Many things contribute to the success and memorability of a party. A great mixture of interesting people, a luxurious menu of delicious foods, a large pitcher of potent cocktails, and an awe-inspiring setting of candles and flowers are a few of the components that will make a party stand out. A background of festive tunes and a lively group bonding game are also essential. However, one detail that is often overlooked in entertaining books—but shouldn’t be—is the hostess herself. Her ability to make guests feel comfortable and pull everything together in an effortless fashion is a crucial element to a triumphant event.
How the hostess reacts to a mishap can make or break a party. If she freaks out when Zinfandel is spilled on her cream velvet sofa, demanding in front of everyone that the offending guest pay to have it cleaned, the only thing anyone will remember about that party is the spill and the hostess’s bad behavior. But if she has a wine stain–removing spray in the cabinet under the sink and quietly cleans up the mess, assuring the offending guest not to worry about it, the other people in attendance may not even notice the accident. Instead, they will remember the clever playlist and the scrumptious sausage-stuffed mushrooms. To ensure that you are a hostess who is considered the mostest, I’ve listed 14 common entertaining blunders below—and included what you should do when one happens at your next party.
When your sister’s best friend shows up with an entourage of five uninvited acquaintances, don’t freak out. Take a deep breath, offer them a drink, and add a little more stock to the soup. Place a couple more place settings on the table and pull out the folding chairs. Yes, it’s not ideal that your friend invited people without asking, but the middle of your party is not the time to pick a fight. Let it go, and if you’re still upset about it tomorrow, send her a note or give her a call and say that you didn’t appreciate the unannounced companions. Explain that as a hostess you’re already worrying about so many other things that it was stressful to have to worry about making more guests feel welcome. If the friend is notorious for bringing extra people along and this drives you crazy, don’t invite her to your next party—or plan on having unexpected guests!
Broken glass is no big deal! Simply grab a broom and clean it up as quickly as possible. If children are at the party, move them to safety before you start to sweep up the shards of a salad plate. A rule of thumb when entertaining: If you will be incredibly upset by something being broken, keep it in a safe and hidden place during the party. Your grandmother’s heirloom teacup does not have to be a part of your holiday tea spread, so leave it in the china cabinet. However, if you invested in expensive wineglasses, use them! Wineglasses are meant to be drunk out of, right? If one breaks, it’s not the end of the world. You simply have one less glass.
Have a few stain removers ready and waiting, along with a few old rags. If someone spills a Manhattan on the carpet, you’ll be ready to clean it up immediately. When possible, anticipate and avoid spills. If you have a white sofa, don’t serve red wine or a Campari-based cocktail. Or serve that Negroni and cover the white sofa with a festive plaid-printed blanket to ensure that it doesn't get stained.
If you’ve over-salted a dish, there are several ways of fixing it. You can dilute a soup by adding more liquid. If it’s a dish like a spinach artichoke galette, squeeze fresh lemon juice over the top of it or sprinkle with a bit of sugar. Acid and sugar can cut through saltiness. Starches like pasta, potatoes, and rice soak up salt, so you can also add those to a dish, like beef bourguignon, when it’s too salty. If you meant to add a splash of hot sauce but didn’t realize that the lid was loose and the splash was more like a long squirt, use another ingredient to tone down the heat. Dairy, like sour cream or milk, will cut the heat, as will nut butters, vinegar, sugar, and lemon juice.
When cooking a large piece of meat as an entrée, it’s hard to totally burn the whole thing. If you’re lucky and only part of it was burned, slice off the burned part and serve the rest of dish. If you’ve burned something like pine nuts for pesto, immediately remove the pan from the heat, transfer the nuts to a plate, and stick the plate in the freezer. The cold air will instantly stop the nuts from cooking any further. If the dish is completely unsalvageable, throw it away and order in a replacement. Have a pizza delivered from your favorite shop or order a platter of fried chicken from the Southern restaurant down the street and send a few guests to pick it up. The key is to go with the flow and not be upset by your culinary mistake.
I was at an intimate dinner recently where one woman would not stop talking. She was being incredibly negative, and I eventually tuned her out by trying to make eye contact with the cute waiter, but before I did, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why didn’t the hostess do something?! When one individual is doing all of the talking, the hostess should jump in as soon as possible and change the subject. Cut the conversation hogger in her tracks and then direct the discussion toward someone new by saying something like, “Amy, your trip to China sounds fascinating. It reminded me that I’m dying to check out that hot new Chinese restaurant that opened up downtown. Daisy, have you been yet?”
If one of your guests gets too drunk and starts to behave poorly, order her an Uber and send her home. If you notice that a friend who often drinks too much is starting to act tipsy, give her a glass of water. Or politely ask her significant other or best friend to keep an eye on her.
It can be pretty horrifying when a couple starts to fight in the middle of your kale salad course. You have a three options in this situation:
- You can cut in and change the subject immediately. Stop the couple in their tracks by loudly asking another guest to tell a funny story.
- Depending on the group of people in attendance and your relationship with the couple, you can publicly but humorously shame them by saying something like, “Sonia, we get it. Jeff definitely deserves the award for worst parallel parker in history, but you’re taking home the prize for killing my buzz.”
- When the argument begins, nip it in the bud. Stand up, even if you are not done with your salad, and say, “Jeff, would you mind helping me in the kitchen for a minute?” Ask him to taste the pasta sauce; don’t confront him about the fight. Distract him so he forgets what happened. Or pour him a shot of bourbon!
Anytime I carry a cake, I imagine myself dropping the entire thing on the floor. Although it’s yet to happen, I have failed doing a frittata flip more than once and picked up a platter too quickly only to see all the mortadella, soppressata, and burrata slide onto the hardwood floor. There’s only one thing you can do when food falls on the floor: pick it up. Clean up the mess, and throw away any pieces that touched the floor. If a portion of the dish does not come into contact with the floor, pick it up and replate it.
If you don’t know where the nearest fire extinguisher in your house is, stop reading this story right now and find out. My father is a retired fire chief, and I’ve learned from a young age that you simply don’t mess around with fire. Be careful of where you place candles. Balancing a candlestick in plastic containers because you don’t have enough taper candleholders? Not a good idea. When the candle melts, it could light the plastic on fire. Don’t place candles on shelves where you could end up burning the shelf. Avoid placing them in any areas where they could be knocked over by guests. When serving a birthday cake decorated with lit candles, keep the candles away from the guest of honor’s hair.
If food catches on fire, turn off the burner and cover the pan with a lid. Oil and water don’t mix, so you should never add water to an oil fire. Remember fire needs oxygen to burn, so you can put out a fire by smothering it.
When people aren’t mingling, grab a couple of friends you know are engaging conversationalists and introduce them to the people who are shy. Break the ice by playing a game, or get everyone to participate in table bonding. Ask a conversation-starting question and get people talking.
It’s not your job to discipline a child who is acting out, but you can distract her. Show her a funny photo, say of a miniature pig eating an ice cream cone, on your iPhone. Put on a silly song or ask her to tell you a story. If the kid is really acting out, alert a parent and politely ask him or her to give the child attention.
When you’re ready to head to bed, but your friends are still in party mode, start to pack up the party. Turn off the music, put the dishes in the dishwasher, and blow out the candles. Do not open another bottle of wine! If you really want them to leave, say something like, “Elizabeth and Chris, this has been so much fun, but I really need to get some sleep. Here are your coats; I’ve called you an Uber.” Get them a car, and they won’t be able to stay.
To learn more about being a great hostess, shop some of my favorite entertaining books below.
Have you ever dealt with a mishap while hosting a party? What did you do?