You've scored an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. So what's the etiquette as a guest? Besides arriving on time (or within an acceptable window of time if you know how they roll), there's another factor that makes itself apparent as soon as you ring the doorbell: the host or hostess gift. Please don't arrive empty handed. Your hosts have spent a lot of time and effort planning this dinner and probably a bunch of money. And let's avoid causing more stress than joy with your gift.
As a professional dinner party planner, chef, visual artist, and social media and marketing consultant based in New York City, Stephanie Nass is often on both sides of the dinner party scene. In 2014, Nass founded Victory Club, a bi-monthly dinner club in which each member brings a friend to gather in galleries, museums, and other art collections for sit-down meals. Her art-inspired dinners have popped all over the world and have been featured in Food & Wine as well as Town & Country magazines. Nicknamed "Chefanie," Nass also designs vegan, gluten-free, shelf-stable cake sheets, called Chefanie Sheets, and she shares entertaining tips with major brands from Vogue to Tory Burch.
Nass reveals to Chowhound her best tips and biggest faux pas for Thanksgiving gift-giving. First off, if you're stressing too much about the gift, go with the basics: wine, candy, flowers, or candles. It's about the gesture, really. "The only thing customary about gifts at Thanksgiving is bringing one," Nass says, but "wine is reliable because the Thanksgiving meal is so predictable; it's easy to pair a wine with any of the classic dishes."
Being a good listener is the key to being a good gift-giver, she says. "Listen to what the host wants or needs. Maybe it's something practical; maybe it's something superfluous," Nass says. After that, you can make your gift more unique by adding a personal touch or customization. That could be as simple as tying a pretty ribbon with a festive bauble on the neck of the wine bottle, or wrapping the candle in beautiful paper for a dramatic effect.
There's hope if you're short on dough (pun intended). Something homemade is always the go-to affordable gift. Nass brings a dessert, usually one of her Chefanie Sheets cakes, and sometimes she customizes it for the occasion to make it more personal. As a hostess, Nass treasures a thoughtful card, with or without a gift. "I treasure the letters people have written me," she says. "Notes endure after the flowers have wilted, the wine is drunk, and only a few crumbs from the pie remain."
Try to avoid these dinner-guest mistakes:
Don't upstage the host and his or her work. Basically, don't bring dinner or any part of it, unless the host explicitly asks you for it, Nass says.
Don't bring something that you, not the host, want.
Don't bring untrimmed flowers. The host will be busy with enough other things, so if you bring flowers, bring them arranged in a vase.
Don't bring an extra guest without asking. The host has given thought and attention to the table setting, and another guest throws a wrench into the event.
Need more help? Here are some more specific host/hostess gift ideas:
The morning-after meal might be the last thing on your host's mind, and much appreciated. Bring shelf-stable muffins or bagels (with a small container of cream cheese) to avoid even more crowding in the refrigerator, cinnamon rolls, or a hearty pumpkin-oat bread. Or just bring a fruit salad and hope for the best when it comes to space in the refrigerator. Try to use the smallest container necessary, possibly even a leak-proof Ziplock freezer bag. Here's a holiday-inspired breakfast idea: Get our Pumpkin Spice Pecan Streusel Muffins recipe.
Ask what kind of wine your host would like and if it's white, bring it chilled already. Try a Riesling or Gewürztraminer for whites, and a Pinot Noir or a light, refreshing Beaujolais for reds. Then there's always fine whiskey or a digestif for after dinner. Bring a nice tea or coffee too, which your hosts can save for later if they want.
Flowers are a safe bet anytime. But bring them cut and in a vase you're gifting as well (see don'ts) so the hosts won't have to stop what they're doing and hunt for a vase and prep the flowers too, in addition to everything else. You could use a Mason jar if you like that homespun, shabby-chic thing. Also consider an indoor potted plant that your hosts can enjoy for longer than a few days. Don't expect your flowers to be the table's centerpiece. That detail was likely already planned.
Gift for Later
Give something for the hosts to enjoy later, when it's calm and they don't have to share. It could be a pretty candle, bottle of Champagne, or a home-preserved jar of pickled vegetables, apple butter, jam, or chutney. You could gift a decorative tin of high-end tea with a cute infuser and a mug or two.
A Kids Activity
Parents will really appreciate this one. Bring a craft activity, game, coloring book and crayons, or some toy that could occupy the children, which will be a welcome respite for the adults when the children get restless and bored. A Lego set sounds like a cool idea. (Buy it here.)
On that note, bring a party game. A card game or a board game for the adults for after the meal can provide just the break people need before they're read to tackle dessert. Try this Menu Mash-Up game, which is fun for adults and kid-friendly too. (Buy it here.) If you want to play the game after dessert, bonus points if you accompany that adult game with an adult drink, like a digestif.
You can always ask the hosts what you can bring that would help the most, such as a good cheese with crackers, a side dish, or dessert. A crisp salad with a bracing bite of greens is often not included already, so that might be a good idea. Bring the components cleaned, dried, chopped, and packaged separately, especially the dressing. Whatever you bring, make sure you don't have to do much (or any) prep work on it. You can't impose on the counter space or the oven. Get our Watercress Salad recipe.
Bring your own serving dish and to-go containers. The hosts will likely be using all of theirs. Better yet, buy a new serving dish and leave it there as part of your gift to them.
There are so many other little thoughtful gifts you can bring. Instead of wine, how about a nice balsamic vinegar and olive combo? You could find a fancy hand soap in a pump bottle or bring a pretty new trivet. Anything handmade lends a thoughtful touch. Nass once made and brought a set of napkins in her mom's favorite color, embroidered with her mom's dogs in the corner. If that's too labor intensive, you can bring a book you think they'll like, with a personal message inscribed inside the cover.
Amy Sowder is a New York City-based food and fitness writer who's also on Chowhound's editorial staff. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Ice cream is a strong motivation for her running habit. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.