What's the food etiquette for a weekend at a friend's house?

Don't make your hosts feel like they're running a restaurant.
Don't make your hosts feel like they're running a restaurant. Photo: iStock

I know this from experience.

When my husband and I moved to north-east Victoria, we knew that friends and family from back in Melbourne would come to stay at our new home. With acreage and beautiful star-filled skies, camping is the preferred option for most of our guests, which means accommodation is the easy part.

Toting one wine bottle won't cut it.
Toting one wine bottle won't cut it. Photo: Craig Abraham

The question marks come into play when it's time to eat. And when lots of people are staying, it's always time to eat.

We're all used to going to a friend's house for dinner, but what are the expectations when you stay with them for a full weekend?

Bring drinks (hint: the plural is important)

If you're going to a friend's place for dinner, one bottle of wine is lovely. But if you're staying for a couple of nights, don't skimp on your liquor contributions.

My friends are quite generous with wine and beer (which may say something about my friends), but this happened to someone I know. A friend of theirs came empty handed and wasn't shy about drinking their wine stores dry; it's left a nasty taste in the hosts' mouths (which has nothing to do with tannins).

"Always bring more than you are planning to drink," says Anna Musson, etiquette expert at the Good Manners Company. "If you are there for a weekend, bringing six bottles of wine is a good measure if you know you will have opportunity to drink them."

Want to really get in your friend's good books? "Bring something special (their favourite champagne or a bottle of wine from a winery they love) that they can put aside for a special occasion."


Get your hands dirty in the kitchen

Everyone loves a guest who grabs the tea towel or packs the dishwasher – but one who takes that helpful role even further is welcome back any time.

That's right: a guest in the kitchen is worth two in the bush (or something like that).

Put some thought into cooking a meal for your hosts, however. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, it wasn't ideal when guests of ours dropped the bombshell that the meal they were cooking for us wouldn't be ready until our children's bedtime. We still had to cook for the kids (ours and theirs), so it wasn't a night off at all.

Don't want to take over the kitchen? "The alternative is to take your hosts out for a meal and pick up the tab discreetly away from the table without making mention of it," says Musson.

Yes please.

Whatever you do, don't turn up early to a dinner party.

Help out with the cooking.

BYO … something (or at least offer)

When we have guests coming to stay, my husband and I take some joy in planning the food we'd like to share with them; we might fire up the pizza oven or the barbecue, or prepare a couple of curries ahead of time.

This can make it hard for our guests to know how to contribute; they know we'll have it all under control.

What we do love, though, is when our visitors offer. "What's the plan for tonight?" they'll ask before heading out sightseeing, and they might offer to make a salad, buy a dessert, or grab some pizza toppings from the shops.

On the other hand, those who just rock up at the dinner table each evening of their stay are a little tiring. It's not nice when you're made to feel like a restaurant night after night.

Make yourself at home

When I extended the invitation to one of our guests (as I do to all) to make herself at home, I was surprised to hear her decline. "No, no, I couldn't do that," she insisted.

But while she thought she was being polite by not "intruding" in our space, her stance actually made the visit more difficult. That's because if someone isn't making themselves at home, then they're actually expecting us to wait on them.

Let me translate:

"Make yourself at home" means "I'd really like you to make your own coffee, throw on a piece of toast when you're ready for breakfast, and bring a book into the lounge room to relax".

"No, I won't make myself at home" translates to, "Offer me cuppas all day, serve up every meal and entertain me constantly".

Frankly, it's exhausting.

Musson agrees that you should just make yourself at home: "It suggests to the host that you are comfortable in their home, and that's positive. Make yourself a cup of tea, open a bottle of wine (that you brought) and put your ugg boots on."

"Having said that, we draw the line at walking around in your PJs, opening up packets of food from their pantry and going through their wardrobe."

Then again, you learn to expect the unexpected when friends come to stay.

Landing on someone's doorstep, with nothing in your hands but an overnight bag – and the vision of a fun weekend ahead – isn't okay.