How to keep guests out of the kitchen (when you're busy preparing Thanksgiving dinner)

Plus more of your hosting conundrums, answered by Food52's friendly etiquette expert

Published November 23, 2021 11:59AM (EST)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

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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!

Dinner parties: They're back! We've missed them so much! We can't wait to throw them again! All we want to do is feed more than two people at once, especially if they're not people we list as dependents on our tax returns! And don't even get me started about Thanksgiving — think of all the starches we'll be smothering in fat! Will this be the greatest holiday entertaining season ever? Will 2022 be lined with tasteful glassware and French oak serving boards? We can't WAIT to find out, one heaping serving of pasta at a time!

That said, dinner parties can be a little stressful, even in the most placid of times. There are so many factors to consider, and so many tiny disasters to fear. What if the people you seat next to each other are, unbeknownst to you, sworn enemies? What if the custard curdles? What if someone pulls a Nicole Richie and lights their hair on fire while blowing out candles? I am here, today, to help assuage some of those worries and talk a little bit about dinner party etiquette, a topic that sounds antiquated when spoken aloud but which still plagues us while we lie awake at night, worrying over place settings.

Do you really need ALL the spoons and forks in a place setting? 

This is a question that need only be asked in a house with a formal dining room. That may be your house, in which case, congratulations, and I'd simply love for you to have me over for dinner. I don't have any dietary restrictions! Even so, and in hopes that my grandma Bull doesn't roll over in her grave, clutching her silver, while reading this on the afterlife internet, I'd wager you almost never need ALL the spoons and forks in a place setting.

The extent of your table settings should match your aesthetic vision for the evening. Are you serving mashed sweet potatoes and a simple roast bird? Then no, your guests would probably prefer to have some elbow room rather than get crowded in by your entire collection of silver spoons. Are you, as a friend of mine has long dreamed, serving a dinner party inspired by the menu on the Titanic, and have you asked your friends to dress accordingly? Well, then, sure! Go all out, and offer them the escargot forks you got ten years ago at Brimfield and you've been promising your partner you'll use some day, and for good reason.

Formality has its place, and should be embraced when you're in the mood for it. But otherwise, I think that as long as your guests aren't eating cake with the fork they just used for bolognese, you're in good shape. Sometimes when I'm feeling lazy or rushed, I'll just put out three nice ceramic tumblers or small vases on my table, and fill them each with forks, knives, and spoons, respectively. (That's assuming we'll even need spoons.) Nobody has ever complained about this system, mostly because it allowed me to feed them a (hopefully) delicious meal without getting overwhelmed/going overboard. Work with what you've got, and present your plan confidently; your guests will marvel at your grace, whether they're digging into cornbread stuffing or Detroit-style pizza.

How do you serve the food all at the same time and/or temperature?

This is a question that haunts every single person that has ever hosted a Thanksgiving dinner. It has two answers.

  1. Not all your (hot) food needs to be the same temperature. There, I said it! You're the host, which means you make the rules, and if you've got a hot chicken and a room temperature plate of roast carrots, you should serve them both proudly. Decide which dishes are most important to be served hot — or which need to be served most immediately after cooking — and make your plan from there. And remember, you can always pop in things like vegetable sides or even roasts to reheat in the oven. Consider keeping yours at 200° Fahrenheit, and leave trays of hot side dishes in there until dinner is ready. Or opt for cooler sides: replace your green bean casserole with a classic kale salad, or choose a squash side dish that's perfect at room temp.
  2. As far as time is concerned, embrace things that can be made ahead and reheated — or made ahead and then simply served — and plan your prep conservatively. If you think dinner will take you three hours to make, give yourself five. Decide which thing needs to be cooked last (a stir-fry maybe, or a soufflé ), and work back from there in descending order of temporal priority. Rework your menu until it works for you. Embrace room-temperature food. And if things are feeling a little hairy half an hour before you've scheduled dinner, don't be afraid to ask for help.

How do you get guests to talk to each other instead of you when you're busy in the kitchen? 

The easiest way to do this, of course, is to lovingly shoo your friends out of the kitchen while expertly chopping an onion and say charmingly, "Go socialize! I've got to make dinner!" (I've said it before and I'll say it again, people love being told what to do.) You can even guilt-trip them by explaining that talking too much might make you chop off a finger.

If you want to be a little gentler, or even a little more commandeering, you can play platonic matchmaker. Ask your chatty friends if they've met the person in the other room who just so happens to share their bird-watching hobby. Tell them how excited you are for them to meet your cousin, or make them the hero by asking them to check on the shiest person at the soiree. Give them a small social task, so you can get back to yours.

And always, always put out snacks and drinks in the place where you want people to congregate. Your little social gadflys will flock back to them eventually. Think about the different zones where you'd like for people to congregate, and set them up with snacks, or a bar cart, and comfortable seating. Avoid the awkward setup of a room lined with chairs, where everyone must sit in a large circle as if participating in a kindergarten game. People want to get cozy and chat! Set up your seating in pods, to encourage intimate and exciting conversation.

By Marian Bull

MORE FROM Marian Bull

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Entertaining Etiquette Food Food52 Holidays How-to Thanksgiving