Practical Hospitality: How Clean is Clean Enough?

Let’s talk housekeeping. Not ordinary housekeeping. Not “Do the Laundry on Wednesday and Clean the Bathrooms on Fridays” housekeeping. But, rather, “Friends are Coming Over Tonight, and We Need to Get the House Ready” housekeeping. What exactly, in that scenario does “get the house ready” mean?

This is an important question, because how you answer it determines: 1) How free you feel to have people over; and 2) How crazy you make yourself and everyone in your household prior to your guests’ arrival.

In recent weeks, lots of people I’ve talked to on Facebook and Instagram about this are under the impression that before anyone crosses the threshold of their homes, they need to do their best impersonation of this lady.

This is a bad idea. If you think you have to deep clean your house every time friends come over, you will either never have friends over or everyone in your family, including you, will dread it when you do.

On the other hand, we all want to honor our guests as best we can, and sending them into a bathroom visibly frequented by a three-year-old boy in the middle of potty-training seems…well…less than honoring.

So, when hosting, what do you need to do? What is the absolute minimum for pre-guest cleaning?

Hint: It doesn’t involve getting every Christmas decoration down…even though Candlemas has come and gone.

Obviously, different people will have different answers to that question. But, presuming your house does get the occasional actual cleaning (your floors have been mopped or vacuumed and bathrooms scrubbed sometime in the last 30 days) and that no one has called you about being on an episode of Hoarders…here’s how I answer that question for an ordinary gathering of friends or when someone joins us for dinner.

Must Do (For Guests)

For the personal comfort and enjoyment of guests, only two (sometimes three) things absolutely need to get done before anyone arrives at my door for dinner.

  • In the bathroom guests will use, I quickly wipe down the toilet, sink, and the floor in front of the toilet (because men). I might put out a fresh hand towel if necessary. If I think guests will use our upstairs hall bathroom, in addition to the downstairs powder room, I do all that again, ignoring the bathtub. That’s what shower curtains are for.
  • I clear off the dining room table and/or living room chairs, moving laundry, papers, books, etc. (even if that means just temporarily relocating them to a closet or bedroom). Because guests need a place to sit.
  • If there is a crawling baby numbered among our guests, I clear the floor of any items on which they could possibly choke.

Must Do (For Me)

The above three things are my absolute minimum. They’re all I know I have to do. And they’re all I think anyone else has to do either. But over the years, I have found that for my own sanity doing a few more things helps if I have time. These things make it easier for me to cook and host and clean up afterwards. This is just me, though. Your mileage will vary.

  • Clear kitchen counters of dirty dishes used earlier in the day (or week);
  • Wash dirty dishes and run the dishwasher;
  • Wipe down kitchen counters;
  • Sweep kitchen floor;
  • Straighten pillows in living room and den;
  • Take mail on the entry table up to my office;
  • Make our bed if it’s not already made (but, it almost always is, because I’m one of those people);
  • Shut doors to any rooms I don’t want people entering.
Last night, we had friends over to watch the Superbowl…and there were a lot of shut doors upstairs.

Things I Do Not Worry About

Unless I’m hosting my husband’s boss or inviting 400 strangers to traipse through my home and judge me (like I did this past Christmas), there is a whole host of things I simply don’t do or worry about. Like…

  • Bedrooms: If they’re messy, I just close the door.
  • Offices: If it’s messy (mine always is), I just close the door.
  • Bathrooms guests won’t use: If they’re messy, I just close the door (you should be sensing a theme here).
  • Mudrooms and Laundry Rooms: These are utility rooms; it’s okay for them to look like that.
  • Playrooms/Kid’s Rooms; Regardless if other kids are coming over or not, kids will re-trash these in .25 seconds. If it’s clean, great. If it’s not, why bother cleaning it now? (Note: I didn’t even check the playroom before the kids arrived last night. That’s how much I cared about that space.)
  • Marks, handprints, and “artwork” on walls: I usually clean these things off when I find them. But right before guests arrive is not the time to worry about this.
  • Visible toys: If kids live in your house, my theory is you don’t have to hide it. Just create a Lego-free path about your house, move any large items that guests might trip over, and call it good.
  • Dusting: You should dust your house from time to time. But right before guests arrive does not need to be that time. As long as clouds of dust don’t rise up when people sit down on the sofa, some dust bunnies aren’t going to kill anyone.
  • Mopping.
  • Windows: Just in case anyone is crazy enough to think cleaning windows is a necessary part of pre-hosting prep…it’s not.

As a general rule, even for big parties I never spend more than an hour these days straightening up the house before people come. It’s usually more like 20-30 minutes, because that’s really all I’ve got time for. I call this “Power Straightening.” It involves Chris keeping Toby occupied while I move through the house like a redheaded tornado, tidying things up in the main rooms and closing doors upstairs. Note: I straighten. I tidy. I do not clean. And I really do ignore rooms with doors. For evidence, see below.

This was Toby’s room last night before out guests came over. Did I deal with that clean laundry and all the dirty clothes strewn about? No. I just shut the door.
This was my office last night before our friends came over. I did gather up the dishes and take them downstairs. But after that, I shut the door. And yes, I know Candlemas is over. But I had the choice yesterday of having friends over or taking down our decorations. I chose friends.

Adapt my lists as you see fit. Some people need to do more for their sanity; others less. But, when in doubt, put yourself in your guests’ shoes. Imagine you’re new in town and looking to make friends…or longing for adult conversation after a week alone with the kids…or the last single friend, who is struggling with the loneliness that comes when everyone else has a house full of littles and you have none. So, imagine you’re them…and then imagine how all your excuses for not inviting them over for supper sound.

For example…

Host: I’m sorry, I can’t have you over tonight. My kids’ bedrooms aren’t clean.

Guest: Um…are we eating in your kids’ bedrooms?

Host: I’m sorry, I can’t have you over, I have laundry on the dining room table.

Guest: We can eat in the kitchen.

Host: I’m sorry, I can’t have you over, but there are toys everywhere.

Guest: You have five kids. Of course there are toys everywhere. I don’t care.

Host: I can’t have you over because my bed isn’t made…my floors aren’t mopped…my walls haven’t been scrubbed…

Guest: I’m coming to see you. I don’t care about the rest.

You get the idea. The point is, ordinary, healthy human beings don’t go over to their friends’ houses to see picture perfect homes and eat five star cuisine. We have Instagram and actual restaurants for those things. We go to our friends’ houses to be with our friends—to talk with them, laugh with them, and love them. And your ability to give that to people is not dependent on your housekeeping skills. It’s dependent on your willingness to let people into your home, be real with them, and love them where they are.

I said this on Instagram earlier this week, and I’ll say it again here: Right now, someone you know is lonely and struggling and longing to be included in your crazy family life….or just have a break from cooking dinner. Let them in. Even if all you have room for is one extra person. Don’t worry about the toys in the living room or the broken dining room chairs. Serve them pizza on paper plates if you need to. Your guests won’t care. You are so much more than your housekeeping or cooking or decorating skills. If your guests have your time and your attention, they’ll have the best you can give. 

25 thoughts on “Practical Hospitality: How Clean is Clean Enough?

  1. Barbara Stein says:

    I thought about you last night. We (me, my grown and not completely grown kids) were going to be cooking lots of snacks for the game and my husband invited my mother-in-law (who is lonely) at the last minute. My house was a disaster. Except for a wipe-up in the bathroom which I made my husband do, the dining room table was covered with school books and rosary supplies, the family room floor covered in toys belonging to the toddler who lives here now, and I had no time to deal with any of it because I was helping a teen with a research paper. My mother-in-law walked into the family room and said to me, “What happened to your house?” I take that as affirmation that I usually have a presentable home. I might invite her back! 😉

  2. Estelle M Carvelas says:

    My “rule” is if you want to see me come ANY TIME. If you want to see the house make an appointment and I’ll clean.

  3. Jann Elaine says:

    As someone who has literally moved to a new area every two years for the last nine, this is so, so true. It’s really hard to make friends and form relationships with people who don’t feel like their house is good enough to have people over, especially if/when they suggest meeting up out at a restaurant etc instead. In fact, I would say even if your house ISN’T as clean as the above widely recommends, always extend the invite anyway if you have a feeling the person might accept. There are lots of lonely people in the world who haven’t had a chance to make friends for whatever the reason…they don’t CARE if your daughter didn’t put her barbies away, the piano is covered in bills or you didn’t wipe down the counters after breakfast. People have a deep yearning to be included and welcomed, and your home not being “big enough” or clean enough whatever crazy excuse your head is telling you, shouldn’t be.
    Then again, many of us would do well spending a bit of time cleaning on a schedule so that we feel ready to extend the invite whenever the time comes, I would assume more for our own mental health than our guests well-being.

    • Emily says:

      I definitely find it easier to tidy quickly and have people over because the house is generally in reasonable order and I don’t have a lot of clutter. But yes, I don’t think I’ve ever let my house being less than how I like it to prevent me from having people over. If my house is a mess, it’s just another opportunity for me to get over myself.

  4. MariaE says:

    I think fear of being judged is behind the meet at restaurants phenomenon a lot. I am comfortable having people over with chaos (I am in my late twenties with a 5 month old, 2 years 1 month old, and 4 year 1 month old.) My rules are the same as yours!
    My husband has made big progress. He used to stress clean before company. I think after his mother died when he was 13, they never had anyone over.
    I say if I am seriously worried someone will judge me, they probably aren’t my friend so I won’t have them over. However, this rule works for me because I have a chill personality. I am not a worrier, and I have genuinely kind friends.

    • Emily says:

      The funny thing with me is that I am the opposite of chill! But, I’m more extroverted than high-strung, so the need for people ends up trumping all.

  5. Rosemary Callenberg says:

    My mom once stopped by the house of a friend because she really, really had to use the bathroom. The friend wouldn’t let her in the house or even open the door beyond a crack because her house wasn’t clean!!

  6. Ali says:

    I like all that you had to say and agree with it, however, I take a different approach. Hosting is the one thing that always, without fail, motivates me to clean. I intentionally host, especially during to holidays to get things done that would otherwise be ignored. Small dinner parties are good, larger group events are better, and house guests are the impetus for re-caulking the bathtub and cleaning the oven.

    My friends and family have all seen the “real house” plenty of times, but I find hosting to be a successful way to light the cleaning fire.
    That being said, for an impromptu dinner my short list is the same as yours, plus couch cushions and sweeping. I’m terrible at sweeping, so this is always necessary.

    I love this conversation topic and can’t wait to see what people share in the comments.

    • Emily says:

      One of my best friends always says her house would never get clean if it weren’t for company. So, whatever motivates you to have people over! That’s the important part!

  7. Eva Lyons says:

    We are going on 35 years of marriage, and have always had a “just drop in” kind of house. We have enjoyed feeding guests from the early years in a grad school apartment so packed with people you could hardly move, to a modest suburban home that is still often filled to bursting (because when you have kids and then they have kids, this happens). My one “must” for company is that the house should smell good when people enter. Good as in soup or something delicious on the stove, or even just a pot of coffee brewing, not fancy potpourri. Seriously, bake a ham and your house will smell wonderful for days.That’s what people remember, not the dog’s nose prints on the windows.

  8. Sarah says:

    So I generally follow this rule too. But I feel like a good rule for guests to follow is don’t enter rooms with closed doors! lol. I had guests over recently and they went in the rooms with the closed doors. I was thinking noo! Why are you doing that? That’s where I hide all the things and don’t clean. 😉

    • MariaE says:

      Yikes. The guests really should have known better. I stick very strictly to bathroom/kitchen/dining room/living room when I visit.

    • Anne says:

      Haha! Yes! We have a super open door home, live right next to church so we host impromptu play dates after daily mass, etc. But as I was reading this post, which I whole heartedly agree with and follow…with even less cleaning…, I was also thinking of the one family who causes me to go on a horrible rampage—putting away anything with multiple pieces, locking away food, even hiding pens before they come because their son will go in any space/drawer regardless of babygates, stairs, closed doors. I’ve found him rifling through our unfinished storage room, he’s squirted babyfood pouches all over the carpet in upstairs bedrooms, and opened and ate the contents of our kids’ Easter baskets before we’d even given them to our kids…he’s 7. We still want to have them over so I go on my rampage every few months, but they are invited over less than we and they would like. Maybe we need a post on how to have uncomfortable conversations about behavior with “bad” guests.
      And because we host a lot of international people, I’m finding myself often in the position of having someone ask for (or my husband offer) a tour of our home…so I’d add to the list: “throwing any undergarments in a drawer even if behind closed doors” as part of my cleanup for some anticipated guests…but if they want a tour of what a home with four kids under five looks like, then they’ll get the real, PG, version, mess and all.

      • Emily says:

        Haha, yes! We do have some friends we tend to invite only in the summer months when we can keep everyone outside. And my husband totally did the “let me show you the whole house thing” once…then led people into our disaster of a room where all my bras and underwear were drying. We had quite the talk after that!

    • Mary Beth says:

      Agreed! But given that I have toddlers who don’t follow this rule (and neither do their childproof doorknob defeating ninja friends!) I generally lock the doors of rooms that I don’t want people in. I’ve found it’s easy to explain, when friends with kids come over I just say that I’ve locked the non-childproofed rooms, so this way I don’t have to be as neurotic about watching the kids and can actually visit with them. Because really, who wants a toddler to walk into the living room chewing on a maxi pad (or insert object equally as embarrassing), especially in front of company! It saves my sanity because I can throw things in those rooms too!

      • Emily says:

        When I was single, my friends kids always had the run of the house, including my bedroom. The little girls especially loved it because they could play with all my girlie things. They were always great about it…until one night I headed upstairs just in time to catch a friend’s two-year-old daughter come waltzing out of my room with a whole bunch of my pretty, lacy underwear over her head and around her neck!!! The older girls had already donned all my scarves, so she went rifling through my vanity drawers to find a good substitute! Oh, I have never laughed so hard in all my life. But now my room is the one room in the house that is always off limits!

  9. Rebecca says:

    A very helpful, encouraging post. Your pictures of an imperfect office and bedroom actually inspire others to be hospitable. I have always loved Leila Lawler’s (Like Mother, Like Daughter) approach to making a beautiful, welcoming home–she is creative, thrifty, and real. A “good enough” not “perfect” approach: “If I can, you can too” GO YOU!

    Bravo, Emily!

  10. Moira says:

    Emily, I love your writing! It always lifts up my day! It is invigorating!
    I had surgery back in December so I decided to go through all your old posts, and I just finished, at the beginning of the blog. It was so fun!

    • Emily says:

      This cracks me up! I could send you some Agatha Christie’s if you need something better to read! I hope you’re healing well, though!

  11. Rosie says:

    What a lovely and realistic take on house cleaning before having guests! It is still so hard to put aside our expectations of a glamorous home and just be happy to share the reality of what we have…

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