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Holiday party etiquette: Should your guests help cook and clean?

Party Expert, author and mother-of-two, Mary Jo Rulnick, has planned, prepared and hosted parties for all ages from toddlers to senior citizens. Her experience includes the position of Girl Scout Day Camp Director, Party Coordinator for ...

Thanksgiving hostess tips

Here's a holiday etiquette question: Should your guests be expected to help cook and clean up after a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal? And what is expected of you when you're the guest at holiday gathering?

The question

When hosting dinner parties or holiday celebrations, should I expect any help from my guests with the cooking and clean up? Also, how much cooking and cleaning up should I be expected to do when I'm a guest at someone else's party?

Our expert answers

Miss Manners probably has a proper way to handle these sometimes-awkward situations. And she might not agree with my way of thinking, but here goes nothing, as they say.

I think each dinner or party has to be handled individually. At least, this is the way I work. Rather than giving you a set of rules, I'm going to give you examples instead. Christmas dinner and several other holidays are always held at our home. I'm the only daughter with three boys following me. And sometimes, their wives are not what you would say are handy in the kitchen. Because of this, it would be my mom and I doing the clean up.

If you don't want help, don't start cleaning up

For some reason, moms feel like they should be doing something, if their daughters are working. Since I want to give my mom a break (which is the reason why I have the dinner anyway), I stick whatever needs to be refrigerated (or else it goes bad) inside the frig and move everyone to the family room for coffee and dessert as soon as I see the main course is finished. Usually, I don't even try to convert any of the food into smaller bowls at this time. I open, stuff and close. The table and kitchen mess awaits me after everyone goes home.

I also follow this system when we entertain for business. My reason for doing so is that if I start cleaning the table and dishes, then I will put others on the spot to help. I don't want to make anyone feel obligated. (Now, if this would work with my sisters-in-law, I just might. Only kidding.)

When we have a party for friends as a get-together, I usually take it further because my friend Barb will start clearing the table and loading the dishes without me. And yes, I do appreciate the support.

If we're having a potluck gathering with say, my husband's softball team, I'll package up (wrap tightly with foil and put into a bag) the guests' dishes with any remaining leftovers for them to take home. Other than that, I stash whatever has to go in the frig, then leave everything else till later.

But ask for help if you need it!

Now, if your company happens to be the same, holiday after holiday, and they never return invitations, never offer to bring along a dish, and you feel as if you're being taken advantage of, Sister, the floor's all yours. A perfect smile with a polite, "Would you mind handing me that empty bowl?" Once the guest sits down. "Oh, my hands are slippery, could you pass the dishes?" She/he might get the hint. But, then again, you might have to work your way down to the silverware.

When you're a guest, always offer to help

Now, as a guest, I do not follow the above advice. I figure, if someone is kind enough to give me a dinner that I get to eat not only hot, but also one I didn't have to make, then the least I can do it is help. If the hostess is someone I'm not close to (family or friend) then I scrape the dishes, rinse, and either stack or load in the dishwasher (depending upon the dishes and the appliance). Usually, I avoid putting anything into the refrigerator or cabinets just for consideration of their privacy. I wouldn't want to embarrass the hostess if she had stuffed the cupboards to the brim while trying to clean up before the party. And I'm sure everyone can relate to that.

Do unto others...

Each situation calls for a personal touch. Today, the rules have changed so much, that there aren't any rules. Except one and it never goes out of style: The rule of common courtesy.

Probably the best advice is to think how you would feel in the opposite position? What results would you like to see or expect? Once you have your answer, act accordingly.

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