Five Ways to Avoid Driving Your Dinner Guests Crazy

Good heavens. Even the French generally keep their dogs under the table. Photo by Ruben Swieringa via Flickr.

I once wrote a newspaper article on common faux-pas people make when entertaining. When it was posted online, someone wrote: “Jeeze! I’d just be happy to be invited to someone’s house! I’d never complain!”

Certainly, most guests—including myself—are not that critical. We’re simply thrilled to be included in the fun.

Unless, of course, you do something that drives us crazy. And sadly, hosts often do, without even knowing they’re doing so.

Yet making guests feel comfortable in your home is part of the guest-host contract that you signed when you invited people over. Here are a few ways to avoid violations:

1. Mind the Dog 

I am so tired of being pawed at, nosed, growled at, jumped on, and slobbered on by my hosts’s dogs that I often think twice before accepting a dinner invite at the home of someone who can’t control their pet. Or if I do go to an offending dog-owners house, I am now sure to wear my “dog pants”—trousers I don’t care much about, in case they get pawed at and slobbered on.

Really. Do you want to be the kind of host whose guests put on their dog pants before they come to your house?

Well, maybe you do, if your goal is to drive your guests crazy.

2. Stop Apologizing About the Food

I love eggs in a salad to be soft-cooked to velvety-luscious richness. Yes, I overcooked them here. No, I didn’t make a fuss about it.

So, something you made didn’t turn out the way you really wanted it to. Make light of it and move on. Chances are, your guests won’t really notice (and again, they’re just happy to be part of the fun).

This vintage napkin shows an age-old problem. Of course, you don’t think your guests will arrive on time, but many do.

You will, however, drive them crazy if you keep harping on about how you overcooked the lamb and undercooked the artichokes and the meringue isn’t as set as you’d wished. Really, guests do not want to spend the evening assuring you that everything is just fine. It’s tedious, and we run out of ways to say, “Really, it was great. Really!”

3. Be (Mostly) Ready When We Arrive

Look—we’re all busy. It’s not uncommon for the hosts to start cooking after the guests arrive, and sometimes it’s part of the fun. I, personally, enjoy pitching in when asked. Loosey-goosey is good with me.

But please. When we show up, it would be nice if you have at least purchased the groceries and made it look like you had some kind of general plan in place. It would be nice if you were pretty much dressed for the evening. I would much rather you’d called and said, “Hey, we’re running late! Can you give us another hour?” than to sit in your living room while one harried co-host rushes home with the groceries and the other frantically roots around the fridge to find us something to drink.

Entertaining should look effortless; you simply don’t want your guests to think we are putting you out. Unless, of course, your goal is to drive us crazy.

PS: Guests—don’t complicate things by arriving too early…that’s a sin, too!

If this doesn’t look familiar, find a quick-read on food safety on the FSIS Website.

4. Don’t (Food) Poison Your Guests

This should go without saying: Keep the food you serve safe to eat. However, I’m often surprised at how many hosts don’t understand some basic food-safety rules.

For example, I once went to a friends house for an afternoon backyard picnic. When we arrived at noon, we were told that a particular out-of-town couple wouldn’t be arriving until around 3 p.m., so we’d nosh on appetizers before we ate the main meal. That’s okay! I’m flexible.

Except, what drove me crazy was that for three hours, some good- looking pork chile verde and other perishable foods sat in a warm kitchen at room temperature. (And frankly, who knew how long it had been sitting before we even got there?).

I know, I know. Food safety is one of the most un-sexy things to talk about. But the truth is, you need to keep hot food hot (140° or higher) and cold food cold (at 40° or below). Otherwise, you risk not only driving us crazy, but making us sick.

Food at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F are at risk of developing harmful bacteria. Do not let it sit in this “danger zone” longer than 2 hours (1 hour if the temperature is 80°F or higher).

5. Stop Bickering, for Heaven’s Sake 

Have you ever been invited to the Bickersons? We have and it’s excruciating.
These are the people who argue at everything both large and small. And it’s the small details that especially drive us crazy.

Above: An extreme version of The Bickersons: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” You don’t want to be this couple, now do you?

Typical conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bickerson:

“In 1997, when we went to Taos….”
“Honey, we didn’t go to Taos in 1997–that was 1998”
“Yes we did. It was the year we discovered that amazing posole.”
“We didn’t have Posole in Taos, that was Santa Fe.”
“Yes, I know it was Santa Fe, but it was on the 1997 trip.”
“But you just said we had Posole on our trip to Taos.”
“It was the same trip that we went to Taos that we discovered that great Posole in Santa Fe.
“Well, that’s not what you said….”

And, Mr. and Mrs. Bickerson, you wonder why everyone always drinks so much at your place….

Here’s one of my favorite ways to keep it simple.

But What About the Food?

Notice how the things that drive guest crazy are rarely about the food itself?

Really. Don’t knock yourself out. It’s been said before: When planning a menu for guests, stay in your comfort zone—make a few recipes that you truly love, and your guests will likely enjoy them, too.

I’ve been a food writer, restaurant reviewer, cookbook author and editor, and recipe developer for almost 20 years and I can’t give you one example of being invited to someone’s house where I had been even remotely disappointed by the food.  Sure, there might have been a something gone awry here or there, but the point is, I don’t remember them at all. Not a one comes to mind.

So take my word for it: Perceptive hosting skills can make up for a lot of culinary misfires. No one will remember the overcooked lamb, the slightly grainy crème anglaise, the too-brown meringue. They’ll remember what a fun and meaningful time they had around your table.

As long as you don’t drive them crazy.

Other posts you might enjoy:

Menus for Everyday and Entertaining (featuring recipes on this site and in the Bonne Femme Cookbook)
Yes! You Can Freeze Crêpes (always a good idea to get a jump-start on entertaining)
French Cocktail Party Menu (this one was designed for French National Apéritif Day, but can be used any time).
About the Book: What? You don’t have The Bonne Femme Cookbook? Good heavens, you’re missing out.
A French Caesar Salad? Mais Oui!: The recipe for my version, pictured above.

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10 comments to Five Ways to Avoid Driving Your Dinner Guests Crazy

  • Marcella

    Wish we lived in the same city so I could invite you over! Will you be in DM over the fourth of July? I may have the option of being there then.

    And, by the way, this is great and needful advice especially about the food. So true. People don’t really care about less than perfect food. Most have the good graces just to be happy around the table.


  • Rita Pray

    Such good advice! A question for you about managing people flow without driving the guests crazy!: After dinner is all done, coffee has been served, at what point is it appropriate to interrupt the conversation at the table and try to move people to another locale (more comfy couches etc) without sending a message that it’s time to break up the evening? If you continue sitting around the table, should another offer of more (coffee? wine? dessert?) be made?
    Any advice would be appreciated!

    • Wini

      Thank you, Rita, for being the kind of host that suggest we all move to “soft seating” after dinner. A change of seating allows everyone to get more comfortable, while re-arranging the dining-chat companions a bit.

      A really easy way to make sure everyone knows that it’s not time to go home is to simply say, “I’ve got some great _______ [chocolates, macarons, liqueur, port, whatever] that I thought we’d all enjoy in the living room.” Just offer them one more tiny thing. They’ll get the hint that it’s not time to go home yet.

      And yes, if you continue sitting around the table, it’s polite to keep the coffee going ’round. Or the wine. Make sure there’s a nice big water pitcher on the table, as people often want to hydrate at this point.

      Thanks for your questions!

  • Linda

    Miss Manners meets La Bonne Femme! Love it! This was a good read, and good advice.

  • Oh my goodness, I thought I was the only one who had ‘the dog thing’! Various friends of mine have canines whom I normally adore, but I draw the line at dinner. I’ve witnessed dogs been fed treats from the table, as well as the hosts petting demanding doggies whilst in the midst of constructing salad.
    The horror!
    But thankfully I have one friend who is a dog-owner and the dinner party queen; she knows well enough to banish her pooch to the backyard when company comes.
    I also have a banishment policy when it comes to my demanding cat. They may be our furbabies, but a dinner party is ultimately about people, not pets.

  • Wini

    Cats belong anywhere they want to be!

    Ha. Just kidding, of course, We cat-lovers have an obligation to keep our felines from annoying guests, too.

    I hesitated posting the thing about dogs. It makes me sound like a dog-hater, and I’m not (in fact, the older I get, the more I appreciate dogs–they are so emotive and loyal). Still, there’s a time and a place….

    Thanks for posting, Rachel!

  • Agree with all of this, except for #1. But probably because I have a naughty dog. Ha. Thanks for sharing!

    • Wini

      So funny, Apres New York. I used to be an offender myself, only with my cat. I just assumed that everyone loved my cat as much as I did. But when I started noticing how annoying dogs can be, I realized: “Wow–cats are probably just as annoying if you’re not used to them!”

      Most of us figure out at some point….

  • A very good post. We have a very large dog, a 155 pound Newfoundland. We do put her outside but guests generally want to go out and see her. She is a sweet lovable dog and she drools like most Newfies. So I feel guilty after reading your #1 even if we don’t encourage them to go outside. The problem with cats is (I am not a cat lover I admit), if you are allergic to cats, you can start to wheeze even long after the cat is out of the room. Then there is the issue of the cat hairs.

    Relative to timing, especially in France, the bigger issue is with guests who arrive late and then you have to do aperitifs no matter when they arrive. So if you don’t want your salad greens to wilt, you have to wait to dress it or finish dishes like risotto or cook fish which don’t handle waiting to be served very well.

  • Gretel

    Great article, my friend. I have been that host that apologizes for mistakes. Now I have learned to roll with the flow and have fun.

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