The 30-Minute Guide to Getting Your Home Ready for Guests
Preparing for a party always takes longer than you expect. Here are 10 expert tricks to make the most of that last half hour.
Find the Right Volume
While most people are pretty good at keeping a conversation going, even in a loud, crowded room—something researchers call the cocktail party effect
—you can help your guests by setting the music to an appropriate level. Bentley Meeker
, who runs his own special-events lighting and production company in New York City, tries to play songs 20 to 25 percent lower than the average conversation. (Forgot your sound-o-meter? Just carry the stereo remote in your pocket, if it's small enough, and adjust the volume if you notice you can't hear the person you're talking to.) Up-tempo music is sometimes recorded at higher volumes—so that means as most hosts shift to Lady Gaga as the evening goes on, they may not have to turn up the stereo to get people dancing.
Scent the Room—Carefully
Researchers have found that smell is an important but previously underrated part of how much people enjoy a night out
(in particular, peppermint and orange increased subjects' ratings of a dance club's music and their "overall experience," Scientific American
reports). But there's a fine line between catching a whiff of a subtle, minty aroma and feeling like you're being suffocated by wintergreen number 46. Find a scented candle you like—we're partial to Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Orange Clove Scented Soy Candle
, which has a citrusy, spicy scent—and light it for an hour in the afternoon, before the party starts. Blow it out and let the wax cool for an hour or so; then relight it about 20 minutes before guests arrive. Your home will smell nice, and you won't have to worry about the wick drowning in wax before the night is over. It's okay if the aroma seems a little strong at first. Pam Helms, who channeled her love for the chemistry of smell into a job as the lead product developer at Caldrea, which makes candles and other homekeeping products, says once the room becomes crowded, people's clothes, hair and bodies will absorb some of the scent.
Checklist of Important Details
Do you know where to find:
- A corkscrew or opener for wine and beer?
- Serving utensils?
- Spare cutlery?
- Matches or a lighter?
- Cleaning supplies for spills?
- Paper towels?
- Extra garbage bags?
- Cash (in small denominations) for tips to hired helpers?
- The phone number for a taxi service in case a guest overdoes it?
- Your lipstick?
Keep It Cool
According to Brooke Scher, who plans several events a month as a director at Alison Brod Public Relations
, there's a term in the nightclub industry called "freezing the box." "Venues will warm up quickly as soon as guests arrive," she says, "so you never want it to be above 70 degrees when they get there." Adjust the thermostat a half hour before the party starts and remember that you might want it even colder, depending on the size of your guest list, how much you'll be cooking before and during the event, and whether you have a fireplace with a fire.
Hide the Evidence
Even if you're holding a potluck or have splashed out for caterers, you might find yourself with a sink full of dirty dishes as the doorbell rings. Unless they are absolutely essential to food you're serving later, says Debra Johnson, a training manager for Merry Maids
, don't bother washing them. "With pots and pans, you can put them in the oven. If that's still in use, set the dishes in a container in the pantry or a spare closet." In the time you save, focus on the rooms your guests will be in. Johnson advises starting at the front door and following their path through your home with a basket to collect any unnecessary items (books, toys or your mail) to clear space for what they need. In the winter, that means a bed to put their coats on and a table to drop off the wine they so generously brought you. Dimming the lights or swapping in lower-wattage bulbs will instantly communicate "party" while also making dust and stains harder to see.
Put It on Ice
"I'm a big fan of never letting anyone's glass go empty, which is why people like to come to my house," jokes Heather Christo
, a chef and entertaining expert, "but there's nothing worse than scrambling because the drinks are warm." Whether you've forgotten to chill the wine the night before, or whether your fridge is simply overflowing with food, ice is going to be your best friend—and sending the early arrivals out for an extra bag is a good way to keep them out of your hair. "There's never enough ice," Christo says. "If you've run out of space in the sink or don't have room for a bowl on the counter, stick the ice in the washing machine. It's empty, and when it melts, who cares? It'll just drain out. If you live in a cold climate, you can just store the drinks outside."
Take Gourmet Shortcuts
Easily assembled, low-prep appetizers can be as flavorful and sophisticated as tartlets or dumplings. "Buy jars of roasted red peppers, olive tapenade and pesto," says Christo. "I keep baguettes in my freezer. If you turn on the broiler and you slice up your frozen baguette, you're five minutes to fast crostini. In the meantime, you can set out any other dips you have in pretty bowls, and you have a full set of appetizers." Christo suggests keeping fancy cheeses on hand during the holiday season, but if all you've got in the fridge is a hunk of Cheddar and something you're pretty sure is Parmesan, remember that if you have any nonperishable goods like fig jam or dried fruit in your pantry, these can instantly elevate a cheese platter.
Dress Up Your Table—Fast
Instead of laying a garland over your fireplace, stretch it down the center of your dining room table, says Meredith Waga Perez, owner of Belle Fleur
in New York City. Ready-made versions are easy to find at most floral shops and are cost-effective (ranging between $3 and $8 a foot depending on the type of greenery used). Waga Perez recommends asking for a seeded eucalyptus and juniper mix, incense cedar or magnolia branches; avoid garlands made entirely of pine, which can be sticky and leave sap on your grandmother's antique tablecloth. To add some color and sparkle to your runner, intersperse glittery ornaments or jingle bells. And you're done—no fussy flower arranging or easy-to-knock-over vases.
A Kids' Table Is a Gift to Grown-Ups
Melissa Marchwick, executive vice president of the babysitting service Sittercity
, points out that some parents can't attend holiday parties because it's such a high-demand time for babysitters. If you've invited families to your party, you might want to consider hiring someone to look after the kids. "Once you've got a sitter," Marchwick says, "she can keep them out of the parents' hair. She can also be an extra pair of hands in preparation." Regardless of whether you get a sitter, you will want to designate a space like a corner or a table for your littler guests, giving adults time to mingle and children a chance to interact with each other. Nonparent hosts will be happy to learn that children continue to be entertained with household items like paper, markers, glue, scissors and "decorations" (aka macaroni, beans, pennies and nickels). Though again, consider the ages of your guests: With infants and toddlers, be wary of choking hazards.
Polish the Facilities
There is one area where you should spare no effort—even if it's not the first space that comes to mind when you think of a party. "The bathroom is the one place your guests are going to be alone," Johnson says. "Concentrate on the sink and the toilet: Make sure there's extra toilet paper out. You want everybody to be able to see it and have access to it." You should have clean hand towels (Johnson recommends the disposable ones from Kleenex) and plenty of soap. You can stash personal effects like makeup or medications in your bedroom or in a box under the sink.
Next: 6 great conversation starters for any get-together