The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
It’s that time of year again! The kids are off from school, your parents are encamped in the guest bedroom, and there’s enough food in your fridge to feed a small island nation. Ah, the holidays. If you’re the host this year, you know how much work goes into making the family gathering as perfect as can be. But you also know it pays to be prepared for the unexpected. Because despite all the careful planning, even the best host can—and will—fall prey to at least one disaster during a family gathering (and we don’t mean granddad horrifying the young’uns with his war stories).
In the past we’ve shown you how to prep your home ahead of time to minimize holiday mayhem. But some things are just unpredictable, like spilled wine, guest-trapping blizzards, or the overeager but hapless aunt who insists on being your sous chef. Don’t worry—This Old House is here to help. We’re giving you our 10 best tips for smoothing over those last-minute glitches so that you can keep the celebration going with a perfect holiday smile.
Murphy’s Law states that the one day a year you use your best linens is the same day someone will knock an entire glass of red wine onto them. And onto the carpet or your favorite blouse. The key to fixing the red-wine-spill problem is speed. Immediately treat the stain. Start by blotting the stain (don’t rub!) and pour cold water on it. Then, sprinkle it liberally with salt. For fabrics, it’s ideal to sit the stain in a small bowl, then pour boiling water over it and let it soak until the stain is gone. If that doesn’t work, steep the stain in diluted white vinegar (1 part vinegar to 2 parts water). See more in this video on removing a red wine stain from our friends at Real Simple.
For a carpet spill, blot first to remove as much liquid as possible. Then, make a paste of baking soda and water, and set that on the stain. Let it dry in place, then vacuum it off. If this doesn’t work, follow up with an oxy cleaner. Check out How to Remove Every Type of Carpet Stain for tips to help you take care of other messes.
Last-minute shopping item: Bissell Stomp ‘n Go stain lifting pads are damp cloths preloaded with oxygen cleaner; you place them on the spill and step on the pad to soak and clean at the same time. They’re about $5 for a pack of five.
The Range Breaks
The kitchen range is command central at a holiday dinner. It roasts the turkey, bakes the pies, and keeps casseroles warm. But if it goes down before your bird is golden brown, you’re in a pickle. What to do? Don’t even think about trying to find a repairman. Try knocking on some doors along the block to see if someone will lend you a spot in their oven. But if you can’t rely on the kindness of neighbors, head straight for Plan B: Divide and conquer.
• Put the bird on the grill. Yes, you can cook a turkey on the grill; here are some great ideas from MyRecipes.com. If your grill isn’t large enough, consider pre-slicing your bird and cooking it that way.
• You can bake some of your desserts using your grill, too. Lower the flame or wait for the coals to die down, grab the oven thermometer, and keep an eye on the temperature with the lid closed. (Note: This won’t work well with cakes that have to rise.)
• Stick the small stuff in the toaster oven and the microwave. You may not even realize your microwave has a convection setting, but that will work best for savory nonmeat items. Not sure how to work this unfamiliar feature? Go to the manufacturer’s website or manualsonline.com to find the owner’s manual.
Last-minute shopping item: Charcoal (or a propane-tank refill) and an oven thermometer
Guests Get Stranded
Should the weather go bad while you’re busy feeding the hordes, you may find yourself with a surprise slumber party and an insufficient number of beds. No worries: That’s what couches are for. Of course, couches are notoriously lumpy, and you may have only one or two. Here’s how to make the most of them.
Remove any back cushions, which will leave the seat almost as wide as a twin bed. Lay a thin blanket or quilt over the base cushions, and tuck it in all around to bridge the gaps and smooth out lumps. Now make this “bed” with twin sheets and a blanket, smoothing and tucking the fitted sheet tightly around the cushions so that it doesn’t bunch up. Add a pillow and you’re all set. Let small children sleep on the discarded back cushions, and you’ve doubled your available beds.
A Chair Needs Repair
You’re setting up the table, the guests will be arriving in a few hours, and you just now notice that one of your dining chairs is dangerously wobbly. Quick—get out the wood glue. If you have it, a fast-drying, yellow wood polyvinyl acetate glue is your best bet. But in a pinch, a white craft glue, like Elmer’s Glue-All, will do. (Just save that chair for, how should we say it, a more svelte guest). Apply glue until it starts to seep out when you secure the joints and wipe away excess right away. Set the leg or loose stretcher in place, and clamp the piece together. If you don’t have a band clamp, use rope or a large belt. To be safe, let the piece dry overnight, or at least an hour or more. For more on fixing wobbly chairs, see Tighten Loose Chair Legs and Using a Tourniquet Clamp.
Last-minute shopping item: Polyvinyl acetate glue (yellow wood glue)
The Heat Goes Out
There may be heated discussions around the dinner table this year, but it won’t be enough to keep your company warm if the furnace or boiler suddenly goes kaput.
Before you panic, try these three things: (1) Check to see if the switch that controls the electricity to your system was mistakenly turned off. This switch usually has a bright red plate and may be located at the top of the basement steps or in a hallway, where a guest may have hit it looking for the lights. (2) Check to see if the pilot light on your system has gone out and make sure there’s no smell of gas. (3) Check the fuel level. If the pilot light is out or you need fuel, contact your supplier; many keep operators on call 24/7 for just such an emergency, though getting someone to make a service call could be difficult.
In the meantime, trap the heat that’s left in the main rooms by sealing out drafts. Close all the doors, and hang blankets over the windows and exterior doors. Secure the blankets with thin 2-inch finishing nails hammered into the top of the casing where the holes will be inconspicuous later. Sink the nails only halfway, then bend them into hooks to keep the heads from ripping through the blankets. Don’t nail into the wall or use tape; you risk doing permanent damage. Stuff towels and blankets against thresholds to stop drafts from coming in under doors.
Last-minute shopping item: Finishing nails
Unexpected Guests Don’t Fit at the Table
When Cousin Jimmy brings his new girlfriend and her three kids without telling you, you’re gonna need a bigger table. If you’re handy (and we know you are), that’s an easy problem to solve.
To construct a makeshift, temporary table extension, rip a sheet of ¾-inch plywood to the width of the table. (For extra strength, rip two sheets and double them up.) Cut the plywood to the desired length, and also cut three 2x4s to this same length. Set two sawhorses off the end of the table (parallel to the end), and lay the 2x4s across them. Screw the 2x4s to the sawhorses with 2 ¼-inch deck screws. Lay the plywood over the 2x4s and fasten it down with 1 ½-inch screws. Cover it with a tablecloth, and no one will be the wiser.
Don’t have any plywood? Take a flat-faced closet door off its hinges, remove the knob, and lay it on the sawhorses. Just don’t screw it down.
Last-minute shopping item: Deck screws
Uncle Frank Brings His Hungry Dog
Dogs and turkey are a good match—for the dog, that is. When you’re in full roasting production, a smart pooch will be at your feet, waiting for something to fall his way. As much as you might love him, it’s not safe to share holiday treats with him. Poultry bones and fruit seeds or cores are choking hazards for dogs, and many other common holiday foods, such as grapes, raisins, nutmeg, and chocolate, are toxic. See our guide to How to Make Your Home Pet Friendly for more on doggy dangers.
Your best bet is to keep this friendly guest contained away from the kitchen and eating areas. A dog gate would be great, but you probably don’t have time to build your own. Instead, put together a makeshift barricade using some extra chairs lashed together with rope or bungee cord. Weigh them down with large books to make them harder for the dog to push through.
Aunt Edna Wants to “Help”
Every party has that guest who likes to hover over the host, asking if she can help. Extra hands in the kitchen are always welcome—unless the extra hands come with endless questions about where to find utensils and how you want things done.
Anticipate the helper with a special-projects station. Clear off a remote section of the counter ahead of time, stashing small appliances you aren’t using (toaster, blender, juicer). Set out all the tools needed to do an easy-to-accomplish task, like cutting vegetables, arranging a cheese platter, or washing prep bowls. Stock the station with a cutting board, knives, a towel, an oven mitt—anything needed for the job. When the helper offers her services, say “Great! I could really use a hand over here.” Then give the helper an apron, tell her she has total creative control, and walk away. You’ll be left alone to do your work, and the helper will feel like she’s been able to give you some relief.
If it’s kids who want in on the action, give them a task that will keep them out of the way of the knives and the range. Ask them to fold napkins and set the table. Hook them up with crayons, notecards, and stickers to make place cards and menus for the table. If they insist on cooking, bring them in to stir as you add flavorings. Then give them all the credit the when the guests start oohing and aahing.
Last-minute shopping items: Crayons, cards, and stickers for the little ones
The Stove Catches Fire
First things first: A day ahead of time, check your fire extinguisher’s pressure gauge. If it’s low, contact your local fire department to find out where you can get it refilled and place it prominently in your kitchen. While it may be helpful to have a small extinguisher near the stove while you’re cooking, make sure you’ve also got one by the door; you should not have to risk burns just to reach your extinguisher in the event of a fire.
The other thing you need to keep handy is a large pot lid and a heavy-duty oven mitt. Stash both of these within arm’s reach of the stove in case you face a grease flare-up while you’re cooking. Whatever you do, don’t try to put out a grease fire with water; water will only spread the fire and make it more dangerous. The National Fire Protection Association recommends first turning off the burner to eliminate the heat source. Then throw on the oven mitt, grab the pot lid, and smother the flame. Keep the lid on the pan until it’s completely cool, to keep the fire from restarting. For more ways to be prepared for a cooking fire, see our guide on Stovetop Fire Safety.
The Plumbing Backs Up
More people in your house means more food down the kitchen sink and more flushes in the bathroom. In fact, the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year for plumbers. But you don’t need to pay premium rates for a pro if you bone up on a few skills.
Before the heavy cooking starts, give your kitchen drains a quick, natural cleaning with a cup of baking soda and a cup of vinegar. (It’s a good idea to do this once a week, and it’s much better for your pipes than chemical drain cleaners). But if it’s the bathroom where you expect trouble, find out How to Clear a Clogged Toilet. And just in case the stoppage is elsewhere (shower or sink), read up on How to Clear Any Clogged Drain.
Last-minute shopping item: A 20-foot snake will cost you about $22. You’ll thank us.