How to Keep Your Cool While Playing Host (It's Possible)

"When a guest starts cleaning, should I stop them or let them keep going?"—and other hosting etiquette questions, answered.

November  3, 2021
Photo by Alex Testere

Should you ask your guests to bring something? How do you keep people out of the kitchen? How do you serve everything at the right temp? Feel like you've forgotten how to be a good host? (Same.) In our latest series, Be My Guest, a friendly expert takes on questions from our community and deftly puts fears to rest, suggesting all the ways in which we can all get back to hosting safely—and confidently. It is (almost) the holidays after all!

A few years back, I invited a handful of friends over for polenta and short ribs, the coziest meal I could think of on that chilly late-fall night. One of them asked if their then-girlfriend could come, and I said of course, the more the merrier, and then they told me that it was actually her birthday, and I said we’ll have a toast, and then she showed up, and let me know that actually, she was a vegetarian—so she wouldn’t be eating the main course that I’d been cooking for three hours, and I didn’t have an alternative planned. I was embarrassed and flustered—I should have asked! I’m a horrible host! And why didn’t she tell me! But her eyes got wide at the pot of bubbling, cheesy polenta on my stove, which she indicated would be her birthday present. We all ate well; the vegetarian and my friend are now happily married.

What’s the moral of this story? Maybe it’s that you should always have extra polenta hanging around. But it’s also a reminder that things don’t always go as you’ve planned them, and it’s important to stay flexible, and stay gracious. This week, I’m taking your questions on what to do when guests don’t exactly act how you expect them to, and how to keep your cool in the process. Just don’t forget the polenta.

What do I do about an uninvited guest?

Repeat after me: we do not turn guests away.

Uninvited guests are occasionally a happy surprise, and every so often a terror, but as the host, it is your job to roll with the punches and squeeze as much hospitality out of your sweet little heart as you can muster. So long as this uninvited guest has not done/will not do harm to anyone you’ve actually asked to come, find an extra chair, or plop them on the couch with a mismatched plate, and make them feel welcome. Most importantly, remember that tonight’s uninvited guest is tomorrow’s morsel of gossip. Tasty!

But if you’re particularly concerned—for issues of space or budget—feel free to make a direct but gracious note in your invitations that unfortunately, you won’t be able to accommodate extra guests.

Should I open up the wine that guests bring—or save it?

Well, that depends. Is it good wine? Good enough to drink before or during dinner? Or is it too good for this particular party, which is populated by your rowdy college friends who just want to gossip over some gin and tonics?

Guests should be free to drink what they want, and hosts should serve what they want to serve. I’d worry less about whether it’s appropriate to serve or save a gifted bottle, and listen instead to what you want to do with it. Just explain to your guest what you’re doing and why. Say something like Oh this looks amazing, let’s open it now! Or this is incredible—if it’s okay with you, I’m going to save it for a special occasion. If they insist on opening it, don’t make a fuss: they’ll drink as much as they want to, and if you have some leftover plonk in the morning, you can save it for next week’s coq au vin.

When a guest starts cleaning, should I stop them or let them keep going?

We all have different relationships to the ideas of control, reciprocity, and obligation. Some of us are, as Dayna Tortorici called them in her brilliant essay on taking ownership of one’s cooking space, “Kitchen Alphas”. We need to be in control of all things, and will only accept the presence of others through our own delegation of tasks. Some of us feel like we need to go to confession if we are served dinner by a friend and don’t help clean up. Some of us are layabouts, and would rather be fed trays of supremed citrus than lift a finger to scrub or serve.

Hosting requires understanding these personality types—our own, and those of our guests. If you’re a hardcore alpha, don’t be afraid to gracefully refuse help. And remember that, ideally, no cleaning will be done until at least most of your guests leave (unless you’re doing it as a gentle gesture to let them know it’s 2 a.m. and time to go home). Of course, some people—your mom, maybe, or your best friend—might insist on helping. Often, these beloved people cannot be stopped. But remember that the rules of tidying depend on the formality of the event. If it’s a casual affair, it’s fine to let a few people clear plates. Just make sure that the whole party doesn’t feel like they’re being put to work scrubbing their cake off your plates.

Do you let your guests help with clearing and cleaning up? Tell in the comments (No judgment, promise)!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



Melissa H. November 18, 2021
What should I do with a guest who rsvps to bring a child in response to an invite that specified ‘adults only’?
[email protected] November 15, 2021
I don't mind a little help but I truly cringe when I see them stack the dishes. I am fairly particular about how I like things washed. I always make sure the kitchen is clean before I go to bed as I dislike waking to a messy kitchen.
M November 10, 2021
I wonder if anyone pushing to help clean up has ever actually been a help. I've had people insist on washing my dishes mid-party in poor lighting (they were still caked with food the next day), put breakable/dishwasher unsafe things in the dishwasher, put bubbly dish soap in the dishwasher, break delicate glassware, etc etc. A little firmness beforehand is better than trying to be gracious when things go wrong.

I never open a guest's bottle of wine unless it was planned beforehand that someone was bringing a particular wine for dinner, or a guest explicitly asks for it. Any time I've opened one soon after it was brought, it sat untouched while guests indulged in other options.
thom November 7, 2021
Alas, I admit I'm a kitchen alpha.

There is only one guest I allow to help clear the table. Without asking, he instinctively knows when to move the dinner plates into the kitchen. And doesn't stack them! I trust no others.

Nobody cleans my kitchen except me and, silently gritting my teeth, my husband. I try to explain:
- I have to organize the kitchen before I can clean the dishes
- No offense, but I'll have to rewash anything you wash/dry
- Things don't get broken when I wash up the next morning.

After the last guest leaves is the time for us to gossip while we put away leftovers, I load/turn on the dishwasher and we let pans soak. I'm more of a tortoise than a hare but by noon everything is washed/dried and set on tea towels on the cleaned dining room table. Husband puts everything away at his leisure, aka immediately.
wendie M. November 7, 2021
I feel you, Thom!