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A few years ago, I threw the hottest dinner party in the neighborhood. Literally. I set dinner on fire. To make matters even worse, I wasn’t even really cooking. I was just reheating some gourmet pizza I had picked up at a restaurant (who knew cardboard pizza boxes were so flammable?). Good thing the party was out on my patio because the inside of my home was filled with noxious smoke. Add that one to the many disasters I’ve had when entertaining.

There was the dinner at the cottage when the evening was so beautiful, we had all the windows open. Without screens. All of a sudden, an animal came flying through the window and skidded across the floor. You have never seen a group of women move so fast. Everyone rocketed out of their chairs and started screaming, sure it was a mountain lion.

It was, of sorts. It was Smoke, one of our cats, who wanted to come in, but was not about to waste his precious time meowing at the door. So he climbed the flower vine to the window and jumped in.

Or the time we got our schedule mixed up, and I found out the group that was to tour my home for Christmas would be there in 30 minutes, not several hours, as I had planned. The Christmas tree was half decorated, with ornaments strewn all over the living room floor. I was not dressed. And the carpet needed to be vacuumed. Somehow, we pulled it off. I was still pulling curlers out of my hair as I rushed down the stairs to greet the guests at the door.

So, I can tell you from experience that things can, and will, go wrong when you invite folks over to your home. Make sure you always have a good sense and a spirit of flexibility on the menu!

I got to practice my adaptability a few weeks ago when I planned an outdoor luncheon for friends at our cottage. To avoid last-minute stress, I had everything ready for the party the day before. The dishes, linens, accents. Check, check, check. What I didn’t check was the forecast. Rain, off and on all day.

In the past, I would have been undeterred by this hitch. I would have set my outdoor table and covered it with plastic, going out periodically to mop things up as I nervously looked up at the clouds. That’s how it went when we held our daughter Kelly’s wedding at our home in Atchison, Kansas, when it rained until 15 minutes before the ceremony and outdoor reception were about to begin.

Not anymore. That rainy morning at the lake? I gave in hours before everyone was due to arrive and set up the table in our informal dining area instead. I’m learning that my parties don’t have to go perfectly according to plan to be a success. In fact, sometimes it’s quite the contrary. The disasters give me, and my guests, great stories to tell!

I’ve also learned that we all have our optimal number of guests. At my cottage, with my smaller table and cozy spaces, six is a great number for a sit-down luncheon or dinner party. After years of having larger gatherings, I’m enjoying these more intimate gatherings. You feel like you really get to spend time with each guest.

Lots of people tell me they would entertain more, but they find it really stressful. I get it. But my advice is do it anyway. The more you entertain, the easier it gets. You get more confidence, figure out your entertaining style and get your preparation down to a science.

Do as much as you can in advance. Select your dishes, figure out your centerpiece, make sure your table linens are clean and pressed. For this luncheon, I pulled out my black and white transferware and mixed it with my majolica leaf plates, one of my favorite looks. For a centerpiece, I marched preserved boxwood topiaries down the center of the table, mixing in a few terra cotta votive candles. What could be easier than that?

When the inevitable bumps and hiccups happen, just laugh. And remember: You are having these people to your home because you care about them, and they are coming for the same reason. The rest? Just details!

This column was adapted from Mary Carol Garrity's blog at nellhills.com.

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