To eat or not to eat before a party

appetizersMichelle Obama is celebrating her 50th birthday. Hard to believe she’s 50, she sure doesn’t look it. Her party invitation stated it was Snacks & Sips & Dancing & Dessert, and specified to wear comfortable shoes, eat before you arrive and practice your dance moves.

There has been some controversy in the press about the invitation specifying that the invitees should eat before they arrive. It has raised a good point about how you communicate the kind of food you are serving so that guests know if they will be fed a meal or just snacks.

It seems hosts are trying to get clever by using different terms for what they are serving. It used to be that invitations stated only a few things to communicate the meal type – dinner, buffet dinner, heavy hors d’oeuvres and light hors d’oeuvres. I probably don’t need to explain what dinner is. A buffet dinner is typically a larger variety of food served from a table at which you help yourself throughout the evening. Heavy hors d’oeuvres are substantial appetizers, enough to make a meal – things like chicken satays, stuffed mushrooms, salads, mini quiche, meatballs, etc. Light hors d’oeuvres on the other hand are light appetizers that aren’t substantial enough to make a meal – chips and dip, cheese and crackers, bruschetta, nuts, crudité, etc. They are what Ms. Obama called snacks.

I wish people would go back to specifying what they are serving by using the terms I used above. If hosts were consistent, guests would eventually come to understand what is being served and whether to eat before the event or not.

As a guest, if the invitation doesn’t state what’s being served I consider the time of the event and make assumptions based on that. But even that doesn’t always help. I just attended a function that took place from 6:30 to 9:00 PM at someone’s home. The event description made no mention of the food. I assumed because it was taking place over the dinner hour and was a longer event there would be heavy appetizers. Nope, there were snacks, and having not eaten before I left home I was quite hungry when I departed the event.

If you’re hosting a party over the dinner hour – say anytime between 6:00 and 9:00 PM, you really should serve either dinner or heavy hors d’oeuvres. Anything in the happy hour time – 3:00 to 6:00 PM allows you to get away with offering light hors d’oeuvres.

Given the confusion over party food, I can see why Ms. Obama specified on the invitation to eat before you arrive. But, I’d like for people to not have to do that. Instead, let’s start using the correct terms for what’s being served and pay attention to the timing of the event.

And guests, when in doubt, eat before you arrive. That way you won’t starve if snacks are served during the dinner hour.

What say you? Do you feel confused about what the party food monikers mean? Have you ever assumed a substantial meal would be served only to discover chips and dip? What would help you to know what to expect food wise? Should the host suggest you eat before you arrive so there is no doubt?




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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Guest on March 16, 2015 at 3:55 am

    I was invited to a birthday party that went from 5:00-9:00pm.  The invitation read:  Join us for a birthday party this evening.  There was no mention of food. Naturally I assumed dinner would be served.  There were chips and candy but nothing else.   I didn’t eat before I had gone and I was starving the entire time.  Now I always eat before I go to a party.  I would prefer if people used the same terms to let you know whether there will be substantial food at the party.  It would be nice if people would let you know if you should eat before you go.

  2. Garrett on July 19, 2015 at 1:43 am

    Attended a friend’s retirement dinner to be held at hew new home, via special invite (e-vite). The event mentioned it was catered . The start time was 5:30 pm There was also an event that my daughter and I will attend on the same day that started at 7:30 pm. that was decided upon the night before. So I arrived on time at my friend’s house (after a approximately a 40 minute drive from my home) that has a spectacular view at the back. Being friend and to make each other feel at ease, I chatted with a few of the other guests for the first half hour. Then I became thirsty (after seeing a gentleman holding a bottle of beer) and followed another guest who grabbed a canned drink from the fridge and so I did the same. Then I noticed some paper cups and a bottle of something on her outdoor bar. I could have gotten that instead. More guests arrived. Was there a start time change that I was not aware of or were guests simply were running late? Then I sat on patio chair and chatted with other guests on the patio for another 20 minutes. However, it appeared that the caterer has barely completed setting up his “cooking area” as I was leaving. My hostess friend apologized to me not being able to have the catered dinner (Mexican food??). I told her no problem. I was happy to see her, meet her husband for the first time, and to see her new home. She chatted with me more since she knew I could not stay long and was sincerely glad that I was able to make it to her party. Then I drove home (another 40 minutes) to pick up my daughter and drive us to the concert. We made it to the venue (amphitheater) with surprisingly no traffic! I have a feeling that concert goers were there hours ahead. I don’t hold anything much against my friend who retired from her beloved long-time profession, and was grateful that she invited me. I just wish there was more communicated on the invitation. It would be awkward to ask, “will there be any ________” at the party, “how long is the wait, if any, before the catered meal”. I read somewhere that it would have been wise to have at least some snacks or hors d’oeuvres (nothing fancy such as cheese and crackers, cookies, etc) handy especially if the caterers were not able to have the meal yet ready. I could have skipped my friend’s party due to time constraints. But at least I came with good intentions of celebrating a special moment with her.

  3. Arden Clise on July 24, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    Hi Garrett,

    That sounds like a frustrating experience. You are right, your friend should have had some hors d’oeuvres available while the caterers set-up. The host also should have offered you a drink or shown you where the beverages were when you arrived. Typically at a dinner party the food is served no later than one hour after the start time and there should always be some appetizers for guests to eat while they converse before dinner.

    Thanks for visiting. I hope the concert was enjoyable.

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