How Much Help Do You Expect (To Receive or Give) at a Family Holiday Dinner?

Updated on January 05, 2017
J.B. asks from Boston, MA
28 answers

Curious to see what others expect. I was raised to believe that no one other than the oldest and youngest relatives are really "guests" at a family gathering, that everyone should pitch in and help out. My parents have hosted three big dinners a year for 40+ years and for many Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter gatherings, we would go to a second gathering at another relative's home later in the day. For the gatherings at my parents' house, after we moved out, my siblings and I all arrived early enough to help my mom in the kitchen (checking with her first on the time as we didn't want to crowd her) and of course cleared the table, washed the dishes, pots and pans, packaged up the leftovers and basically didn't leave until things were fairly tidy. As our kids got old enough to help, they were expected to pitch in as well. At other family gatherings, we were expected to do the same - help clear the table, wash dishes and generally do what we could to help out the host before leaving. When I had kids, we would often be among the earliest to leave these later gatherings to get them to bed at a decent hour but would still try to pitch in or at the very least, clean up after myself and my kids.

I hosted two gatherings on Christmas for my family and for the most part, things went as expected and at the end of the night, while there was still some stuff for me to do to put the house back in order, I wasn't left with a huge mess and my siblings and kids helped clear up the first dinner before the later crowd came in, who also helped to consolidate dessert platters, wash tea cups, etc. as the night wore on.

I hosted a big dinner for my ex's family this past weekend. I was happy to be able to provide a space for the gathering as well as a good meal and really enjoy having people at my home and spending time with family. They're a great group. However, I was struck by the fact that the only relative who was helpful was my sister-in-law, who helped me cook latkes and washed a round of dishes after the soup course. The rest of the family, five able-bodied adults and six kids, were happy to sit and eat and drink and chat while we did all of the work. My older kids definitely took the cue from them and didn't jump into gear either (which I've since addressed with them - I was so busy that night that I didn't really notice). I talked to my ex about this after and said that next time, I expect him to come early, stay late, and to nudge his brother and cousins into helping serve and/or clean up. He admitted that that sounded fair and that it's just not what they're used to. In talking to some colleagues this morning, their families tend to be the same way - come, eat, drink, talk, enjoy and leave.

What's it like at your family gatherings? If you're the host, do you expect to do everything including clean up? If you're a guest, do you come prepared to help do some work? Just curious...

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C.N.

answers from Baton Rouge on

If I invite you over, I don't expect you to work. Only those who live with me are expected to work.
If you offer to help, I will tell you not to worry about it. If you persist, I will give you a task.
When I go to someone else's house, I offer to help. If they give me a task, I do it. If they say, "Don't worry about it," I don't worry about it.

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J.C.

answers from Anchorage on

If it is a small dinner for friends I do the work, and if they offer (which they always do) I say no thanks, the only thing they contribute is by bringing a favorite dish or special drinks if they so wish. Family is a different story, I was raised to help out and we all do, and still do. From set up to clean up when it is a family gathering all hands are on deck to help out.

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M.H.

answers from Dallas on

When I choose to host, I accept responsibility for cooking/cleaning unless I specify otherwise upfront. I do the same when I am an invited guest. I don't like anyone in my space so I assume the same of others when I am a guest.

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K.C.

answers from Denver on

When I host a party, EVERYONE is a guest. I prefer that they eat, talk, drink, visit with each other and enjoy themselves and leave the clean up to me. But that's my personal preference. I think your way sounds nice, too. Especially since, I assume, people are socializing WHILE helping you clean up. I don't host too many parties, and my family isn't huge, so I have no problem doing this once or twice a year. If we had many parties with lots of people, I'd probably adopt your method. There's no right or wrong here.

When I'm a guest, I always offer to help, but if I'm turned down, I would never start stacking dishes or "helping" in my own way. Some people have a method for clean up (I know I do) and actually DO NOT want other people in their messy kitchen doing stuff.

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J.K.

answers from Wausau on

When I host a holiday meal and someone wants to bring a dessert, I'm okay with that. I'm not really into making sweets. But everything else - prep, shopping, all the other cooking, cleanup - that's my job and I like to handle it on my own. I only do as much as I'm prepared to take on. I do not ask for people to bring dishes or co-host in other ways, unless we're organizing a potluck (usually not on a holiday) and that is clear from the start.

My sister even gave me a dish towel that says "Get Out" because that's what I'm always saying to people who wander into my kitchen.

When I do want help, say with taking something to the table or some other minor task, I will ask for it specifically. That's the key here - when you want something, ask for it directly. Never expect people to read your mind or assume what you do not say. :-) It sounds like you handled it with your ex and kids, so good job!

On Christmas day this year, we had lunch at an aunt's house. My stepmom and I did the handwash dishes while my two aunts loaded the dishwasher and cleared up. This was less of a "help with work" thing than a "let's hide in the kitchen to chat and have coffee away from the crowd." Any task done by the rest of the family (there were tons of people) was done when specifically requested of them. It is expected that one stays out of the way until asked.

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O.H.

answers from Phoenix on

I have all the parties at my house now. I do both my Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners all in crock pots to make it easier for me and it keeps the food hot. I just leave it in the crock and people help themselves like a buffet.

I make sure the dishwasher is empty so we can quickly rinse and load it after the meal. I have large containers for leftovers ready to go. So the only things that really need to be washed are the crock pots, which are pretty easy to do if you don't leave the food to dry in them. And even easier if you use the liners.

I have a very small family and they are good about helping. They each bring in their dish and rinse it off. My husband will do anything without being asked which is wonderful and my mom as well. But I pretty much just try to get the dishes in the dishwasher and quickly do the rest and it's done. I'm all about quick and easy when it comes to cooking and the bonus of that is not a lot to clean in the kitchen.

I will ask if the hostess needs help with anything when I go to someone's house. If they say, no, they got it then I let it be. Sometimes it's too much to have "help" in the kitchen, especially kids, if you have to keep instructing them and watching what they are or are not doing. JMO.

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R.V.

answers from Portland on

I don't expect people to help me. If my children were older I would expect them to help me, and if have them offer to help at other people's houses. But if I host I think it's my job to clean up, and I usually don't start until people have left. If I were to start while people were still there I might ask those closest to me (like my mom or my sister) to c in the kitchen and help, but I wouldn't expect my extended family, or my husband's family to help. I can definitely see the perks, but having lots of people mess with my stuff, out trying to figure out what to do with other people's stuff is stressful to me.

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D.D.

answers from Boston on

Set your expectations ahead of time. Instead of being resentful about all the work I have people pitch in before hand. My youngest daughter usually helps me cook. My son sets up the tables. I use heavy duty paper plates and plastic silverware to everything gets thrown out. I wash pots and pans as I cook so there's less to do at the end. My oldest daughter usually pitches in at the end to get the left overs into the fridge and deserts on the table. My brothers, sisters in law, mom, and hubby usually don't do much of anything except visit with each other. Since we get together 4-6 times a year its a lot of work on my part but I'm ok with it because I have some help.

In your case please speak up and ask for some assistance. I'm sure a couple of your guests would be happy to help but unless you ask they just assume that you are ok with things.

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K.H.

answers from New York on

Great question! We are all so different and the short answer is we use our manners and adjust accordingly to surroundings in my family!
Just this Thanksgiving I was proud to see my oldest son's manners on display, he is 13 and we were spending it at a rented house out of state w/my husbands side of the family, small gathering, everyone travelled to come together, generally hosted by my BIL & his wife, my in laws came, it was nice. After the big meal when we were all done yet still seated and talking, my oldest proceeded to stand and clear the dishes & then proceeded to give compliments to each chef as he made his way around & then kissed me on the cheek and made his exit w/younger siblings & cousin in tow and it was utterly impressive!

It's the little help that matters to my husbands side, I mostly do the dishes, and decorate/set up and do the drinks, ha! My MIL and BIL are excllent cooks and really enjoy it. That's how I contribute most.

On my side it's more like what you describe, we all share except the most respect is given to oldest and youngest, everyone always does their part and the acts themselves, whether it be peeling potatoes or chopping veggies, decorating the tables, clean up after & whatever, that is half the fun too, dividing up and playing to all strengths! We dig it.

Both sides play lots of games after which is an awesome similarity to share!

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S.F.

answers from Phoenix on

This is a great question. If I host, I don't expect help. I welcome and appreciate it but I don't expect it. If it's a big holiday gathering I might wrangle some of the kids to help clear the table or take out the trash. If I'm a guest I alwYs say, "What can I do to help?" rather than, "Can I help?"

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T.H.

answers from Kansas City on

If I'm hosting family then yes, I do expect at least some help. If I'm hosting a dinner party with my husband's co-workers or not very close friends, then no I will shoo them out of the kitchen. I don't expect guests to necessarily wash and dry dishes, but a little effort like learning tables or putting things away would really be helpful.

That being said...only my family helps. My in-laws sit around and expect to be served. I have been very upset by their attitudes in the past, especially when my kids were little and I was hosting for 25 people and they did nothing to help out. My kids are older now and not as much stress and they can help some too so things are easier and I've grown accustomed to them not doing anything so I'm not as mad about it as I used to be.

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S.G.

answers from Los Angeles on

When I host a dinner or a party I do not expect the guests to help out. My husband and kids are there to help me if need be, but I expect my guests to relax and enjoy. When guests offer to help I politely tell them "no thanks". I do not appreciate those guests that insist on helping, as I prefer to have things done on my own time and in my own way. When I am the guest I will ask if there is anything I can do, but I don't normally need do anything. I do always offer to bring a dish (or wine, or dessert), and I will normally ask my guests to bring a dish.

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R.A.

answers from Boston on

I was raised to treat anyone who visits into your home as your guest. I never expect help in the kitchen, I prefer to let everyone else sit and enjoy their time then help me with anything..

However, if I am at someone else's home, I will always help clear the table, and rinse off dishes unless told to stop.

As far as family guests, same rule applies to them. Unless they brought something they needed to prepare, everyone goes and sits down. Most also have to drive an hour to visit us, so the last thing I want them to do is help. Otherwise my kitchen is crowded and I honestly can't stand it when everyone hovers in the kitchen when I'm trying to prepare things.. biggest pet peeve! Lol..

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R.K.

answers from Appleton on

When I was growing up my family all pitched in and helped with the dishes and putting away food and everything. My ex-husband's family liked to play 'queen for a day', his mother never got off her butt to help. So my ex never helped either though his sisters did help.
When I go to a party I always help with the clean up no matter who hosts. I was raised to believe it is good manners to help.

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M.6.

answers from New York on

THANK YOU! I actually had to downsize one of my Christmas parties this year (I have two each year since I cannot hold more than 20 people in my house at one time comfortably - less if there are a lot of kids running around) because a number of the people in that group come to eat my food, drink all my booze, chat, and leave without even a thank you. I put a TON of work into these parties and although I don't expect my guests to show up early to cook, I do expect them to clean up after themselves and also pitch in a little at the cleanup/end. These are all family members and not acquaintances or neighbors that just stopped by to say hi - these are folks like my brother and his fiancé. Anyways, I just can't do that much work in one day by myself and then host another party right after and then show up at work for a full shift. Last year, I ended up in bed due to exhaustion after no help from the first party and then going right into the second.

I simply left the lazys off the list this year and had a MUCH better Christmas party both times. My remaining guests had a much better time since I could be a much better host. I did an evening drinks/snacks on a different night for the lazys - one that didn't require me to do any cooking or cleaning, just set out snacks and fixed a few drinks.

Good luck effecting change for next year!

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H.W.

answers from Portland on

In all iterations of my family (I have extended 'nuclear' family as all of my mom's husbands have remarried and sometimes go to things my stepmom's family hosts as well) the general rule is that everyone helps. This last Thanksgiving was the only time I didn't help, and that wasn't for lack of trying-- my aunt and another uncle were having an in-depth conversation while doing dishes and really just wanted to be given space. Because space is tight, I did finally tell them "give me a holler when you are ready for the second shift to come in". I actually like doing pots and pans. The hosts, another aunt and her husband, have specific ways in how they deal with their kitchen and leftovers. At other events, even when it's not family, I will offer. I don't mind doing it and if it makes the work lighter for the hosts, why not?

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C.C.

answers from New York on

I think it is important to be a gracious guest but equally important, as the host, to "not write checks that your [---] can't cash". In other words, don't take on more than you can reasonably handle. I could "host" a three-ring circus as long as you bring the lions and she brings the seals and he brings the fire-eater, etc etc - but that's not HOSTING, that's "let's all pitch in and create a party together". If that's how you want to do it, you need to speak up - and - to be honest - give people who are "not into that" the option to not attend once they know what they would be signing up for!

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M.D.

answers from Pittsburgh on

Each family is different. In my extended family, the host cooks the main dish, everyone else brings sides, and it's all hands on deck (my dad was a navy guy) for cleanup.

In my husband's extended family, cooking and cleaning are women's work while the men watch football...

(and if you know me at all from this site, you can guess my opinion on that, but I don't make waves since it's only once a year)

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M.G.

answers from Portland on

Here when you host, you typically do it all. Guests bring contribution (wine or part of the meal) and they offer to help - but typically you and your family prepare and clean up.

With family, my sister always offers to help as do I with her. My mom does it all but we are encouraged to bring food to add to the meal. We always take the dishes out to the kitchen. My kids set the table, etc. So we pitch in for family. Friends of ours - not as much. It's usually done.

Our gatherings are pretty informal so we socialize in the kitchen. So people bring out food but my husband typically cleans up while I entertain - and the men would gather in the kitchen with him. We do the biggest part of the clean up after our guests leave.

My kids are expected to offer to help - as we were encouraged to as kids.

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S.T.

answers from Washington DC on

with my immediate family (parents, brothers, their kids) i do expect and usually get some help. my husband is great for doing the dishes after we've hosted a big shindig.
but outside of the folks i grew up with, i expect very little. in fact, for me it's more stressful to tell people where the dishes go, where to find things, and to dance around them than it is just to do. so in a case like this, your ex's family (and aren't you a sweetheart to do this- your ex is a lucky fellow), i would prefer they relax and be sociable with each other, and take on the lion's share of the work myself.
maybe it's an introvert thing.
khairete
S.

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J.C.

answers from Philadelphia on

Everyone pitches in in my family. I must admit though, I make it easy on myself...disposable plates, cups, mugs and silverware. Everyone brings an appetizer and leaves with their dish. My brother tends to empty the trash throughout the night. I buy fruit trays, desserts etc. Most of the work ends up being cleaning before the party.

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L.U.

answers from Seattle on

If I host - I expect to clean up. My brothers never jump in to help nor do their wives.
If I go to my parent's house for a family gathering - A person or two jump in and help out. Usually it's my husband (representing for my family...since I usually bake and/or cook things to bring to the dinner) and one or two of my brothers (or their wives) will step in.
But really...that's because they are my parents.
If I go to someone's house who has invited me to their home for dinner, then I am a guest. Whether it's my brother's home or it's a friend's home. I always offer to help, but am usually turned away.
If I invite people to my home then they are my guests...I don't expect them to help. And if they ask I would shoo them away.

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D..

answers from Miami on

Honestly, JB, if I had been you, I would have asked those able-bodied folks to help. They aren't used to it, but that doesn't mean that they should just sit there. Allowing that means that everytime you do this, you'll have the same problem.

You also need to have a talk with your kids. They knew better. Shame on them.

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M.D.

answers from Washington DC on

I always offer to help with cooking/cleaning if it is somewhere else. At my house, my family always offers to help before they leave.

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D.B.

answers from Boston on

I think guests have to sort of "feel out" the host because there are some people who don't want people in their kitchen, putting the good crystal in the dishwasher, and so on. But otherwise, yeah, we alway help. So do our friends. For large gatherings, I have always organized things by putting little post-it notes on dishes and platters and even on the trivets so it's clear where everything goes. (I do this for my own sanity anyway, regardless of whether people are coming to help.) Friends have said, "Oh, this is GREAT!" because they can pitch in without constantly asking me, "Can I help?" I've even stuck notes on the cabinet doors, marked "recycling" and "trash" and so on. I also (again, for my own sanity) label my tupperware-type containers and lids so it's easy to find the matches: one size is marked "A" and the next is "B" and so forth - but the bonus is, it helps others on big occasions.

My son would never dream of not clearing dishes at someone's house. He usually asks if he should rinse them, put them in the dishwasher or if the host has a certain routine. But he always does something. I do most of the cooking at our house, and my husband does the pre-event cleaning/set-up as well as the post-event clean-up, so depending on when people arrive, they ask whichever one of us is kind of "in charge" of that area. We also let our guests know that they are family, and say we are happy to show them the bar area and get them their first drink, and then they are more than welcome to self-serve. It takes some of the pressure off trying to make sure everyone's glass is refilled, and lets them know that our home is their home.

I'm sorry your event went like this. I can sort of see if the guests held back at first, since this is your new home and not your ex's house or the house you shared together, and they didn't want to intrude. But they could have offered at least, and your ex could have stepped up knowing your routine and customs as well as he does. And I seem to recall that your ex's parents have a beach house, so I wonder if everyone is so unwilling to pitch in when the older folks host? That's pretty bad if it's the case.

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E.B.

answers from Beaumont on

If we're guests, we always bring 1-3 sides or deserts. While I don't usually do the dishes, I always put things back in the fridge, wipe the counters, clear the tables etc. I have 2 boys and a husband and they don't do as much as I do but they do help with folding tables, chairs, clearing the table etc.
If I'm the host, I usually ask people to do this or that, especially my kids and husband. I don't mind asking guests to do things either. I think MOST people are happy to help out when asked.

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A.D.

answers from Minneapolis on

We have a lot "families" due to divorces/remarriages. Some fully expect a potluck and email a list of very specific traditional dishes for people to commit to bringing. Others like to provide the whole menu when they host. In some families, all adults willingly help with cooking and cleaning, and various other work (or as many as will logistically fit in the kitchen). Other families I have noticed the older men will never get out of the living room or TV room to lift a finger. They are not asked, expected, or seem to have any interest in offering any help. They just sit and socialize and eat when the food is ready. Though it's not questioned or resented, it strikes me as oddly uncomfortable. In the younger generations, it's much more equal around helping. Older kids of the host family usually have been assigned some pre-gathering or other small chores. Kids that are guests are usually not doing any helping unless the host has some kind of special favor or plan, but it's usually most just to entertain, engage them, and keep them busy until dinner.

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V.B.

answers from Jacksonville on

It all depends. Mostly on how comfortable I am in a particular environment or with the hosts. Yes, even with family... some family is more comfortable and natural than other family. My mother has never particularly encouraged too much help in the kitchen after, though I'm sure it is appreciated and I always offer. But many times, she declines the assistance.
At my SIL's, I do whatever. At my husband's Aunt's, I do whatever looks like it needs doing, or offer and ask what I can do. Sometimes that's not much, sometimes it's elbows deep in the sink.

At friends, I have always taken my cue from the host. If the host doesn't begin doing any cleaning, and appears to not want to bother with it while guests are still present, then I might offer (and usually they decline) and then let it go.
For myself, when I host family gatherings, with some people I like to sit after and not address the kitchen. With other family groupings (or dependent on the actual meal--some things MUST be put up in the refrigerator for food safety reasons) I want to get right into the major stuff, so there is less to do at midnight (I cannot stand to go to bed with a mess left in the kitchen... nothing shall be left in my sink. Ever. Ugh.).

If I go in and start cleaning up, my mother always asks if she can help, and my MIL often will, too. My SIL's do as well for the most part. I sometimes am grateful for any help I can get, but other times am more protective (?) of my space and would rather work on my own without so many bodies in the kitchen.
But honestly, for the most part, my husband is first up from the table and usually does the major putting away of food and stacking/organizing the dishes/mess before I ever am up from the table. He does most of the "hosting" early, when food prep is being finished up just before serving, and then I take over the "hosting" side once the meal has been served. He chats and socializes while I work, and then we switch.
We didn't *decide* this, but over the years it is what seems to have evolved, and seems to work well for us.
I do have one SIL who always just sits after the meal. But her kids are usually most helpful. :)

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