Tips for hosting large groups of houseguests

6 February 2023

Over the holidays, we hosted 12 people in our home – five members of our own family, and the rest, beloved extended family. This wasn’t our first time hosting, but after a few gos (and benefitting from experiencing the hospitality of other, more experienced hosts ourselves), it felt like our smoothest and most successful stay yet. I took notes throughout our time together, and would love to share a few tips while they’re still fresh!

A light and bright Christmas living room with a Christmas tree and blue Oriental rug

1. Clear surfaces.

Before guests arrived, I moved through the house and cleared off every surface I could – counters, benches, side tables, coffee tables, desks. Your house is about to get a lot more chaotic, with not only many more bodies but their attendant cups/bags/chargers/water bottles/books. Creating space in advance not only gives those items a place to land, it helps to keep your home visually calm (which for me, helps with mental calm!).

2. Plan every meal.

And I mean EVERY meal. In previous years of hosting, I’d always plan out a menu, but I’d often purposefully leave gaps. Oh, I’d think, we’ll probably have leftovers then, or maybe we’ll go out for that meal. Reader, there were never leftovers. Reader, it took an hour for us to decide by committee whether we wanted to go out or get takeout, and what kind of food we were in the mood for.

This time, I made a plan for every single meal. I planned whether we would get takeout or whether we’d eat at a restaurant. I planned something for every breakfast. I planned for every lunch. With large groups, I’ve found that a laidback meal plan is not generous or community-spirited, it’s a firestorm of frustration and hangry kids waiting to happen.

Of course, we could and did veer from the plan throughout the week, but always being prepared with a Plan A was key to keeping everyone fed and happy.

3. Don’t forget the fun.

Speaking of meal plans: don’t forget that as the host (especially if it’s a holiday week!), you’re assuming the role of head magic-maker, at least on the food front. You know all those special little touches that delight you as a guest at your parents’ or friends’ home? It’s your turn! I’m thinking things like a festive cocktail with dinner, a mini charcuterie board in the afternoon, fun breakfasts, the traditional dessert that’s a part of every family Christmas, a post-present-opening pan of sliders, or an afternoon snack of hot pretzels.

This is not to say that all the fun or food needs to literally be created by you, but the shopping list might. Otherwise, you might be dooming yourself to a last-minute grocery store run :)

4. Buy more fruit than you think you need.

Speaking of grocery store runs: this tip just as easily could have been “buy more of everything than you think you need,” but I find fruit goes particularly fast. Costco is my favorite place to buy grapes, berries, bananas, clementines, and the like so I don’t have to feel miserly as I dole out fruit to kids at breakfast.

5. Get on the same page as your spouse about helper tasks.

I am fully owning that this might be a niche piece of advice for my own marriage – or perhaps it’s more universal. You tell me :)

John and I sometimes differ on how much help we want or need from our guests, especially when the guests are family members. What feels natural to me is a model where guests pitch in with almost everything. I’ve seen bonds strengthened over a sink full of suds and I know my family gets antsy if they feel like they’re sitting around when others are “working.” John, desiring to allow our guests to relax and to keep a sense of normalcy in the way things are run around the house, prefers that we do the bulk of household tasks as they come up.

Here’s what’s helped us moved past this clash: brainstorming in advance what jobs we both feel great about guests taking on AND which jobs we want to keep in our control. For example, my Dad took on the job of breaking down cardboard boxes and carting them to the recycling – so helpful! Or maybe there’s a family member who’s happy to make last-minute runs to the store. Maybe someone loves folding laundry and you don’t have strong feelings about how laundry is folded. But maybe you do have strong feelings about how the dishwasher is loaded :)

6. Plan for auxiliary trash and recycling…

Speaking of cardboard boxes (see how these are all connected? :)): 12 people will generally create a lot of trash and recycling, especially if you’re hosting your group over the holidays (think: gift packaging, wrapping paper, shipping boxes, bottles of fun beverages, etc.). To make matters worse, your regular trash and recycling pick-up might be delayed because of the holidays.

Before you get to the point where you’re surrounded by overflowing garbage cans and are blindly chucking cardboard boxes into your garage because the recycling’s full (ask me how I know), reserve a large cardboard box or two to serve as overflow trash and recycling receptacles. It will keep things SO much more organized.

7. …and secondary food storage.

This might not be needed if you have a large pantry, a garage refrigerator, or a chest freezer. We have none of those things, so we had to get a bit more creative to store the large amounts of food needed to feed 12 people three meals a day for several days.

Happily (though slightly embarrassingly), we still had a wire shelf on our porch that was removed during our kitchen refresh. Because of the low temperatures, we were able to store not only boxed and bagged goods on it, but even items that should have been in our refrigerator. If outside temperatures hadn’t cooperated, I would have conscripted our cooler.

Obviously, it’s most important to make sure your food stays at a safe temperature (you know John was on top of that!), but you will likely find it difficult to store enough food for several days in a single refrigerator/freezer. We definitely did.

Cousins to read with! Annie’s favorite part of houseguests!

8. Run a load of laundry every night.

I learned this one from watching my sister-in-law! Some of you may normally be one-load-a-day people, but we are not – we tend to do a few loads once a week. However, I’ve found it very helpful to run a small load every night when we have a large group of guests. That way, anyone can throw an item of clothing in that may have gotten stained during the day, and a fresh tablecloth and napkins are always at the ready. Speaking of which…

9. Use tablecloths (and make sure you have two).

One of my least favorite household chores is wiping down the table after meals, using a tablecloth makes it bearable. Our collection is nothing fancy – they’re mostly from Target or Amazon (like these pretty ones!) – but clean-up becomes super easy when you can simply scoop up the cloth and all the crumbs, give it a good shake outside, then pop it in the washing machine. Same for cloth napkins. Instead of trying to remember whose whose, just toss them in your daily load.

10. Hug your robot vacuum.

Our robot vacuum is a treasured member of the fam on an ordinary day, but with a big group of houseguests, it’s such a comfort knowing that the floors will be wiped clean overnight with minimal effort on our part. We still often have to do a mid-day sweep, but our little one-robot cleaning crew definitely lightens the load.

11. Institute the five-minute clean-up.

Our 12 guests included several children, all of whom greatly enjoyed playing with each other and seemingly every toy we own (often at the same time). I did my best to embrace this, but also regularly called for “5-minute clean-ups.” We’d do these before meals, before quiet time, before bedtime, before leaving the house – whenever it felt needed. With many hands pitching in, we usually had the play space back to baseline before the timer even dinged.

12. Edit your toy selection.

One thing that made 5-minute clean-ups easier was a thoughtful edit of our toys before guests arrived. If there are toys with tons of little pieces you don’t want to manage, toys that you know will cause squabbling, or toys that generally encourage rowdiness, consider moving them to a closet, the attic, or a playroom away from the main gathering spaces. For example, we kept our MagnaTiles in the main room, but I put the LEGO bin in the attic as well as a ride-on toy that usually lives downstairs.

13. Get outside every day.

This one doesn’t need much explanation, but it’s so important! A quick walk around the block or a longer hike refreshes everyone, burns off some energy, and is a nice chance to mix and match the group. Even though it was brisk, we’d bundle up for a quick spin around our neighborhood most nights after dinner, and tried to get outside at least one other time during the day, too.

No matter the size of your home or the makeup of your houseguests, hosting a large group is a big undertaking. I’ve found that the more preparation I do in advance, the easier it is to relax and enjoy my loved ones while I’m with them. I hope this post can help you do just that!

Of course, there are many more tips I could add (and I hope you’ll add your best nuggets in the comments!), but these were a few of the more obscure tidbits that really made a difference for us in the thick of things. Tuck this post away for when your next group is coming to town! :)

P.S. Two house guest hacks and getting our home ready for guests. Affiliate links are used in this post!

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February 6, 2023 11:09 am

Oh my word, I LOVED this post. As always it was tactical, practical, and applicable – thank you Emily!!!
The only thing that I differ on is the meal planning – we plan breakfasts and dinners like it’s.our.job. However, lunches are a free for all. My mom and soon to be mother in law (and now I) all have the same tactic. At lunch, we put out all the sandwich things, clean fruit and veggies, cookies/bars, and chips. Occasionally we also heat up cartons of Trader Joes tomato soup. Lunch is “come and get it as you want to make it” and generally stays out for an hour.
I will say – we typically have our big groups up at the lake or when we’re skiing – so everyone is in and out in various groupings doing various activities in the middle of the day. ;)
I can’t wait to apply your table cloth tip – GENIUS.

February 6, 2023 2:25 pm

Your meal planning tip is THE TICKET. There is nothing that infuriates me more than an hour wasted on trying to decide what/where to eat. Plus, the Abilene Paradox ( often comes into play! I see the excessive planning as a way to put my enneagram 5 skills to work and research all our many options :)

February 6, 2023 3:12 pm

I love these tips! I haven’t had an opportunity to host a large group for anything other than a meal or two yet, and to be honest, the thought really intimidates me! Do you mind sharing, did these guests also stay in your home overnight? When we first moved into our home, we had two guest rooms, but now we have two kiddos in those rooms. If I recall right, your guest rooms have dwindled along with kiddos too. Do you use air mattresses? Bunk the kids up? Would love to hear.
Appreciate you, as always!

February 6, 2023 7:04 pm

Emily, this was so helpful! We’ve never hosted more than two people at a time (usually just my parents or in-laws). We’re hosting my sister’s family in a couple of months, though, so I will be using ALL of these tips!
PS: If anyone has suggestions for quick and easy childproofing (as my niece is a month older than Annie), I’m all ears!

Kristen M
February 7, 2023 2:21 pm

This is all great advice – the meal planning tips can also extend to large group vacations where a lot of the same issues apply! Scheduling out meals ahead of time can make such a logistical difference in how smooth the days go! (honestly true in regular life too although I’m less good at figuring that out!)

February 7, 2023 9:47 pm

First, hats off to you for taking notes while having the house full of guests! Thank you for sharing these! I could not agree more with „buy more fruit (and everything) than you think you need“. I am always amazed at how much food we will plough through when we have the house full of guests! I‘ll never forget the trip to Publix where I did the first big shopping for our vacation with my whole family in Watercolor for Christmas this last year. I ended up pushing two shopping carts out the door, ha!

February 7, 2023 9:47 pm

This came at the PERFECT time as we’re getting ready to host 12 Kirks in our house next week!! We are thrilled, as some of them haven’t been to NC since our wedding, but every time I sit down to plan, I feel kind of overwhelmed. This is such a helpful starting point!

January 2, 2024 3:00 pm

Loved reading this and I second the two tablecloths! We have Christmas ones on the table all season long and switch out every few days and I just realized I hadn’t had to wipe the table in weeks! Crazy! I just put a blue chambray one on for now bc I’m not ready for it to go just yet!