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“Come stay with us. It’ll be fun.”
How often have you said that with the best of intentions?
And how often have you had misgivings about two days after your prospective guests answered, “Thanks, we’d love to!”
It’s not that you don’t enjoy being with your adult kids (with or without grandchildren), parents, friends or assorted relatives. It’s just that, as adults, you have devised and designed your home to perfectly suit you and yours, and suddenly smiling, eager space invaders are about to descend and your privacy, habits, rhythms and idiosyncrasies are about to be exposed and possibly compromised.
Fear not. Instead, behold an agenda that can reduce anxiety, heighten collegiality, establish boundaries, allow you to navigate the weekend more as proud host than kitchen help at Downton Abbey, and maybe even induce a twinge of sadness (to offset relief) when your guests depart.
The path to being a great weekend host requires that you fully and enthusiastically exercise these four tasks:
1. Planning meals
Know your guests. You already have learned from history whether they arrive on time, have voracious appetites or eat like sparrows, drink as if it's Mardi Gras or adhere to a 12-step program, have allergies or are on the diet of the moment, and rise early or sleep late. You don’t have to indulge everyone’s whim. It’s a major thing if all are vegan. It’s less concerning if only one doesn’t like cauliflower.
Prepare or order food in advance. If you are adept in the kitchen, check your cookbooks or sites like Food 52, New York Times Cooking, FoodandWine.com or others for soups, stews, potted dishes like brisket, lentils and sausage, chili or trays of lasagna, stuffed cabbage, mac and cheese, and finally, carrot cakes, three berry pies, or cookies that can all be prepared and refrigerated or even frozen so that the majority of your food is done and out of the way days in advance. Rely on surefire dishes that fortify your confidence and/or find the best local sources serving notable specialties.
Buy noshable treats that don’t require cooking. Not junk food like chips, Oreos and pretzels — but prosciutto, salamis and cheeses, fresh fruits and muffins that you can put out to tide people over during the day or as a prelude to larger meals.
Set the stage. Select, clean and make handy the dishes, platters, tureens and tabletop items you intend to use.
Keep it simple. No need to splurge on items like caviar and Alaskan crab legs if they’re not family staples. Your guests are coming to be with you, not expecting you to re-create Le Bernardin under your roof.
Buy flowers. Unless your home is built like a Four Seasons Hotel lobby, a large bouquet of one kind for the table, a single bud in a bathroom will suffice.
Do some research. If you are planning an outing for your guests, you may need to take into account distance, surfaces, steps and accessibility. Research the solutions for any limitations before they arrive. Your guests will be relieved and grateful.
Select some tunes. Whether Spotify, Pandora, Sirius or cassette, choose the music based on what you like.
2. Prepping your home
Skip the last-minute reno. No refinishing, sanding, putting up new drywall or retiling the bathroom. Just clean. Make sure sheets and towel are fresh and ample, all your light bulbs work, there’s enough toilet paper within arm’s reach (a plunger readily available, too — it never fails), the kitchen gleams, floors are spotless, there are ample places to sit, that you’ve covered the stain on the sofa with a throw, and know that guests will always look in your medicine cabinet.
Do not transform your haven into a landscape you actually love less because you think others may be more impressed. No impression is more noteworthy than seeing you and your guests completely at ease in your own environment.
Stock some amenities. Most people bring their own toiletries, but it never hurts to have just-in-case soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and paste, deodorant and a hair dryer in guest rooms.
Make accommodations. If your home has stairs, and you have a relative or guest with mobility challenges, determine if there is a spot on the main level that can be converted into a sleeping space that would allow some privacy, if only for the evening.
3. Arrival, options and parameters
Get your home and everyone under your roof ready an hour before guests show up. This way everyone has adjusted and settled into their clothes and their playing field. Guests love when they open the door and see someone relaxed rather than in mid-scurry.
Settling in. Some people will wish to unpack immediately. Show them directly to their rooms. Most, however, would rather just unwind after their journey. So be ready with libations — coffee, cider, rosé or bourbon on the rocks, depending on time of day and habitual appetites.
When your guests are unpacked, let them know about any recreation you have in mind, what’s in the area that you often enjoy and regularly frequent, and what’s up for this weekend only. Offer, don’t insist or overschedule like a British boarding school agenda. And ask if there are places they had starred in their possible itinerary.
Be honest and flexible. Visitors may not be interested in where you want to go, and vice versa. Don’t force togetherness. However, tell them the times your family sits down for lunch and dinner. If they’re there, swell. If not, there will be leftovers in the fridge later. But do make a solid plan to meet up with plenty of time before bed.
Comfort first. If you see that a guest is having trouble maneuvering in a home that isn’t familiar to them, speak to them discreetly and ask how and where they would be most comfortable. Escort them to the bathrooms and see which one they find most easy to navigate, and what you may need to move to make it more convenient for them. In this case, their comfort, not your decor, comes first.
4. Helping your guests become welcome ones
If you’d like help in the kitchen, don’t be afraid to ask. Suggest that someone join you so you can chat and catch up. If you don’t want help, pour your friends a glass and tell them to sit where you can see them, because you want to make them something special.
Establish easy house rules. If your guests include children, they may not be yours, but they are under your roof. If they are behaving inappropriately, look to the parents first. If they don’t step in, come right out and state the issue, gently but firmly (“No jumping on the couch, please”). Keep the tone light: It doesn’t take much to make a child feel intimidated by a stranger.
If you don't wear shoes in your home, have no qualms about asking others to follow suit. This is your kingdom, and you can quickly set boundaries.
If you know that certain hot-button issues, like religion or politics or family, will set off your guests, decide in advance to table these topics unless you welcome the heated conversation.
If a guest is coming with a pet you don't know, it's not rude to ask them to bring a crate they can keep the animal in when all of you are gone. It eliminates the possibility of damaged furniture and sobbing apologies.
Do not eat every meal at home. Make a reservation for at least one nearby place. A good guest will probably request to take you out for a meal anyway. If they didn’t but agree to go, and then they only offer to split the bill, you know whom to invite back.
As long as guests are in your home, give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Be of good cheer. At least until they leave.