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9 Thanksgiving Etiquette Tips for Hosts, and 8 for Guests

On Thanksgiving, the last thing you want to be is an ungrateful host or guest.

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Thanksgiving tips

Thanksgiving could look a bit different in 2020 due to COVID-19. Make sure you take the appropriate precautions before traveling to see family—if you decide to travel at all. Read on to see what the polite things both hosts and guests can do this Thanksgiving if you do decide to gather in person. Here are a few more details on what Thanksgiving could look like this year.

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Hosts: Ask about dietary restrictions

Before you plan your Thanksgiving menu, check if there are any foods your guests can’t eat so you don’t leave anyone hungry. That said, if you’re a guest with an allergy or other food restriction and your hosts haven’t asked, give a polite reminder, and offer to bring a shareable dish that meets your needs, says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “Even family members have to be reminded if you don’t see them often,” she says. “The host has to be aware, and the guest needs to make them aware, especially if it’s a life and death situation.” Here’s what hosts should do 30 minutes before guests arrive.

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Hosts: Figure out the perfect menu

Guests are probably expecting (and hoping for) a traditional Thanksgiving feast, so be sure to include turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. After you choose those recipes, feel free to get creative with your other sides to give guests a surprising treat. Be sure to have healthy options for anyone watching their waistline. This holiday, be wary of these Thanksgiving “facts” that aren’t actually true.

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Hosts: Don’t serve anything too messy

“Normally for Thanksgiving, people dress up, but you don’t want guests to wear foods on their outfit,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and author of Poised for Success. “Serve foods that are easy to eat.” Make sure hors d’oeuvres are (literally) bite-sized, and stay away from messy finger foods, she says. These Thanksgiving vacation ideas will help you unwind after hosting.

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Hosts: Cook way more food than necessary

Instead of planning your Thanksgiving meal to a T, with every person getting one reasonable portion, have enough food that anyone can go back for seconds. “You want to anticipate there will be seconds or a surprise,” says Gottsman. “You can always have leftovers.” Besides, is there really anything better than a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce? Try these quick recipes for Thanksgiving leftovers.

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Hosts: Serve dessert in another room

Take dessert to the living room or another seating area to give diners the chance to stretch after feasting on turkey and mashed potatoes. Plus, you won’t need to clear off the whole table before digging in to the sweet stuff. “I serve dessert and drinks in another room, not at the table, because everyone has been at the table for long periods of time,” says Whitmore. “It gets people up and moving.”

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Hosts: Set up a kids’ table

Some parents prefer their kids to be at the table, and some children don’t want to be separated from their parents. But as long as everyone is comfortable, a kids’ table can be a fun way to let both kids and adults talk about what they want. It also gives you a chance to make an elaborate meal for the adults while giving kid-friendly options too. “It’s important to serve things for kids,” says Gottsman. “You might do a duck for the parents, and the kids might want chicken or turkey.” Following these White House dining etiquette rules will keep your dinner party classy.

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Hosts: Don’t wash dishes before guests leave

Resist the temptation to get a start on the dishes while your guests are lingering in the other room. “It makes other people feel uncomfortable,” says Gottsman. If you’re the guest waiting for a host who’s busy at the sink, offer to give a hand with the cleanup. But if your host declines, just sit back and relax instead of insisting. Hosts will accept your offer if they need your help, and you might get in the way. Related: Don’t miss these things you should never put in the dishwasher.

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Hosts: Make cleanup a breeze

Make it easy for guests to know where to toss trash by clearly labeling bins with “trash” or “recycling.” Instead of scrubbing dishes right away, toss cutlery and small plates in a sink of soapy water while you finish your Thanksgiving festivities.

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Hosts: Craft a great seating arrangement

If you’ll have six or more guests joining you, set out name cards so everyone knows where to sit. “There is a science and art to seating guests,” says Whitmore. Keep the hosts on both ends, next to any guests of honor, and seat a chatty person toward the middle and near shy guests to keep the conversation flowing, she says. These are the 9 things you should never touch in someone else’s house.

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Guests: Check if your host wants extra food

Bringing a side dish to share can be an appreciated contribution to a host dealing with a huge meal. Ask the hosts if they have any requests, or give a heads up about what you plan to make so there are no duplicates. “They may or may not want it, so always ask,” says Gottsman. “The host may have it down to a science and not want extra food.” Gifts that are almost always appreciated? Chocolate or wine for the host to enjoy later. If you do bring a bottle, make sure it’s unchilled to make it clear it’s for the host to enjoy, and not for the party. Or try one of these thank-you gift ideas for every occasion.


Guests: Ask before bringing a plus one

Give your host a heads up if you’d like to invite another guest or bring a pet so your host can prepare for the extra mouths. Unexpected guests can be a huge source of stress, but don’t let that show if you’re the surprised host. “A polite guest won’t do it, but a gracious host will welcome them,” says Gottsman. This is exactly how much turkey to make per person.

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Guests: Offer to pitch in

See if your host would like you to help carry food to the table, pour drinks, or clear dirty dishes. “At the very least, as a guest you should offer to help, and if the host accepts the offer, that’s fine,” says Whitmore. “Nine times out of 10 the host will turn you down, but at least you made the offer.”


Guests: Don’t ask for leftovers

If you loved the stuffing but were too stuffed to enjoy as much as you wanted, don’t ask you can take some home for tomorrow—wait for the host to offer you a goody bag of leftovers. Same goes for any dish you contribute, says Gottsman. “It’s like a loan. If you lend someone money, you don’t assume you’re getting it back,” she says. Here are more little etiquette tips for house guests.

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Guests: Don’t arrive too early or too late

Show up too early and your host will probably be working on last-minute tasks, but come too late and you might mess with the meal’s timeline. Arrive no more than five minutes before start time—though even that is pushing it—but no more than 15 late to keep Thanksgiving running smoothly, says Whitmore.

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Guests: Leave precious food containers at home

Because you shouldn’t ask for leftovers, you should also figure on leaving any remaining food in the container you brought it in, which means now is not the time to show off your prized heirloom serving dish. Even if the dish is empty by the end of the meal, you might forget it, or someone might take yours by accident. “Take a container you won’t be sorry if you leave it behind,” says Gottsman. “If you’re afraid of losing it, don’t bring it.”

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Guests: Don’t linger too long

After your bellies are full of turkey and pie, look to your hosts for signs that they’re wrapping up so you don’t start to become a burden. After the first guest leaves, look for little signals from the host, like if they’re washing the dishes or standing near the door. “If you’re having a good time and chit-chatting, be aware of the host’s time and if he or she has to clean up and get to bed,” says Whitmore. “Just look for those cues, and don’t overstay your welcome.”


Guests: Send a thank-you note

Don’t let the thankful spirit pass once the holiday is over. “After you leave, let the turkey settle the next day, then after 24 to 48 hours, send a thank-you,” says Gottsman. Don’t miss these other little etiquette rules you should always follow.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.