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Smart Housekeeping


Dining Rooms and Entertaining


Dining Rooms


Dining Tables



Serving Carts





Centerpieces and Candles

Hand Washing Dishes


Housekeeping Talk

Thoughts about Clutter--Instant Housekeeping

The Mice Step Out! Valentines and Puppets

Book Reviews

Product Reviews



Dining Rooms

Dining rooms, like foyers, aren't even part of many small houses and apartments. Instead, a section of the living room, usually close to the kitchen, may be the actual dining space. If you live alone or have a small family, or usually have very informal meals, a dining room may end up mostly collecting clutter. That seems to be the fate of rooms that are used by everyone but claimed by no one.

If you have a largely unused dining room, it could be repurposed as a home office. Or a craft room--proximity to the kitchen facilities is a big advantage for some crafts.

If you have a larger family, give dinner parties, or enjoy using a dining room, make the most of the space. A comfortable, relaxing place for bringing your family together at mealtime and hosting special events is a treasure--something to help you create good relationships and happy memories. Whether that place is a special room or just part of a more open plan layout, give some thought to how its layout and furnishings affect the way it's used.



Thinking about dining rooms I've lived with and visited, the most overlooked ground rule I can think of is that a dining room should be uncrowded, even at its maximum capacity.

But it makes a difference to the atmosphere of your dining room. If your table has leaves, set it up at full size. Put chairs all around it in the positions they'd be in if they were occupied. Then decide what other furniture, if any, to put in the room, and where it should be located.

If there's a view, position the table to take advantage of it. If not, other focus points in the room, such as paintings on the wall, contribute to a restful atmosphere.

Dining Tables

While we all enjoy the pleasant informality of a family Thanksgiving, it's awkward to crowd a table with more diners than it's designed for. So, if your table is a fixed size. that would pretty well set the number of guests you can have for a sit down dinner.

Table leaves give you more choice. If your table has leaves, make sure they work--if a leaf hasn't been properly stored, it may be too warped to use. (Proper storage involves laying the leaf flat on a level surface, and it's very tempting to store them on edge.)

Also, a dining table shouldn't be wobbly or unstable--and I've seen a few that are both, particularly drop leaf designs.

If one or more of your guests is left-handed, they shouldn't be seated so that they bump elbows with a right-handed person. A corner or end seat is a better choice.

In some extended families, children have a separate table.


Other than office chairs, there are few seats where so much time is spent in a relatively immobile position. And yet, many dining chairs are not comfortable.

I love the look of antique design chairs, but I wouldn't want to sit in one for long. Wood seats may not be shaped for sitting--and loose, hard seat cusions don't help much. Chair backs sometimes make a lovely design statement, but pay more attention to attractiveness than support. Chair arms crowd your seating arrangement and make it impossible to bring the chair to a comfortable distance from the table.

"Parsons chairs," like the one on the right, with or without the skirt, are far more practical. Comfortable, armless, and attractive, they work well. They do have one drawback--if you have a cat, they may look, to the feline eye, like fine scratching posts.


A sideboard can hold food, like a large heavy platter or your dessert course, or it can be used to display seasonal decorations, flowers, or candles. Either way, if you have room for one, they're useful and attractive.

Some sideboards have a mirror back, which is suposed to double the candlelight if you use candles. I've never thought it had much effect, since the mirror also doubles much of the dark room.

Serving Carts

Especially if you don't have space for a sideboard, a serving cart can be a big help--actually, even if you do have a sideboard, a cart is convenient. You can set up your dessert course on the cart, ready to wheel out when the time comes. Or use it for clearing the table in one trip.

Some serving carts have drop leaves. If you plan to use them extended, make sure there's space, and also that the cart isn't unstable when they're set up.


It's an odd thing, that most china patterns look good in the store, but don't do anything to set off the food and make it look good. The most dramatic plates I have, from that point of view, are shiny solid black rounded squares. Food looks fabulous on them, right out of a photo in a cooking magazine. However, they are prone to obvious scratching, and have to be stored carefully with felt squares between them.

I prefer to use serving dishes that complement my china rather than match it. I like glass platters and bowls. Also color glazed silver pieces, which I coordinate with the color of the food I'm serving.

At least think about food on plates when you choose plates. Also, who says you have to only have one kind of plate? Since I mostly serve meals to just two people, my husband and me, I have two plates each of quite a few china patterns. It makes for more interesting table settings, and lets me choose what works best with particular foods.

Another thing to think about when choosing china is whether it can be washed in the dishwasher. Handwashing all the china adds a great deal of work to a dinner.

It's also handy if dishes can go in the microwave, since that can be handy in informal daily use.


Fragile, eggshell-thin glassware is lovely to handle if that's your thing--but if it isn't, it's a worrisome distraction. I had some lovely thin glass dessert dishes--but I noticed how nervous they made guests, and I got rid of them and found some nice heavy ones. A guest is going to worry about breakage when they're dealing with something that's obviously very fragile.

Since your objective in entertaining is for everyone to have a good time, it seems counterproductive to create tension. In the case of the dessert dishes, I knew they'd break eventually, and wouldn't have been concerned when it happened, but my guests didn't know that I had a casual attitude about it.

Colored glass is beautiful on its own, but it may or may not work with food and beverages. A green glass filled with red liquid gets you a brownish or near-black color. As with china, think about the total effect of the container and its contents.


Silver or stainless? Simple or formal?

If you choose for ease of everyday use, you'll probably decide on stainless steel. Be careful, though, because a few patterns advise against washing in a dishwasher, which removes a large part of the incentive to use stainless in the first place, other than the cost. Also, some stainless patterns seem to need almost as much water spot removal work as it would take to polish them, if they were silver. Before you invest in a large set of anything, it might be a good idea to buy a couple of place settings and see how well they work for you.

If you invest in silver, you choose between silverplate and sterling, with a large price difference between them. Both have to be polished.

I've tried the method of polishing by submerging the pieces in boiling water with baking soda and aluminum foil. I'm not a fan. You can't use it on hollow pieces like dinner knives, candlesticks, and some serving pieces. It doesn't get the silver nearly as shiny as a good silver polish will. And finally, your kitchen will smell like hot rotten eggs for quite a while. Some things are worse than using a little elbow grease.


Table linens are no longer usually made out of linen. Most are either cotton or a blend of cotton and synthetic fiber. The big thing to consider is ironing. Almost all napkins of 100% cotton have to be ironed before use. This adds one more chore to getting the table set properly, and it's tempting to avoid it. However, 100% synthetic napkins are non-absorbent and not very pleasant to use. A blend is best, if you can find the colors you want. About 50-50 cotton and polyester seems to work well.

For tablecloths, absorbency isn't important--and ironing is much more so. Unless you have a mangle or other special ironing setup, it's very difficult to iron a whole tablecloth, even a fairly small one. You can send them to a laundry, of course--but that's another task. I usually use no-iron tablecloths, and sometimes even then find that they've wrinkled in storage. When that happens, I toss them in the dryer with a damp lint-free cloth, and hope for the best.

A stain-resistant finish on tablecloths will make them last longer.

Placemats work well for less formal occasions. Some of them are made of hardboard, which gets around the washing/ironing dilemma nicely.

As with dishes, the main thing you want to consider is how well the table linens will complement the food. Placemats, tablecloths, and napkins, like china, are like a frame that encloses a work of art. They should add, not detract, to the appeal of what you're serving. Think of the whole effect when you choose your linens. If you don't, your food won't look appetizing, and your table will seem cluttered.

Centerpieces and Candles

Flowers and candles are usual, but a centerpiece can be almost anything. Choices for special or seasonal table settings are limited only by the imagination of the person designing the table.

One rule worth remembering is--it should be easy to see over the centerpiece. If it isn't, you limit conversation. After all, the point of the party is for people to enjoy each other's company, not to admire the table appointments.

You definitely want dripless candles for your dining table. Beeswax candles are usually dripless, and paraffin candles also may be, but in the case of paraffin, the candle design and wax mix will determine whether they actually work well.

It's also possible to use a bobeche, or drip catcher. Some people use these even with dripless candles, mostly to give a more "finished" appearance. How effective bobeches are at actually catching candle drips is debatable.

Candles placed on a table shouldn't obscure the faces of diners actoss the table from each other. Shorter candles can be combined with flowers to make an attractive centerpiece. Or you can use crystal candleholders with cut crystal shades.

If a diinner is at night and you are planning to use candlelight for your only light, you need to be sure you have enough candles for a reasonable amount of illumination--and that may be quite a bit more than you'd expect.

A candle snuffer is almost essential if you use candles--blowing them out is likely to decorate your tablecloth with hot wax. I did know one person who extinguished candles by giving the flame a quick pinch with her fingers, but I never tried it and don't recommend it.

Hand Washing Dishes

Even if you have a dishwasher, most of your special dishes and even kitchenware may need to be hand washed. Here's how:

  • Use a plastic dishpan to guard against chipping the dishes in the sink.

  • Prepare a separate container (can be one of the dishes to be washed) with hot water and a little dish detergent. Use this to soak anything with stuck-on or cooked-on food. (But don't soak wood items and hollowware.)

  • Use rubber gloves with a slip-resistant palm side.

  • Scrape as much as possible off dishes before washing.

  • Squirt dish detergent around any especially oily pot or other item. Scrub it in well with a brush--no water. Set aside.

  • Fill your dishpan with hot water. Add detergent. You can use hotter water when you're wearing gloves.

  • I use a dishwashing brush--others prefer a cloth or a sponge. If you do use sponges for dishwashing, soak the sponge overnight afterwards in a solution of water and automatic dishwasher detergent to disiinfect it. (Or you can use a solution of laundry bleach and water. Or you can microwave the sponge or run it through the dishwasher. One way or another, though, disinfect the sponge.)

  • Start with the least dirty items. Mostly, this will mean washing glassware first, then flatware, then china, then pots. Finally, wash your greasy dishes that you've previously set aside with dishwashing detergent rubbed into the grease.

  • Rinse with hot running water.

  • Most items are fine air drying in a rack. It's better to hand dry flatware and good glassware to make sure you don't get water spots. If you use a dishwasher for everyday dishes, but would suddenly need a lot more drying space for the handwashables you use for guests, a folding dish drainer is a handy thing to have. It tucks away compactly under your sink, along with a tray to catch drips, and can be brought out only when it's needed. Roll-up over the sink drying racks and microfiber drying pads are also available.

  • Items that you've set aside to soak may need to be left for several hours.

  • If there is burned-on residue in a pot, instead of soaking with water, squirt straight liquid automatic dishwasher detergent on it. Work it in to the burned areas and set it aside for a while. Then wash as for any other pot. You may need to repeat this, but it works better than anything else I've tried.

  • If you have any doubts about whether a dish is clean, take off your glove and run your bare hand over the surface. You'll feel any residue or bumps.


Don't combine entertaining with trying a new main dish you've never prepared before, unless you're serving it to good friends who know they're helping you try something different.


My ideas about entertaining are based on informal events for family and small groups of friends. My basic idea is to create an enjoyable event--and that may actually mean pulling your punches a little. Maybe you're capable of perfection, or close to it--but is that likely to put your guests at ease and make them eager to come back--or to invite you to their homes? Perfectionism is easy to fall into, but it seldom makes anyone happy.

For a dinner party, I always set the table the day before--this means one less thing to do on the "day of," and makes it possible to be sure I have all the right serving dishes lined up. Just one less thing to think about.

Allow about a half hour between the time a dinner party is set to start and the time the food is ready--this gives some leeway for the inevitable latecomers.

Of course, entertaining can be much less programmed than a sit down dinner in the dining room--organize a picnic at a public park, or a barbecue in your back yard. Or a potluck--this works well when some guests have special dietary needs. Another idea is for a group of friends to have a "progressive dinner," where one course is served at each of several homes, with diners alternating roles of host and guest.

If you look for help among the hundreds of available books about entertaining, choose carefully. Many are about levels or types of entertaining that may hold no interest for you. Be sure the book matches your preferred style, or it won't do you much good.

Housekeeping Talk

Talk about housekeeping can veer all over the place--from therapy session to gossip. My advice is--housekeeping is about things, period. We're all better off if we don't make value judgments about ourselves or anyone else, based on housekeeping style or ability.

Train yourself to not look critically at others' homes. Unless they asked you to come over and help them clean up, that's not what you're there for.

Don't wait until your own house is perfect before you invite people over, either. Friendship and shared time have nothing to do with the neatness of the room they happen in.

Don't call yourself names, ever. Maybe when you were a kid, you liked to make funny faces sometimes--did your mother ever say, "Careful, or it will get stuck that way."? That's what happens when you put labels on yourself--you tend to get stuck that way. If you have habits you want to change, have at it, but give yourself a break.

Words like "slob," "hoarder," and "OCD" are verbal clutter. They aren't useful or beautiful, so let's throw them out with the trash.

Thoughts about Clutter--Instant Housekeeping

Now that you've had the pep talk about how you don't have to clean up for company, here's how to do it if you want to.

I'm assuming the visitor is coming on short notice and not staying overly long. They'll be in the living room, maybe the kitchen, and maybe use the bathroom before they leave. Let's say you have half an hour to neaten up.

If you're not home alone, round everyone else up to help.

Get a box or a large laundry basket and make a sweep through all the rooms that the guest is likely to be iin. Put everything in the box (except pour any liquids, like the contents of a half-consumed coffee cup, down the drain). Don't bother sorting at all.

Put the box in the laundry room or the basement--anywhere, just so it's out of sight.

Now sit on your couch--or wherever your guests are likely to be--and look around the room. You get a different view sitting than standing. Fix anything that's obviously in need of fixing--coffee table may need dusting, whatever you can do quickly to improve the view.

If there's pet hair on the couch, go over it with a hand held vacuum, if you have one. Or use a damp hand or a damp sponge. Or a clothes brush, lint roller, or velcro hair roller.

Take a look at the carpet--if you don't have time to vacuum, at least pick up obvious bits of "stuff." This is one time when it's handy to have a stick-vac or a carpet sweeper--they're much quicker than hauling out the big vacuum.

Check for cobwebs in the corners and the ceiling. Sometimes you don't notice things like this on a day to day basis. And then suddenly, there they are.

Open the windows to air the place out.

Take a look at your front porch and straighten if necessary.

Put a clean hand towel in the bathroom, give the sink a quick wipe, and make sure the toilet is flushed. Shut the shower curtain.

Now, tidy the kitchen if you have time.

After the guests leave, drag your clutter box out of the laundry room (or wherever) and put things where they belong.

Whatever you do, though, remember--seeing your friends isn't about housekeeping.

The Mice Step Out! Valentines and Puppets

Click here to see the Mice's February fun!


Book Reviews

There's a wide selection of books about how to throw a big party, and how to do formal entertaining. These are for more low-key occasions that don't involve caterers, bartenders, or interior decorators.

The I Hate to Housekeep Book, by Peg Bracken. Funny, charming, and helpful with lots of housekeeping issues, including low-anxiety hosting. Recommended.

What's a Hostess to Do? by Susan Spungen. Comprehensive but unpretentious. Recommended.

Guests without Grief, by Paula Jhung--Very practical suggestions for all kinds of hosting. Recommended.

Town and Country Handbook for Hosts by Adam Bluestein. Excellent advice, clearly presented. Recommended.

Product Reviews

I have no financial interest in any of these companies, and have not received anything in exchange for my recommendations.


Mothers Mag and Aluminum Polish--Works well on all metals, including silver. Much better than most other metal polishes I've used, but the fumes are a problem. I'm most likely to use this on secondhand pieces I buy that have been abused and neglected. I've used several polishing products from this manufacturer, and this is the best by a small margin, but they're all good.

Twinkle Copper Polish--Works fine for regular maintenance of metals, and the odor is unobjectionable.

Casabella Waterstop Premium Rubber Gloves

Blue Dawn Ultra Dishwashing Liquid

Collapsible Dish Rack with Drain Board, by Prepworks by Progressive

Not Recommended

Blitz Silver Care Polish

Hagerty 10080 Silversmiths' Silver Polish

Folding wood drain racks


Felted mice by Diyana Stankova

Sideboard by Patricia White

Chipmunk by Shells Mystic Felts

Hamster by HandmadeByNovember

Dining room chair by Janet Harvie, Maggie Melinda Custom Miniatures

Tea cart by Wicker Miniature

Vase of roses by BitsyNest




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