Always bring something and know when to leave: a freeloader’s guide to being the perfect dinner guest

<span>A ‘bring-nothing’ directive is not an invitation to arrive empty-handed at a dinner party. When in doubt, everyone loves flowers.</span><span>Photograph: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images</span>
A ‘bring-nothing’ directive is not an invitation to arrive empty-handed at a dinner party. When in doubt, everyone loves flowers.Photograph: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

A friend once told me that BYO cocktails are the secret to getting your name at the top of every dinner party guest list.

Before leaving home, he packs a picnic basket containing a bag of ice, fresh limes or lemons and whatever ingredients go into his cocktail of the day. All he requires of the host are some glasses and a corner of the kitchen to work his magic.

“It really gets the party going,” he says. “I choose one cocktail per dinner – no one has ever complained about my choice.”

His approach brought back memories of my own brief career as most popular invitee in the small French town in Burgundy where I spent two months in 2022. My cheese puffs were my entrée into the homes and lives of the locals. I was “l’Australienne avec les gougères”, caught up in the busy social life of the village when I should have been writing my masterpiece. Like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing.

Related: Overconfidence, inexperience and vanity: the seven deadly sins of dinner party hosting

Competition for the crown of best host can be fierce, but few aspire to be the best guest. Yet we’ve all experienced toxic dinner party guests like the belligerent flat-earther with an axe to grind or the political zealot who wants to convert us. Bad guests are driven by forces other than the tact and diplomacy needed to earn them a return seat at the table.

As a semi-professional freeloader of many years’ standing, I can confidently state that being a good guest is a skill anyone can acquire. Below are five tips to maximise the odds of a return invitation.

1. Find your signature offering

Whether it’s cheese puffs, cocktails or fresh blooms from your garden – if your offering works, stick to it. Cocktail-induced high spirits and recipe requests are a good indication your strategy is working. Don’t let a “bring-nothing” directive deter you: everyone loves homemade jam or some flowers, especially if they come already arranged in a jar. The key here is to not make extra work for your host.

2. Make yourself user-friendly

Take your lead from the host as to how much and what kind of help they need. It might just be a question of sitting next to the “difficult” guest and asking them questions about themselves all night.

Some hosts prefer to be left to their own devices in the kitchen. Others (I’m told) like company: they delegate tasks and drink pre-dinner drinks while preparing the meal and don’t mind if the meal is two hours late and burnt to a crisp.

3. Use your initiative

If you are asked to arrange the flowers, top up the glasses or help with the preparation, do your best to perform the allotted task with as little input from a busy host as possible. The carrots may not be julienned to the regulation matchstick dimensions but every delegated task has its risks. If the host is a perfectionist they are unlikely to entrust you with an important job.

Related: How to host apéro: drinks, great chat and a French cheese puff recipe

4. Don’t overstay your welcome

The perfect guest will always leave before the proverbial strike of midnight. If the host whips the saucer out from under your coffee cup or ostentatiously yawns and stretches, your coach has already turned into a pumpkin.

5. Give thanks – and not just at the door

If the dinner party has been a success – and with the perfect guest on board how could it not be? – the host will be basking in the post-dinner party glow. A thank-you text or note the next day would be the ganache on the gateau.

The secret to being the perfect guest isn’t rocket science. Put simply, the best guests are those who enhance the enjoyment of their host and fellow guests alike. And BYO cocktails can’t hurt.