09/24/2014 12:00 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2015

How to Make Your Place Guest-Ready In 30 Minutes

When you have five kids and a dog, as I do—not to mention a husband and a demanding career—one of the most frightening sentences in the English language is: “Hey, Erika, we’re coming to visit in half an hour! Surprise!”

It’s not that I don’t love to entertain; I do. But I pride myself on having a clean, well-organized, welcoming home. Keeping it this way can be challenging when you live with a gaggle of people under age 8 who don’t quite understand the concept of “Leave No Trace.”

Luckily, I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve for whipping my place into shape when friends decide to stop by unexpectedly. These are my absolute must-dos to make my home guest-ready in a snap:

Put Your Best Foot Forward…Before Guests Even Step Inside
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it. I like to think of my yard and front stoop as the cover to my house, and I want to make sure they’re nice and neat. Before anyone sets foot in my house, I sweep the stairs outside, dust the front door (including the knob), remove any toys that have found their way outdoors, and so on.

Put Your Best Smell Forward
When people come over, you want the first scent greeting them to be something pleasant. With five kids and a dog, sometimes the scents wafting around are a little less than… ideal. My grandma called it “Houseitosis”; the idea is that after a while, you get used to the way a place smells, so you might not notice any unwanted odors. First thing I do is open the windows. Ventilation helps a ton. Also, take out the trash in every part of the house. The kitchen and bathrooms are often the biggest culprits. Don’t be afraid to toss out leftovers. Pour a cup of white vinegar into the sink and toilet. Let that sit for 5 minutes and swish around.

Clear a Path In Public Areas
Having stuff scattered on the floor—toys, gym shoes, stacks of magazines—is a clear indication that your home is in disarray. Put things away! You want your guests to be able to walk without tripping.

Make Sure You Have Ample Seating
Clearly, it depends how many visitors you have; in some cases, a sofa and a few chairs might suffice. If not, pull out some decorative stools, storage cubes, even beanbags. And don’t forget to fluff pillows and cushions, and smooth blankets.

Replenish And Re-Stock
Chances are, at some point your guests will need to use the bathroom. To thwart potentially embarrassing situations (“Erika, help! I need some toilet paper!”) refill the rolls before their arrival. To that end, make sure the garbage is empty and towels are clean. Or better yet: Have pretty disposable towels on hand. They can toss them out, and it’ll be one less thing for you to wash.

Arrange Snacks
In general, I keep extra crackers, olives, fruit, cured meats, and cheese on hand, exactly for times like this. People love to eat and drink while they’re talking. We also keep bottles of wine around, along with juices and club soda. If your guests don’t drink alcohol, you can serve a mocktail like a juice spritzer with a party straw.

Dust, Mop, Vacuum and Wipe
Dirty surfaces are not acceptable in my house. I use Pledge to wipe down marble, wood, and formica countertops and floors. Pledge Multi-Purpose products are all-in-one cleaners and disinfectants, so you don’t have to run around with a caddy full of cleaners. The squirt-and-mop products work wonders in small spaces. You can be finished in 7 minutes, tops--and they smell pleasant without being overpowering.

As for the upstairs: If you have time to tidy it before your guests show up, go for it (to me, that mostly means making sure everything is picked up off the floor). But you can only accomplish so many things in thirty minutes, and the kitchen, family or living room and entryway are the priorities.

If your company asks to see upstairs and you haven’t had time to clean it, don’t admit that it’s a disaster! Instead, simply say, “Next time we’ll do a whole house tour. That’ll give you another reason to come back!” It makes them think I want them to return, even if I don’t.