Thursday, March 21, 2013

Be our guest! (How we prepare for visitors)

One of my friends requested I write a post on how we prepare for weekend guests.  It's funny, how we get asked about things we feel completely unqualified to discuss.  Especially since I've been scouring blogs and the internet for the past three years, looking for ideas on how to stock and prepare for guests.  I haven't had too much success in my research endeavors   So, here is my take and please, please feel free to chime in at the comments with any ideas or suggestions of your own!

We seem to get a lot of house guests.  As a military family, with lots of relatives and friends scattered all around, we consider it a real blessing to have people visit us!  We love to connect with others and (with 3 kids) you can't beat the convenience of doing that at home.  One of our priorities when searching for a house two years ago was a place with a guest room.  We wanted to always be ready to host and with a new baby on the way we certainly wanted our parents (with their extra sets of helpful hands) to always feel welcome!  Soon after we moved we converted what was once a theater room into a guest room.  But while a separate room was our preference please don't let a lack of space keep you from entertaining others.  There are many  other ways to finagle sleeping arrangements.  We have several air mattresses that we use regularly as well.  When the guest room is full we'll put a mattress in the office.  We've also had people sleep downstairs and occasionally we'll move Julia in with us for a few nights so someone can bunk up in her room.  Sometimes we'll give up our own room and Jon and I will sleep elsewhere.  And whenever my brothers come they usually just end up on the couch.
Jon says our guest room has an "international" theme.  We have photos from my stay in Oxford, pictures from Israel and a globe on the dresser.
But (for now) we're blessed with a space we can offer our friends and family.  And while it's not perfect (sure wish there was a bathroom on that side of the house!) we do the best we can with it!  Some things we've stocked our guest room with:
  • extra blankets - for those cold nights!
  • a space heater (for the winter) and a box fan (for the summer)
  • bath towels/washcloths/hand towels - we don't have room for these in our bathroom so we keep them in a drawer in the guest room
  • a place to hang towels - Again, we don't have the space to do this in our bathroom so we put some hooks in the guest room just for towels.
  • a spot to hang clothes (in the closet) - Since many of our guests come over the weekend and attend church with us it's nice to have a spot for hanging clothes.
There are hooks on the closet door for towels and an empty space in the closet (smooshed between Jon's uniforms and my maternity (or in this case non-maternity) dresses.
  • alarm clock - I've stayed at a few places without a clock (*cough* Mom and Dad *cough*).  I actually went out and bought my own to keep at their house.  There's nothing quite so frustrating as not knowing what time it is and not having ...
  • a place to plug in a cell phone
  • water pitcher/glasses (We actually don't have this right now but I think it's a good idea and I've been on the lookout for one for a while now.)
  • extra pillows - For people like my husband, who need several.  Or for pregnant people like me.
  • Pack 'n Play - Maybe not necessary but since most of the people who stay with us have kids we use this often.  And we use it every time we visit our parents as well.
  • Guest Book - Another thing we don't have but an idea I love! My mother-in-law used to keep one in her spare room for guests to sign and it was so fun to look back on all their visitors!
  • Toiletries - Jon travels for work a lot and every time he stays at a hotel he brings home the extra toiletries.  We have quite a collection that we keep in the bed stand drawer.  Other than soap, shampoo and conditioner it's also nice to have some extra shower caps, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, razors, cotton balls, Q-tips, etc.
Our hotel swag.
  • Night Light - Unfortunately for our guests, the closest bathroom is on the other side of the house and up the stairs.  So we keep a few lamps on throughout the house and a night light in the bathroom.
I also like to keep a supply of entertainment goodies.  We happen to have a TV and DVD player in our guest room but our kids use that more than our guests.

Other things to consider:
  • magazines - I like to set out some local magazines.  Our favorite is What's Up Annapolis, I always keep it in the guest room and bathroom. It's chock full of local information, upcoming events and fun things to do.

  • books and puzzles - This is for your more introverted guests (I know how you feel!).  Sometimes it's just nice to pull away from all the noise and activity and do something quietly alone.  I love me some Sudoku!
  • brochures - I have a whole basket of brochures for local attractions.  If you haven't yet visited your area Visitors Bureau you need to!  They have walls and walls of brochures to stock up on!  It's nice to glance through a stack of these when you're looking for something to do.  Or if you need a refresher on museum hours or directions to the aquarium. 
  • maps - We keep a few local maps around and also a few "attraction" maps of just the Annapolis area.

  • shopping guides - for the nearest mall and/or outlets
  • your personal services - we live near a major airport so we often have people spend the night before an early flight.  My husband offers an excellent pick-up and drop-off service for flyers.  :)  We also have plenty of experience in babysitting but hey, if you want to watch our kids for a night we won't argue with that either!
A few extra, over-the-top things to consider:
  • a welcome note - I made this cute eraseable marker board in MOPS with a dollar store picture frame and some scrapbook paper.  It's a great place to leave messages or instructions for guests!

  • Local Goody Basket - we did this with our friends Abi and Phil and had a fun time filling a basket with lots of local food and trinkets!
  • fresh flowers -  just like the best bed and breakfasts do!
  • candles - If I know my guests aren't sensitive I love to have the house smelling nice!
  • a fire - (If you have this option.)  We'll often light on in the fireplace (during the winter) or outside (during the summer) just because fires are cozy and fun and the epitome of good times with good friends.
  • music - Okay so maybe a little random. I grew up in a house where the radio was on CONSTANTLY.  My mom's biggest complaint when she would come visit was that there was no music.  I tried to explain that with 3 kids I ten to savor any quiet moment I can get.  Well we got a Sonos Play last year and it's completely changed everything!  In other words, I can play any music I want - from our digital collection, the radio, Pandora, etc. all throughout the house. We take advantage of it regularly.  We have all sorts of different music for all sorts of different guests and moods.  I wouldn't have mentioned it except we played Big Band music all throughout Jon's grandparents' stay and they kept telling us how much they enjoyed it!  Certainly something to think about!
Okay, now that you've got your space all prepped it's time to start the actual planning.  First, you'll want to take your budget into account.  Typically, you'll need to be prepared for added expenses when guests come - there will probably be more food/groceries and/or eating out, maybe fees for activities and shopping, and possibly more cash spent on gas.  I used to make a note in my grocery budget when we had guests, but it turns out we have guests every month so in the end we just upped the grocery budget permanently.  If you're living off a zero-based budget you may want to plan ahead to spend less in another area or two to free up some cash for your hosting.  And if you're not living off a zero-based budget or money isn't an issue for you then just forget you read that whole paragraph and go have fun!

I like to start early on with the menu.  It used to be one of my biggest challenges but I've come a long way over the past few years and meal planning is something I now look forward to.  I tend to put the most focus on dinner but you'll also want to remember breakfast, lunch, snacks and beverages!  We have a few recipes that tend to be our go-to meals for guests - Tomato Flatbread Pizza, Make-Ahead English Muffin Melts, Cocoa Brownies, our secret family recipe chicken ... you get the idea.  I will typically write out an actual menu because it helps keep me on task and it helps keep Jon informed as well. A few things to consider about food:
  • ask ahead about any allergies, dietary needs or food aversions
  • try to pick meals that are easy or can be prepped ahead, you don't want to be spending all your time in the kitchen
  • have food readily available and let your guests know (As someone who has either been pregnant or nursing for the past 5 years, it's so nice to have snacks around!)
  • perhaps consider a "local" experience.  We once had a seafood boil and it was so fun for both us and our guests, not to mention extremely Annapolis-oriented!
  • don't overdo it, if you  know you will have guests for a long period of time consider one big meal and then a few smaller/less expensive ones.  Eating out is always a fun experience as well!
And then there's the dreaded part - cleaning!  Typically I'll write out a list a day or two ahead of time and slowly work my way through up until the moment (and I mean the moment) guests arrive.  I usually start with dusting (because it's something the kids can't easily mess up) and end with cleaning the bathrooms.  I've learned the hard way, on several occasions, that with two little boys in the house it's best to wait until about 5 minutes before guests arrive to clean the toilet.  There are my typical cleaning tasks - dust, vacuum, mop floors, clean counters, clean bathrooms, etc.  And then there are those extra special things that I try to get done if I know we have people coming over - wash windows, scrub down dining room table, clean marks off walls, pull dead pieces off outside plants, sweep porches, clean out van, etc..  Sometimes it's easy to forget about these things because we live with them every day.  Take a moment and really try to see your house through the eyes of someone who has never been there before.  I also make the bed with fresh sheets, lay out the towels, light candles and bring up extra chairs for the dining room.  Oh and (my little secret) I usually lay out the kitchen and bathroom rugs.  I've given up on keeping these clean and orderly for my family but I try to remember to pull them out when we have guests!

Before your guests arrive you'll wan to sit down and really think through their visit and their individual needs. For instance, my Dad loves green tea.  We try to remember to buy it before he comes, but he's also learned to bring his own!  When any of our siblings are here we also buy half and half.  It's not something we use regularly but for the Aunts and Uncles it's a must!  When Aunt Kylee comes we crank up the heat a bit. :)  If our guests have pets (sometimes they do) we make a spot in the garage for them.  If they have babies we plan accordingly for an influx of poopy diapers.  And if we think it's be more convenient for them to have their own bathroom or a walk-in shower we give them our room/bathroom and we pack our bags for a few nights in the guest suite!  

In addition to your guests think about your own family.  Try to picture what a day with your family will be like to an outsider.  For instance, our kids get up early.  Annoyingly early to some.  I try my best to keep them corralled upstairs but you can only hold off breakfast for so long.  I always remind my kids to be quiet but it's also good to warn my guests that my kids may be loud!  Any weird noises in your house (like a fridge water pump that sounds like a wild banshee or acorns that hit the roof with such force you'll think your under attack?) You may want to alert your guests.  A hot water heater that can only accommodate three showers in one morning? Plan accordingly.  We always give new people a tour of the house because (a) I think everyone is as curious about others houses as I am and (b) it helps give them the lay of the land.  Like that secret half bathroom we keep down in the basement, it really comes in handy sometimes! 

Finally, talk things out with your family.  Jon and I are a team. If he's home before the guests arrive he always lends me a hand with the cleaning.  I don't expect him to read my mind and he's very good about asking me what I need done.  And after all these years we kinda have a system worked out where I do most of the cooking and he does the dishes and clean-up.  He's also really good at flipping pancakes and scrambling eggs.  I always mention our guests to the kids beforehand (but not too beforehand otherwise I end up with a bunch of hyper kiddos asking when so-and-so will get here days in advance). If sleeping arrangements will change we give them a heads-up.  If Mommy is going to have a Girls' Night Out with the Aunts we'll prep them ahead of time.  If there are other kids coming we talk about sharing. And not just toys, but food, the bathroom, our house, etc. 

And I think that's the bottom line - sharing.  We are truly honored when people choose to spend a day or two with us.  I wouldn't consider a house with 3 little kids a popular vacation destination so we are absolutely thrilled to have guests.  We really miss our friends and family that are not with us and since it's getting harder and harder for us to get to them, we are truly blessed when others come to us.  And so, in addition to our favorite Coast Guard motto "semper paratus" (always prepared) I'd like to add a family addendum - "semper acceptissimus" - always welcome!

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