We have always had a lot of guests at our little lake house up the Hudson Valley. More than one neighbor, upon meeting us, has remarked, “Oh yeah, you’re the people who have all those parties.”

As hosts, it’s always exciting in the days before guests descend. We look forward to it in the days before — stocking up on supplies, deciding who’s going to sleep where, getting the right food and drink for each person, planning out activities. For us, and many others, the opportunity to entertain a houseful of friends and family is one of the best parts of having a second home. 

Guests often present an opportunity for some vigorous manual labor. Photo: Timothy Harper

When the guests actually arrive, it’s always exciting. Car doors slam. Greetings are hollered. People lunge into hugs and handshakes and introductions. Everyone is happy to see each other, whether old friends or lifelong relatives or people meeting for the first time. 

The first-timers look around and ask questions as we show them the place. They ooh and they ahh. Everything is so nice. Whether it’s going to be a couple days or longer, we all look forward to that period of fun stretching out before us, that getaway from daily life back home.

Yes, it’s always great when people arrive.

It’s also great when they leave — when my wife and I can finally collapse on the couch and say, whew, that was a whirlwind. When we can stop answering questions and pointing things out and cleaning up. When we can stop organizing and asking for help. When we can stop doing things for everybody and paying special attention to some people. When everything is back to normal and calm.

And then, as we recap and recover, we start planning for the next houseful of people. Despite all the work, and inevitable bumps in the hospitality highway, we’re still eager for the next time. We’re not gluttons for punishment. Instead, we’ve found a few tricks for increasing the fun of a full house while diminishing the chances that we’re going to end up grumpy.

Simple rules for happy guests—and hosts

Rule No. 1. Don’t try to do it all. I remember visiting a suburban house in London, years ago, for a birthday party for about 30 people. The hostess spent the whole afternoon in the kitchen, her husband ferrying full plates out and empty plates back. 

He urged her to come join the party, and she snapped, “But I’ve got to get them their pudding.”

I didn’t say anything, but I thought, well, my pudding can wait. I offered to help several times, and so did other people. Nope.

Rule No. 2. Give everyone an opportunity to help, but don’t push it. The best guests will quickly identify themselves, and make clear what they can and will do well. We’ve come to rely on some repeat guests. She’s great at menu planning. He loves to show off his knife skills in prep. He will be all in on happy hour, but will also show up for cleanup hour. Some won’t do anything for dinner, but will be front and center for physical non-kitchen tasks like moving boats or splitting wood or raking leaves. 

When guests are incompetent at assigned tasks, laugh it off and find something else for them to do. For the totally uncooperative, move on to someone else — and make a note not to invite them back. 

Rule No. 3. Don’t let someone bully other guests, or you — in the kitchen, around the fire pit, playing corn hole or cards, or anywhere else. Step in if you must. Your house, your rules.

Tricks learned from friends

Perhaps our best trick was learned from friends who have a big country house in a small village in France. Their rule: if you’re staying for more than two nights, you have to be responsible for a meal, from start to finish. 

It seemed daunting, but our “dinner night” turned out to be a highlight of that visit. Our hosts were happy to help us plan a menu, and then go with us to the nearby town for the food and drink. They gave us the empty plastic gallon jugs we filled up at the local winery, one with white and one with red.

Our hosts walked us through the town’s farmers’ market and shops, helping with our French when necessary and explaining what we needed to know about quality and quantity and prices of meat, vegetables, mushrooms, cheese, bread, fruit and sweets.

Guests staying longer than a few days should prepare a dinner for themselves and their hosts. Photo: Timothy Harper

Back at their country house, the hosts supervised and helped when needed as we made the meal together. 

That was a few years ago. We immediately embraced — no, stole — that concept of requiring guests to be in charge of a meal. 

Our best example was a Christmas at the lake with our two adult kids and their partners. The visit would span all or part of five days: arrival day, departure day and three full days in between. We declared that each couple would not only be in charge of an evening meal on one of the full days — everything about the meal — but also post-dinner entertainment. 

And there had to be a theme for each evening.

Fortunately, our kids were into it. They are good guests. (I am reasonably confident they got that from their mother.) The first night, the kids from Los Angeles set “Cozy Christmas” as the theme, and treated us to a loaded baked-potato bar, followed by Chicken Scarpariello, with sausage and peppers. Cozy, indeed. 

Their entertainment involved the six of us collaborating to set up elaborate multimedia backdrops, then shooting artsy photos that looked like we were posing amid the Northern Lights.

The kids from New York chose a “Caribbean Christmas” theme, starting with drinks sprouting little umbrellas and a playlist of steel-drum Christmas carols. Their tropical fish stew was a fragrant blend of delicate and hearty. For entertainment, they screened a rare print of the original version of a 30-year-old movie that had recently been remade into a box office hit with a big star. It was a real treat to glimpse that bit of cinema history and see the inspiration for a current movie that was getting a lot of attention.

Our theme was “Farm to Table Christmas,” featuring roasted lamb and vegetables, all local. After the dishes were cleared, I hooked up a compact tennis table set on the dining table and we had a riotous couple of hours of doubles.  

Our house guest playbook

Since that Christmas experiment, we’ve made it pretty much standard procedure for guests: If you’re coming for three nights or longer, you’re going to be in charge of a dinner. We’ll certainly consult, and take you to the farmers market and the butcher shop and the fish monger. We — and by that I mean my super-baker wife — will probably make the dessert. And we’ll probably be very present, not quite hovering, through the whole food prep process, pulling out the right pots and pans and platters or the required spices and seasonings.

This whole system works well for us as the hosts. We don’t have to closet ourselves away from the fun to get things ready. We can make the food prep part of the fun. I like to perch on a tall kitchen stool, not quite out of the way, and kibbitz. Or maybe lifeguard. You need a salad spinner? Down there in that cabinet. A meat thermometer? Over there in that drawer. And, oh yeah, I’ll give that a taste test. 

Some of our frequent repeat guests don’t do the dinner rotation but have staked out other territory, like the two guys who always make monumental breakfasts. They glide through the kitchen in a pas de deux, anticipating each other’s moves. With a nod here, a murmur there, the performance produces a late-morning meal that sets everyone up for the day.

Our houseful weekends are now built around the meal planning. Guests enjoy the decision-making, especially if they have some specialty or if they are getting a chance to cook in a kitchen with a little more space or other people — like us — who are interested in what they are doing and willing to help. 

Even playing a small role in a big meal offers a great feeling of spontaneous teamwork, and makes for a more memorable visit for all. 

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