Is Thanksgiving even Thanksgiving if you don't walk away with leftovers?
Thanksgiving Buffet
Credit: Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Leftovers are obviously the best part of any Thanksgiving meal. There's been sufficient time for the flavors to meld and mingle. Some of the dishes may have been crafted by hands other than yours, and that's just a pleasure. Most importantly, they're a chance to eat with the sloppy, pants-less abandon that you were denied while seated at the table, masquerading as a respectable member of society.

But let's say the festivities are winding down, the table has been cleared, dishes scrubbed, arguments resolved(ish). Everyone's bundling into their coats and no one seems to be making or offering plates for guests to take home. What gives?! Nope, you're not stuck in some horrifying tryptophan nightmare—that's just how some people do Thanksgiving, and technically, doling out leftovers is the host's prerogative. If they wished, the host could hoard every last scrap of dressing, mac and cheese, sandwichable turkey, and pie and send you away empty-handed into the cruel night air. These people walk among us.

On the flip side, there are the over-sharers who mean almost too well, and won't rest until you're toddling away from their home, laden with the weight of a barely-touched prune cobbler and their (in)famous creamed corn surprise. You don't want to hurt their feelings (that whole being respectable thing), and you hate to waste food, but there's no way you're going to eat it... and inflicting it on someone unsuspecting just seems mean.

So where's the sweet spot? How can you as a guest ensure that you're going to go home with your mitts full of a greatest-hits sampler from the best meal of the year? Short answer: You can't. But you can improve your chances while managing not to alienate a single soul.

Set your expectations

"In general, leaving with leftovers shouldn't be an assumption," says Alex Hardy, creative director of GetSomeJoy and frequent writer on the topic of holiday gatherings. While he notes that the vast majority of hosts are happy to share the bounty after everyone has been sufficiently stuffed, that's not how everyone was raised.

A recent Twitter poll on the subject revealed a wide variety of experiences—though everyone was in agreement that the host should call the shots, even if that meant nabbing everything but the containers for themselves. Some respondents were more than happy to hand over any leftover food to their hosts to enjoy, while others expected to take the remainder of their own dish back home.

Some expressed genuine surprise that a host would allow other guests to divvy up food they hadn't personally made, while others operated on the assumption that all leftovers were fair game. As writer Sheri Castle put it, "Each guest gets a little echo plate of the entire meal." Assume only that the etiquette around leftovers is as much of a potluck as the dishes themselves.

Learn the rules

If it's your first time at a particular gathering, or it's being hosted by a different member of the crew, hang back for a minute before lunging forth with the Tupperware and foil. "Eager relatives will bring their own containers, but only a savage will do so without some type of inclination that this is allowable," Hardy says. If you're terrified of the prospect of riding home with a bare fistful of mashed potatoes and a pocket full of gravy, attempt plausible deniability by just happening to have some disposable containers or Ziplocs in your car or bag. The side-eye you may incur is the tax you pay for presuming.

On the other hand, if you are being heartily encouraged to take a particular item, especially by its creator, go ahead and do that even if you're not especially inclined. Hector Octavio, who shares his food adventures as Mexicanity, says, "Every matriarch has their specialty dish and they bring their A-game. No one wants to be remembered as Sonia and her Tinga nobody liked."

Hardy agrees. "Some passionate meemaws will be offended if you don't take a plate of greens, turkey, and their famous macaroni and cheese to go."

It's the polite thing to do. Just wait until you're far enough away from the house before you accidentally-on-purpose "lose" a container.

Know your place

"First-timers, seasonal girlfriends, friends of friends of friends and such should definitely tread lightly in the leftover game," cautions Hardy. "Being enthusiastic and complimentary about the food is great, but being seen as greedy—doing stuff like stashing plates before important family members have eaten or taking way too much mac and cheese—is a sure way to get banned forever and ever."

One surefire way to climb the ranks: Offer assistance with the most tedious tasks, whether it's clearing plates, hauling trash, or scrubbing the most stubborn pot. Helpers get helpings.

Take the risk

If all else fails and you're staring helplessly as the candied yams of a lifetime are being packaged away, speak up. Tell the truth (flattering folks as needed that you just couldn't live with yourself if you didn't beg for one more helping to enjoy at home), invent a sick friend who will be brought back to life by a taste, or sidle into the kitchen to grab a scoop or slice while no one is watching. The worst that will happen is that they'll say no, or you'll incur a nasty look. Just be thankful that you probably won't be invited back next year to receive a reminder of it.

By Kat Kinsman and Kat Kinsman