Entertaining

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“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. ”
— thom
Comment

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.

  • JAC
    JAC
  • notWriting
    notWriting
  • Priscilla L.N.
    Priscilla L.N.
  • Rita Carey
    Rita Carey
  • Leslie
    Leslie
Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull

writer

19 Comments

JAC November 16, 2022
I don't mind if guests scrap off their plates and stack them in the kitchen but that's where it ends. I have had to go into the kitchen and tell people they are not allowed to clean up but I don't invite people to my home to do housework. I want us all to be together. After dinner we should be having another glass of wine, a cup of coffee, maybe a second dessert, talking and sometimes playing games. I get to enjoy my guests and my guests get to enjoy me.

I don't have a dish washer so clean up can take a while. If the party ends late, then I let it all wait till the next day. The mess will be there, spending time with family & friends is more valuable. I know some people say they can't go to bed knowing the kitchen is a disaster but it doesn't bother me.

Last weekend we hosted our first of three Thanksgivings with my husband's family, 15 people total. The next day I got up, put a pot of coffee on and spent 3 hours cleaning up and putting everything away & washing all the linens as I rehashed the party in my head. It was all perfect!
 
notWriting November 14, 2022
It drives me mad, not just because no one can be efficient in someone else’s kitchen, that’s just reality, but because when you get up and start loading my dishwasher, you’re basically ending my dinner party. I don’t want to deal with the kitchen. I’ll do that later. I want to sit here and have another glass of wine and keep talking to my friends. But when you go start messing in my kitchen, you’re basically forcing me to go “help” you. And then everyone goes home, because I have started to clean up. I am so happy to clean up after my party, AFTER MY PARTY IS OVER.

And I know you do it because you want me to do it at your house, because you have this idea that it’s rude for guests not to contribute. Like housemates in college, you cooked so I’ll clean up. No no no.
 
Priscilla L. April 1, 2022
Seriously, I know what your Mom taught you about always helping the hostess, but PLEASE stay out of my kitchen. You are not helping, only increasing my anxiety level. One Thanksgiving, I stood to clear the table and stated to everyone to please stay seated and enjoy themselves while I cleared the table. My dear brother-in-law said "no, we all should help," as everyone stood and proceeded to march into the kitchen with plates in hand. When he asked, "where would you like these?" (since every inch of counter space was covered in cookware) I replied, through gritted teeth, that I wanted them back on the table where I had asked everyone to leave them. Since it was Thanksgiving, I swallowed the urge to add the expletives!
 
Rita C. March 30, 2022
As a hostess, I like to clear the table (it’s piled out of sight in the kitchen) and put away any food, and leave the rest of the mess until my guests leave. I want to enjoy their company! I feel that by the time they’ve arrived home, my kitchen has been cleaned. I have one hostess friend who cleans up (no help wanted) while the rest of us are chatting away in the other room…and we’d really rather she was part of the conversation. But you have to do what makes you feel comfortable. I think most of my guests are comfortable NOT helping. But if they insist, I try to lead us all out of the kitchen. I guess I find it rather relaxing to clean up after everyone is gone.
 
Leslie January 26, 2022
But HOW do you get certain people to stop "helping clean up"? One 'please don't touch a thing' doesn't do it. And when one is a guest, SHOULD one offer to help in the kitchen beforehand or move the dishes to the kitchen after?
And when will people learn that a bouquet of cut flowers (unless they are from their very own garden) are not a good hostess gift since the host has to stop everything and find an appropriate vessel, cut the stems, arrange them, and then find a suitable place to display them) unless of course one has a staff to do all that. But if one has such a staff, presumably the house is filled with flowers already.
 
JAC November 16, 2022
I go into the kitchen and plainly tell them that while I appreciate their offer, I don't want them cleaning my kitchen. I want them in the living room with the rest of the group. It took a couple of years before my mother-in-law & husband's aunt just stopped trying to help out, but they eventually got it.
 
notWriting November 16, 2022
But what do you do in their houses? I’ve eaten meals where half the table (frequently the female half) gets up as soon as the last bite is swallowed, and heads off to do the kitchen, top to bottom, while others stay at the table and keep talking.

I generally stay. Sometimes I’m the only woman, or only woman under 75, who’s still at the table, and sometimes I’ve detected a little vibe of, “How rude not to pitch in.” Because, I think, there’s this idea of reciprocity. You do it at my house, even though I don’t want you to, and I’m supposed to do it at yours.

I would like to see the end of this idea.
 
JAC November 16, 2022
To be polite I will usually ask the host if help is needed and respect their wishes. I have been asked to help clear dinner plates and bring out dessert. I would not feel bad about staying at the table unless the host appeared to be struggling. To be honest, I think it is rude of someone to make you feel guilty about not pitching in.
 
MJ January 18, 2022
I had someone show up uninvited and bring their dog to my daughters party and got annoyed because we weren’t serving alcohol to a kids birthday. She found a tequila bottle from a cabinet when she was looking for a glass and helped herself
 
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’?
 
JAC November 16, 2022
Simply feed the children extra dessert along with an espresso so they are a joy for their parents all night long! ;)
 
[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.
 
Pat January 29, 2022
From one 'alpha' to another.... It's OK if a 1 or 2 guests want to help 'clear' a course or help with dessert, but a hostess generally has a mentally rehearsed plan for a well timed dinner party. Prized china and crystal service are not to be thrown around by well intentioned. My dear husband has learned to 'excuse' himself for the couple of minutes it takes to get dinnerware to the kitchen safely. I often have 'small jobs' set aside for those who want to 'help' like take requests for coffee, pass the tea chest or place after dinner mints, cordials on a tray. Hopefully guests are enjoying each other and don't want to 'lift a finger'.
 
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!
 
Ciao C. December 20, 2021
I’d like to invite your one adeptly helpful guest to my gatherings.
 
April January 18, 2022
Thom,
You are my people.
 
JAC November 16, 2022
I completely agree!

I actually enjoy the next day clean up. Plus, I won't have to go through the trash because someone scrapped a dessert folk into the bin!

As a guest, I always make the offer to help clean up and I always respect the choice of the host!