You’ve scored an invitation to a holiday party. 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.
An Expert Weighs In
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 holiday host and hostess 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 [parties] is bringing one,” Nass says, but “wine is reliable because the [holiday] meal is so predictable; it’s easy to pair a wine with any of the classic dishes.” (If you’re headed to a cocktail party, Champagne is always a safe bet.)
Chocolate-Covered Orange Peels, $7 on Mouth
These chocolate-covered candied orange peels are a nice twist on the usual box of truffles.
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.
Italian Salami Glass Ornament, $15.96 at Sur la Table
Attach with a ribbon around the neck of the bottle for a new take on wine and charcuterie.
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.”
Hedgehog Thank You Card, $3.74 on Etsy
A cute card like this one from Bitter Lime Designs with a heartfelt note penned inside is never a bad idea.
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. (See our favorite flower delivery services.)
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.
Host & Hostess Gift Ideas
Still need help? Here are some more specific host and 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, homemade cinnamon rolls (also acceptable if they’re from a great local bakery), 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.
Aglahome Christmas Cookie Boxes, 20 for $19.99 on Amazon
Bring them in a charming paper box so no one has to stress about returning a muffin pan.
Bring a Beverage
Ask what kind of wine your host would like and if it’s white, bring it chilled already—for that purpose, you can get a beautiful Uashmama’s wine bag cooler that makes for a great bonus gift. 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 bourbon, or a digestif for after dinner. You could bring a nice tea or coffee too, which your hosts can save for later if they want.
Uashmama Wine Bag & Cooler, $26-34 each on Food52
These lovely, eco-friendly wine cooling totes come in several colors and make a great bonus gift.
Bring Flowers (or Other Plants)
Flowers are a safe bet anytime. But bring them cut and in a vase you’re gifting as well (see don’ts above) 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 (and they) like that homespun, shabby-chic vibe. You could even give them the gift of a flower subscription through Bloomsy Box.
Also consider an indoor potted plant that your hosts can enjoy for longer than a few days—the set of 4 ceramic animal planters above ($26.92 at World Market) come with faux succulents included, but you could replant them with the real thing. If you bring a bouquet, don’t expect your flowers to be the table’s centerpiece. That detail was likely already planned.
Bring a Homemade (or High-End Store-Bought) Gift Meant 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, or the classic box of fancy chocolates.
Three Little Figs French Onion Confit, $18.50 on Mouth
This wine- and Cognac-infused caramelized onion jam is a great partner to cheese and crackers or a burger, and a fabulous gift.
Related Reading: Our Favorite Gifts for Acquaintances
Really, there are so many 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, even if it isn’t food. 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. It can be a new cookbook, or maybe a food memoir, or whatever else they’re into.
Bring 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 little ones get restless and bored. A Lego set sounds like a cool idea; the lakeside cabin scene above even includes a moose!
Bring an After-Dinner Game
Or amuse the adults and bring a party game. A grown-up card game or board game for after the meal can provide just the break people need before they’re ready to tackle dessert. For food lovers, try this Foodie Fight trivia game, which is fun for adults and kid-friendly too.
Bring What the Host Really Needs—If They’ll Tell You
You can always ask the hosts specifically what you can bring that would help the most, and if you’re lucky, they might actually tell you—a good cheese with crackers, maybe, or a simple 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.
And Don’t Forget…
If it’s a potluck, bring your own serving dish and utensils, as the hosts will likely be using all of theirs; the metallic gold serving utensils above are party-perfect and just $12 at Target. Better yet if you leave the new utensils and/or dish there as part of your gift to them (unless you think they’ll stress at having to find storage space for something else).