook, turn off and put away all devices while there is food on the table.
– On no account should you ever consult Google to settle an argument; remember: a gentleman never resorts to fact.
– If you absolutely must check your e-mail, be subtle. And wash your hands.
– It is the guests’ responsibility to inform their hosts of any dietary restrictions, ideally in advance. And it is never rude to ask if a dish contains ingredients that will have serious medical consequences.
– If you are genuinely concerned about what you can eat, it’s fine to bring your own food, so long as you warn your host and consume it without fanfare or fuss.
– What with family feuds, overtired children, the tensions of hosting, and, of course, alcohol, there may be moments where pressures need to be alleviated. Exercise is a fine way to burn off energy and dilute a fractious situation. For those who can’t manage touch football, a bracing walk before or after the meal can often lighten a heavy atmosphere.
– Hosts shouldn’t be shy in stopping a guest from drinking too much. Awkward as it might be, it’s better than the alternative. “Hey, Jack, can I get you a glass of water?”
– Guests should behave—and this often means not rising to the conversational bait. If someone starts ranting about religion, money, or politics, you don’t have to roll up your sleeves. A polite “How interesting” should preface a changing of the subject.
– Carving should not be the sacred responsibility of the host, nor is it a “rite of passage” reserved exclusively for men. Whoever has the most skill should carve the turkey. “Is there a surgeon in the house?”
– Never carve at the table. Present the bird to the guests before returning it to the kitchen to be prepared in private.
– Double up on gravy boats, and place wine and water at both ends of the table.
– Hosts should never apologize for their food. If something is really inedible, don’t serve it. Otherwise, be proud of your efforts and accept compliments with grace.
– If there is not enough of a dish to go around, hosts should discreetly use the code: F.H.B. (“family hold back”).
– The kitchen is a no-fly zone, unless you are an immediate relative of the host—and often not even then. Stay out of the way, and don’t assume you can sneak in and snag some crispy skin during the carving.
– Popping into the kitchen to ask “anything I can do to help?” is something of a tango: Guests don’t really expect (or want) to help, and cooks rarely accept assistance (if they need it). But it’s a charming dance, and everyone knows the steps.
– It’s obviously polite for guests to help clear the table—but it is rude if everyone gets up at the same time, killing conversation. Guests have a responsibility to sit and keep the atmosphere lively.
– Standards of etiquette, like waist-bands, relax a little after dinner, and it is perfectly acceptable to stretch out on the sofa or turn on the game.
– The postprandial mellow is to be savored for as long as possible—so wait a while before scrubbing up the dishes or hauling out the vacuum cleaner.
– You’re going to have more leftovers than you know what to do with. So, be prepared with an ample supply of tupperware or quart containers.
– Packing up leftovers for your guests to take home is a generous (and reasonably subtle) way to suggest to people that maybe it’s time to go home.
Modern technology has not yet replaced the handwritten thank-you note—rather it has made it more precious.
But because instant communication is now so central to our lives, guests should e-mail, text, or call soon after departing (certainly within 12 hours), following up with a handwritten missive.
The golden rule of thank-you notes is: Try never to use the phrase “thank you.” Instead, your notes should praise the party, the company, the conversation, the food, the toasts—whatever made the event pleasurable and memorable for you.