Getting ready for unexpected guests — in 20 minutes flat

Let’s talk about that dreaded phone call. It can come any day, at any hour. The one where someone on the other end of the line says the eight scariest words in the English language: “We’re in the neighborhood and want to visit.” (Cue the scream sound effect.)

I don’t know about you, but it happens a lot to me. And when people come to my house, they have Expectations with a capital E. They think that my house will look like a magazine spread, filled with vases of fresh flowers and artfully arranged books. It’s a lot of pressure. Well, I hate to spoil the fantasy, but most of the time I have junk all over the place, just like everyone else. 

However, when it comes to sprucing up the house for unexpected visitors, I do have it down to a science. And with a few simple tricks, you too can be ready for your guests in just 20 minutes. I use the 20-minute guideline because, according to the movie “Clueless,” that’s the least amount of time it takes for anyone to get anywhere in Los Angeles.  

So let’s get started. We don’t have a minute to waste.

Minutes 0:00 to 03:59: Main entryway

Step into the shoes of your visitors and envision what they will see first when they walk into your home. The first rule is you want them to see as little as possible, as if no one lived there. OK, I’m exaggerating, but do err on the side of minimalism at the entrance. Pick up any shoes, coats, keys and dog leashes and hide them in your bedroom. 

Minutes 04:00 to 04:59: Restricted areas

I recommend restricting guests to the living room, kitchen and one bathroom. Close the door to all bedrooms and extra bathrooms. That way, you do not have to clean those areas, and you can use them to hide clutter. Which brings us to…

Minutes 05:00 to 07:59: Clutter bag

I always have stacks of mail, work papers and unread magazines piled up all over the house. You need to get rid of these before the guests come. My trick is to get a large shopping bag — one of those big square bags with a handle like you’d get at a department store — and throw all that stuff into the bag. Then hide that bag in one of your closed-off bedrooms. After your guests leave, you can go through everything in the bag. Sometimes, I’ve actually just left everything in the bag and never even looked at it again. After a while, I realize I don’t need whatever is in that bag, so I throw the whole thing out. 

Minutes 08:00 to 09:59: Garbage

Grab a fresh trash bag (or two if you’re recycling) and walk around your home with a vigilant eye. You’ll find things that need to be thrown out — old newspapers, used cereal boxes, ATM receipts, plastic water bottles, etc. — and now’s the time to get them out of the house. Toss them in the bag. Then go into the bathroom and transfer the contents of that little trash container into the trash bag. Do the same with the kitchen trash. 

Minutes 8:00 to 11:59: Floors

Since we’ve limited the open rooms in the house, you only need to concentrate on the floors in the living area, hallways, dining area and kitchen. A broom and dustpan are too slow. Use a Swiffer instead and run it across all the hardwood, tile and vinyl floors. If you have carpeting, there is no time to vacuum (and the smell of the vacuum cleaner is a telltale sign to your guests that you did an emergency cleaning). Just pick up any visible detritus by hand and leave the carpet as is. 

Minutes 12:00 to 14:59: Table tops

You’ve already gotten rid of clutter and garbage, so cleaning your table surfaces should be quick and easy. Time is of the essence — paper towels, sponges and spray cleaners are not useful, because they take too much time. Disinfectant wipes are faster. Use them on tables, kitchen counters and appliances, and to help remove any stains that might still be on your kitchen floor.

Minutes 15:00 to 16:59: Bathroom

Give the bathroom one last look to make sure the trash container is empty of tissues and cotton balls, that you have fresh hand towels, and the toilet seat and cover are down. If it’s evening, turn off the lights and illuminate the bathroom with a few battery-operated candles. The dim light will make any mess difficult to see.

Minutes 17:00 to 18:59: Follow your nose

How does your home smell? Neutralize odors with a spray like Febreze, or light a scented candle. And my favorite trick: Keep a pack of frozen cookie dough in your refrigerator, and pop some cookies in the oven. Nothing is more welcoming than the aroma of cookies baking. 

Minute 19:00 to 20:00: Relax

Take the final minute for yourself. Sit down, pour yourself a glass of something refreshing and get ready to welcome your visitors. Remember, they are there to spend time with you, not to judge the state of your home. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

The Last-Minute Pajama Party

The Invitation Process

“It’s already been decided,” my 6-year-old announces with an impish smile and a green-eyed glint.

“What’s been decided, honey?” I ask.

“My first sleepover party. I invited Julia, Emma and Rachel to sleep over this weekend.”

“Noa,” I say slowly, wondering who has a slumber party in kindergarten. “Do their mothers know about this?”

“Don’t worry. Their mommies will know tonight,” she says, patting my arm.

And then suddenly I remember: I’m the Mommy: “How about asking me first?”

Her voice softens, her eyes widen and twinkle: “Can I? It will be so much fun. Please, Mommy.”

Fun. It’s not her birthday, or any special occasion, but on the other hand, I haven’t seen her look so excited since the divorce.

Her sister, Maya, light-up sneakers planted firmly in the linoleum floor, grabs Noa’s arm. “But you can’t forget about me.”

Noa takes her 4-year-old sister’s hand. “You’ll get to sleep in the middle,” she says. “And I’ll make sure no one’s mean to you.”

My mini Powerpuff Girls. They know how to work me. No, I realize at that point is not an option.

“So who is coming to this slumber party?” I ask with a smile.

“Everyone,” Noa says.

“Noa,” I say, did you ask only those three girls?”

“Well, I did mention it to Alexandra, Sarah, Rosie and Danielle.”

“Is there anyone else I should know about?” I ask her.

It turns out she invited 10 girls. Ten girls in my house for one weekend. We didn’t send out invitations, didn’t do E-vite, just a formal word-of-mouth invitation. That’s how the party begins.

The Preparations

I am no longer the lone single mother in a class of 20. Overnight, thanks to my daughter, I have become Britney Spears’ mother — aka “kindergarten corrupter.”

When you have a slumber party, you’re not only inviting the kids, but involving the parents as well. For the next few days, the telephone rings incessantly.

• Alexandra’s mother: What time do you plan to send them to bed?

• Rachel’s mother: What movie are you showing them?

• Emma’s mother: What will they be eating and drinking?

• Danielle’s mother: What happens if she wakes up in the middle of the night?

I quickly improvise the party plan, and tell the mothers that the girls will be in bed no later than 10 p.m., they’ll have pizza, cut-up fruit, drinks and some junk, I’ll rent “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and if they wake up, I’ll put them back to sleep. I feel exhausted by the list of questioning, but then I realize that if I were sending Noa out, I’d do the same thing.

The phone rings again. It’s Lexy’s Mother, who lives in a mansion with two kids, no pets, a nanny and a live-in housekeeper. I repeat all the party plans.

“You’re so brave,” she says.

How ’bout loaning me your SWAT team for a night? I want to say, but instead say, “Thanks, I was a camp counselor for 10 years. I’m sure I can do it.”

Can I? Two days before the party I run into Sarah’s mother at the gym.

“Sarah’s been X’d off the list,” she says.

I tell her that’s impossible.

“Sarah went in front of the class yesterday to tell a story about how she is taking skating lessons,” her mother says. “Noa found out the story wasn’t true, and she told Sarah that people who lie are not allowed in your house.”

I laugh to myself, secretly pleased that my words actually do have an impact.

“I’ll talk to Noa,” I tell her.

Over dinner that night I tell Noa that no one is allowed to be X’d from our sleepover.

“It’s not nice,” I say, “It hurts people’s feelings — even if Sarah lied.”

Noa replies: “Well, that’s why I didn’t invite Nicole either. She lied about a library book.”

The dish in my hand falls to the sink. “Who’s Nicole?”

Pre-party Jitters

My girls and I head to the supermarket. We pick up enough junk food to feed an army and a navy. Then I remember allergies and put half the stuff back. I add products without peanuts, some lactose-free items and lots of junk.

We get home and unpack the goodies, and as I get ready to make dinner Noa turns to me and says, “Mommy, I don’t have a sleeping bag.”

Her sister: “Me either.”

Sleeping bags. How could I forget?

Noa: “And I want one that’s light blue with a big butterfly on it.”

Maya: “And I want one with a princess on it.”

Off to Target. Seventeen minutes, two sleeping bags, one with a butterfly and one with a princess. I turn to Noa, and see that the social butterfly’s eyes are tearing up.

I can’t think of anything we’ve forgotten.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“What if they don’t come? What if we buy all this food, make everything fun and nobody sleeps over? What if they don’t like the movie? What if….”

Maya wraps her arms around her older sister: “Don’t worry, I’ll be there.”

This doesn’t comfort her.

“Well, Mommy, I don’t want to have this party anyway,” she says. “It’s all your fault. You invited people I don’t like! You invited everybody!”

I glare at her, and borrow a line from a movie. “If you build it they will come.”

Her forehead crinkles: “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” I shrug. “But it sounds good doesn’t it?”

We return home. Bath, brush, book and bed. Finally, I can relax. The phone rings. It’s Molly’s mom: “Molly’s been throwing up all day. I’m sorry she won’t be there tomorrow.”

One down, 10 to go.

The Party

It’s Saturday, D-day.

What to wear? I’m opting for the authoritative-but-not-trying-too-hard look: Yes, I’m fun, but in control. I settle on slim black pants and a buttoned-down shirt. (The don’t-worry-your-daughters-will-come-back-in-one-piece look.)

6 p.m. Noa and Maya are so excited. I take a deep breath. Pizza’s been ordered, kid music is on, fruit and junk are evenly distributed around the room, the video is rewound: Showtime.

The parents arrive one by one, with nervous expressions. Three of them say they are going to pick up their kids at 10 p.m. but brought their sleeping bags just in case.

6:45 p.m. Finally all the girls are here — filed with giggles and stories. Noa is ringleader; Maya, her devoted lieutenant. Everyone is ready for pizza, movie and sweets (fruit is ignored). The night flows from food and flick to charades and freeze-dance to getting ready for bed. The girls are so unexpectedly well-behaved and fun that I pinch myself.

11:07 p.m. After telling five stories, all the girls are down. I mentally pat myself on the back: I did it. I check on the girls once again and then crawl into bed.

2:45 a.m. I am awakened by a shrill scream: “I want my mommy!” I race to get the crying girl out of the room, fearing a domino reaction. I bring her to bed, tell her a story and rub her back. She puts her thumb in her mouth and bobs her head. Twenty minutes later, she’s down.

3:30 a.m. “Where’s Poppy?” Another little girl howling for her stuffed animal. I find Poppy at the bottom of the sleeping bag, rub her back and she’s down.

4:15 a.m. Maya stumbles into my room. “Mommy, why is Sarah in your bed? She’s in my spot. Move her over.” I shift Sarah to the far side of the bed. Maya recovers her territory. Within minutes, she, too, is down.

5:20 a.m. Noa opens my crusty eyelids with her fingers: “Mommy, they all slept over. You were right.”

Me: “I know honey, now go back to sleep. Please.”

7:37 a.m. Everybody’s up and hungry. I fix breakfast: french toast, eggs (cooked three different ways), cereal, juice, milk — something for everyone. Of course, I am wrong. Everyone has a special order. I become a glorified servant.

8:30 a.m. Breakfast is over. Everyone’s happy. Dishes are thrown in the sink. Girls are engaged in a tea party with water and cheerios, which spill all over the floor.

11 a.m. Parents arrive. None of the kids want to leave.

Noon: It’s just me and my girls. The house is quiet.

Noah says, “I did it, Mommy.”

“You sure did, honey,” I say.

Maya chimes in: “Can I have a sleepover party, too?”

Noa takes her hand. “Sure you can, Maya, don’t worry, I’ll organize it. We can do it next weekend. Right Mommy?”

The 10 Sleepover Commandments

Thou Shalt Not give kids chocolate after 9 p.m.

Thou Shalt remind all parents to send their child’s favorite stuffed animal to the party.

Thou Shalt read only happy ending books to kids before bed, and no scary movies during the course of the night.

Thou Shalt Not let kids know you’re nervous about letting them sleep out overnight — your confidence begets confidence.

Thou Shalt make sure all children go to the bathroom before getting into a sleeping bag.

Thou Shalt put no child on "the end" — sleep in a circular configuration (all heads facing inside).

Thou Shalt immediately remove "crying" child from premises and "chatterboxes" after "lights out" to avoid a domino reaction.

Thou Shalt not go it alone. Have a spouse, friend or relative help with the party.

Thou Shalt call all parents yourself when children are not in the room to let them know the kids are doing great (don’t mention you’re about to plotz).

Thou Shalt sleep well the night before the sleepover party — R.E.M. during "pajama night" is simply not an option. — LF