Step One: Return The Favor | Darling Magazine

This is part of our Professional Dinner Guest series, a guide on how to become the kind of dinner guest that people enjoy having over and invite back regularly. Catch up on previous posts here.

Today we will approach the “front door” of professional “guesting,” the first impression a hostess will have of you: what you have prepared. The hostess or host has prepared ambience, a meal, and an evening event—what have you brought to say “thank you?”

Now it is generally not expected that every guest would think to bring something to an event, especially when it is not a potluck or a barbecue. That does not, however, imply that it’s wrong to do so. Bringing a gift for the hosts of the party is a thoughtful and gracious way to say “thank you” and also “I understand that it takes work to make these evenings go smoothly.” Whether or not they end up smooth is not the issue—you should thank them in advance anyway.

Gifts, however, are a bit of an art form. There is no need to feel intimidated by the thought of thinking up the perfect item—there are standbys that will always suffice and bring a warm smile to the face of those who have invited you. Remember, they invited you into their home, they made an effort so that you could be comfortable and well fed, and it is the least you can do to reciprocate in return.

Let’s start with what NOT to do…

1. Show up empty-handed. Regardless as to the type of event (formal dinner party or backyard cook-out), there is always an opportunity to bless and contribute.

2. Overdo it. If it takes both hands to lift it, it’s too big of a gift. If it’s something like a massive basket with 20 items, not only is it probably not situationally appropriate (that’s for when your neighbor is ill and stuck in bed or a relative passes away), but also a bulky bother for those you are giving it to.

3. Give money. Unless the host has found an inventive way to ask for it, like a money jar at the entrance, or asked for it in advance, I have found offering to pay once you have arrived a tacky and sometimes embarrassing idea. However, in the case of a potluck—say for a holiday dinner—it’s okay to offer ahead of time to help buy the Turkey before the host cooks it. Just be sure not to mention it over the table of guests that you did so. Making other guests feel guilty is not something your host will appreciate.

4. Bring porcelain figurines, candelabra or knick knacks. Unless you already know that your host has a very particular proclivity to a certain style, buying these kinds of items can create stress for the hosts if they do not like them. In fact, you might not get invited again because they have already re-gifted your bird figurine and are worried you will notice it’s absence and be offended.

Instead, bring one of these tried-and-true best gifts…

1. Flowers. Probably shy away from a dozen red roses, but otherwise, flowers can be a beautiful centerpiece for the evening, especially if your friend has forgotten a centerpiece in the rush of getting prepared. Try to select blooms that will last for at least a week so they can enjoy them for the maximum amount of time. Also, have them in some sort of water already (even in just a bag taped around the base of the stems) in case they don’t have time to deal with them in the rush of guests arriving. Better yet, offer to put them in a vase yourself.

2. Gourmet chocolates. A little box of truffles or Ghiradelli squares is always a welcome addition, and you can suggest that they can be opened with after-dinner coffee and tea, adding to the party atmosphere without eclipsing your host’s preparations.

3. Locally-made products, like honey or preserves. This can be a sweet addition to anyone’s pantry, especially if you know the hosts’ favorite flavor. If the gift can only be gleaned from a local farmer’s market, the time and effort you took to find them shows your appreciation and care. A little can go a long way.

4. Personal specialty items. For one person, a perfect item may be a set of fine stationary, and for another, a little lemon zester they haven’t gotten around to buying. When you are around your friends who do give these dinners, listen to the little details they talk about and pay attention. I often hear people saying things like “I keep wanting to buy that, but it’s just such a little extra, not a necessity.” That’s the type of little gift you want to keep an eye out for.

Stay tuned for part three, where we will discuss how to dress appropriately for dinner parties…

Image via Valley & Co. Lifestyle


  1. Kelly, I totally understand that it can feel almost strange – I usually give whatever I’ve brought right when I get in, during the bustle of the coats-hanging up, purses putting-down process. Then it’s a part of the natural conversation instead of its own topic. Probably the best way to “present” your thank you is the simplest version of “Thanks so much for having this over! This is just a small (desert wine? flowers?) thank you for you to enjoy later.” (If it’s wine/preserves etc). Then you insinuate it’s not for the party (although it’s ok if it is) but leave it to the host to decide.

  2. I have to admit this is something I’m awful at. In my family/friend circle, not many people do this. We all bring wine/food for the party, but something specifically for the host not to use at the party always still feels a little awkward to me, even though I think it’s sweet and appropriate and appreciated. It’s like I don’t know how to present it. “Thanks for inviting us to your wine and cheese night, here’s some stationary.” Unless it’s a good friend and someone I’d give random gifts to anyway.

    I think I’m my own worst enemy there, making things awkward when they shouldn’t be!

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