How to Host a Dinner Party in the U.S.

Dress up the table, your friends are coming over. (SheKnows.com)

Americans love to entertain so as a Brit living here, you’ll soon find yourself on the invite list. This of course, means that at some point, you’ll be reciprocating. Hopefully you’ll notice that American dinners are done a little differently before you host one, but if not, here are a few tips:

Kids
As I’ve mentioned before, if you don’t specifically exclude your guests’ offspring in your invite, it’s often assumed they’re invited. My previous post gives tips on what to do if you want an adults-only dinner. If you are hosting a multi-generational dinner, you should serve up safe, kid-food unless you want to be whipping up pasta and butter sauce in the middle of the meal.

Behavior patrol
As I’ve also mentioned before, don’t fall into the trap of becoming disciplinarian and child-minder for your guests. If the kids are being a pain, ask the parents to handle the situation. Make sure you have games and movies to keep kids entertained, and if it’s within your budget perhaps a trusted babysitter to help keep an eye on things, especially if they will be in a different room from the adults.

Start time
Americans generally eat earlier than Brits when dining out or hosting a dinner at home, and if you have invited children, the start time is even earlier. Suggesting something later than about 7 pm will seem a little odd and most people will expect you to say 6-6.30 pm. Your guests will also leave a tad earlier than you might be used to.

Guests
Rather than just having a dinner for the sake of it, many Americans aim to get a certain group of people together and will work at finding a mutually agreeable date. If someone says they can’t make the date, you should throw out a few more options and try to find something that works for everyone. (Obviously this does not apply to a party for more than about twelve. Otherwise, it would never get off the ground.)

Donations 
Your guests will almost certainly ask what they can bring, and if you say “Nothing” or “Just yourselves,” they will ask at least one more time before the event. Some will still turn up with an offering as I found out on the very first dinner party I threw in the States. It was a fairly formal, grown-up dinner and I had insisted that my guests just bring themselves; after all, my husband and I had taken pains with the menu and wines. One guest however, very kindly turned up with a fancy dessert for everyone!

Guest suggestions
Some suggestions you can throw out when your guests want to bring something are crusty bread or bread rolls, the kids’ dessert, a bottle of wine or a small appetizer for the group. If you’re really stuck ask them what they had in mind; some people have a specialty dish which they love to share. Seriously, you can end up having your guests bring the entire dinner if you work at it!

Menu
Since I find a larger percentage of people with food allergies on this side of the pond, I always ask what my guests either can’t eat or won’t eat. There’s nothing worse than slaving over a meal only to hear, once seated at the table, that someone’s a vegetarian, doesn’t eat seafood, or is gluten intolerant. Obviously such guests should really inform their hosts, but to be on the safe side, make the inquiry first.

Recipes
If you’re new to the States and using an American recipe, please erase modern, metric measurements from your memory. While some recipes include the metrics, most are still in pounds and ounces. (I know, I know.) Your oven temperatures are in degrees Fahrenheit, but mercifully, so is your kitchen appliance. Recipes also call for a “cup” of this and that. Now, this doesn’t mean you fish out any old coffee cup in your kitchen; it is a specific measurement of volume rather than weight and you can actually buy cup measures everywhere.  I would suggest a dictionary for some American recipes (especially if you’re in the South) as words like “oleo” and “catsup” might have you flummoxed.

After dinner
Your American guests, being a genuinely nice bunch (no sarcasm there, btw), often move straight from the dining table to the kitchen once the meal is over. Every time I have hosted anything, my American friends always want to help with the clean-up. As someone who would happily dump it all in the sink to soak overnight, I always refuse, but this sometimes falls on deaf ears. On one occasion, in an effort to thwart the dish-washing agenda, my husband and I moved to the living room to kick back but our two guests still insisted on kitchen-duty.  Fortunately, since it was an open floor-plan we could converse with them as they scrubbed away!

Are you fan of entertaining guests? 

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • SGLITZ

    Lost in Translation: Icing Sugar? Really… :)

  • http://twitter.com/estrellita_1103 Estrellita

    Regarding donations… Contribution is the correct term. When an American is told to bring nothing but herself, she may bring a hostess gift such as flowers, chocolates, or a bottle of wine. A bottle of wine (such as the dessert wine you mentioned) need not be consumed at your gathering. If it complements your menu, and you’d like to serve it, do so. A hostess gift is a gesture of thanks and is meant for the hostess, not the entire party. If your guests are not familiar with standard etiquette practices, you may offend them by not sharing the gift at the party. I wouldn’t worry about that. Ignorance on their part does not constitute rudeness on your part.