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Members of a monthly dinner club organized by Montreal food guide and cook Melissa Simard do a toast with some homemade sangria and kombucha.Anabel Burin/The Globe and Mail

For 18 years, Montreal food guide and cook Melissa Simard has organized a private dinner club. It started as a monthly feast among chefs and like-minded foodies in the city’s St. Henri neighbourhood, as they shared and cooked meals at each other’s homes. The club runs like a restaurant in terms of division of labour, where every task from hosting to washing dishes is delegated and rotated each month for fairness (the food portion is something of a potluck, where everyone contributes something).

I joined the dinner club in 2019, after Simard, who owns culinary tour company ‘Round Table Tours, took me on a carb-fuelled Jewish food journey consisting of bagels and smoked meat sandwiches and told me about the club’s most memorable meal – inside a subway car, where members ate a five-course meal on a portable table with linens and crockery while riding across the entire Orange Line from Côte-Vertu to Montmorency station, and then halfway back because they “forgot to eat dessert,” Simard says. I was hooked and wanted in.

Of course, no one saw the pandemic coming, and when it, and its restrictions, did, instead of folding, the club adapted. Since eating together was prohibited during the lockdown, we found new ways to gather, socially distanced – from delivering food to each other to park picnics, even renting co-working kitchens to live-stream cook-along tutorials.

When restrictions were lifted, some members were apprehensive to return in person. Some had lost loved ones to the virus, or had concerns over some of our youngest members, kids, being unvaccinated. Instead of bowing out, members adjusted to what made them comfortable. Some members abstained for several months, while others kept their distance with masks on when they weren’t eating. A few stopped by for a quick chat and meal exchange. Now that members have received their jabs (with kids finally following suit), the club is back to normal.

Francois Leblanc and Jason Behrmann prepare and serve their dinner club dish: seafood soup inspired by the 'Surf and Turf' theme of the month.Anabel Burin/The Globe and Mail

Throughout all of this, along with many lessons about hosting large dinners, I learned we all need to get creative and adapt to our new reality.

Hosting a gathering, whether big or small, in the backdrop of a pandemic, is no easy feat – logistically or diplomatically.

Simard and Toronto etiquette coach Susy Fossati of Avignon Etiquette offer tips on how to navigate the holidays this year, from hosting to being the consummate guest.

For hosts

Be clear about vaccination requirements

Your guest list is just as important as the menu this year. Are you hosting a party where guests must be vaccinated? If vaccination status will be mixed, will unvaccinated guests be wearing masks when they’re not eating? Will everyone be comfortable with that? The key to being a good host is ensuring your guests are at ease, Fossati explains, and that requires clear communication and managing expectations. She advises hosts to inquire about guests’ vaccination status because even those staunchly against the vaccine could have changed their minds. If you’re hosting a vaxxed party and have a few friends who aren’t vaccinated and so don’t make the guest list, express how you’d love to see them after the holidays for a one-on-one you’re both comfortable with, she says. Moreover, ditch the door mints this year and replace them with hand sanitizing stations and a basket of face masks.

Amy Chung, in charge of the bread, serves a homemade focaccia with veggies.Anabel Burin/The Globe and Mail

Embrace potlucks and Excel

Preparation is key. Think about the event from beginning to end – from choosing the menu to planning the cooking to decor decisions to cleaning up. Never be too proud to ask for help and, most importantly, delegate. Often, you see hosts enjoying themselves the least because they’re juggling everything. During the early years of Simard’s dinner club, washing dishes was a task some avoided like the plague but she made it mandatory for club members after spending too many mornings cleaning up messes. For large holiday reunions spanning several days, “split the group into teams with a leader,” Simard suggests. Alternate tasks so each day someone is either cooking or cleaning. Offer ambience-related tasks such as creating a playlist or organizing games for breaks. Involve the kids, have them chop fruit or help set the table. Having all hands on deck lightens the workload.

For guests

Never arrive empty-handed

You want to be invited again, right? For guests, new or old, arrive bearing a small token of thanks in the form of chocolates or Champagne, Fossati says. She advises against giving flowers as it could create “more work” for the host because they’ll need to prepare a vase and it may not match the decor. Offering wine is considered a faux pas as it may not complement the meal. Don’t forget to ask if your host requires anything beforehand and offer your help.

Saskia Weber, in charge of dessert, serves her New York-style cheescake.Anabel Burin/The Globe and Mail

Don’t be offended

Table manners aside, etiquette is about the “kind, considerate and respectful way we treat others,” Fossati says, stressing the need to be open-minded and understanding this year as everyone’s comfort levels are different. “If someone isn’t running up to us for a hug,” or wants to keep distance, offence shouldn’t be our first reaction.

The art of conversation

Taboo topics can be discussed so long as you’re open to being respectful of another person’s point of view, Fossati says, adding to also “know when to change the topic” if it gets too heated.