Calling Miss Manners!

Parties are the perfect time to let loose, catch up with friends and just have fun. And in general, party etiquette follows the standard rules of good manners: Bring your cheer, be friendly and always thank the host.

But whether you’re attending a holiday party, wedding, business event or other celebration, you can sometimes find yourself in an awkward situation and wishing Miss Manners were by your side.

“There are a few basic tricks you can learn that will get you through uncomfortable party situations with poise and class,” says Lara Shriftman, co-author of Party Confidential: New Etiquette for Fabulous Entertaining.

Follow Shriftman’s strategies, and you’ll emerge from these common sticky situations as the polite and gracious woman you are -- and with your festive mood intact.

Sticky Situation No. 1: You’re stuck with someone you don’t like.
Smart Solution: Make a graceful exit.

You may be tempted to down your glass of wine so you can escape to the bar, but there’s a more polite -- and less intoxicating -- way out of a dead-end conversation: “Excuse yourself to go to the ladies’ room,” suggests Shriftman. Then actually go, even if to just touch up your makeup. That way, should the guest watch you, she won’t feel abandoned.

If you’d rather avoid a restroom layover, wait for a lull in the conversation, then say, “Excuse me, I just saw my neighbor/friend/co-worker, and I have to say hi.” Said in a warm and apologetic tone, it won’t seem as if you’re desperate to flee.

VIPs, however, are one exception to these escape strategies, says Shriftman. Should your boss’s wife be the one droning on, stick it out as long as you can. Then introduce her to someone who may have more in common with her. Stay and chat for a moment, then excuse yourself, recommends Shriftman. This thoughtful method ensures she’s not left alone.

Sticky Situation No. 2: You see someone you want to meet.
Smart Solution: Introduce yourself in a clever way.

Whether for business or pleasure, parties are a terrific opportunity to network. But a clumsy attempt to meet can backfire, says Shriftman.

If the person is talking with a group, join in the conversation. “Don’t ever interrupt, though,” says Shriftman. It’s common sense but also an often-ignored courtesy. If you’re unsure how to integrate yourself, say something to a guest on the periphery, she says. Eventually the group will break up, which is the right time to introduce yourself.

Too shy to jump in? “Ask someone you know -- a colleague or the host -- to introduce you,” says Shriftman. Having a go-between also elevates you from “stranger” to “friend of a friend,” which can improve your first impression.

Following the name exchange, explain why you wanted to meet the person. Say, “I’m a big fan of your work” or some variation, then follow up with specifics. Knowing you’re familiar with her accomplishments puts her at ease for a conversation beyond “nice to meet you.”

If you have an agenda (e.g., you want to interview at her company), don’t spring it on her at the party. Doing so puts her on the spot, says Shriftman. Instead, tell her that you’d love to continue the discussion and ask if you can email or call her to set up a meeting. Then excuse yourself after about five minutes so as not to monopolize her time.

Sticky Situation No. 3: Your boss is tipsy and making a scene.
Smart Solution: Distance yourself and avoid involvement.

Sometimes, mixing colleagues and cocktails together can make painful moments. Should one of those moments involve the boss, make a beeline for the door. Although you may want to prevent -- or witness -- your higher-up’s unprofessional antics, it’s not your place to play party cop, says Shriftman. Plus, if you didn’t see anything, you can’t be pulled into the watercooler gossip the next day.

To avoid an uncomfortable morning after, stay mum about the encounter. “She probably regrets her behavior, so it’s best to ignore the incident,” says Shriftman. If she does mention it, put her at ease by saying, “Don’t worry about it. Everyone has those nights.” The comment is a nonjudgmental way to close the book.

Sticky Situation No. 4: Someone makes an offensive joke.
Smart Solution: Redirect the focus of the conversation.

Most people loosen up when enjoying a party, especially after a glass of wine -- or three. Lowered inhibitions, however, can lead to uncomfortable or inappropriate discussions.

Should a fellow dinner-party guest say something sexist or racist, your indignation probably says: Confront him now. But that’s a mistake. “Instead, excuse yourself to the ladies’ room if you’re truly uncomfortable; never make a scene,” says Shriftman. “It’s rude to your host and the other guests, since a confrontation is likely to ruin the evening.”

You could also change the subject. Complimenting the food, for example, draws attention away from the uncouth guest and brings praise to your host -- a double bonus!

If you must address the offender’s tactlessness, “say something later, one on one,” says Shriftman. And, take a non-combative approach, like this one: “It upset me when you made that joke, and I just needed to let you know how I feel.”

Above all, don’t let one comment ruin your evening. Take a deep breath and focus on the positive aspects of the night, like the chance to connect with friends.

Sticky Situation No. 5: You arrive and don’t know anyone.
Smart Solution: Use crafty conversation starters.

Standing around awkwardly is no fun, so use your solo status to meet new people. Your first stop: the bar, even if you only drink soda. Usually the guests there are on their own or in pairs. And chances are, they won’t be in the midst of a serious conversation. “The best starter is asking how someone knows the host,” says Shriftman. Starting out with something you both have in common -- your mutual friend -- naturally jump-starts an introduction and chat.

Next, you can mention something about the party and the occasion -- the holidays, a housewarming, a promotion. If you’re still stumped for fodder, rely on a stock of open-ended (not yes-or-no) questions: Where are you traveling for the holidays? What good books have you read recently? I love your outfit, where did you get it? It signals that you’re interested and engaged, and you transfer the responsibility of talking to someone else. Soon enough, you’ll have worked the room and forgotten about your solo status. 

And remember, parties are supposed to be fun. Knowing a few advanced p’s and q’s will help you relax and celebrate without concern.

Gift Giving Is Getting Personal

Finding new and interesting birthday gifts year after year is the ultimate challenge. Walking through stores, you often end up thinking, “Been there, bought that.”

So instead of shopping for the perfect present, why not tap into your own creativity and create a personalized gift that is sure to make your special someone feel extra special? A handmade treasure shows how much you really care -- plus it gives you a chance to express your creative side. 

So, whether you’re a skilled crafter or not, try these clever and easy personalized presents for the VIPs in your life.

For Your Best Friend
Store-bought bath-and-body products are a nice gift and look beautiful in the bathroom, but they’ve become predictable. What hasn’t: Handcrafted bath scrubs in a customized container, says Brooke Palmer, a self-proclaimed crafting addict and co-owner of My Little Pumpkin Kids, a line of hand-embellished and -embroidered children’s clothes.

To start, use decorative paper to line the outside of an antique mason-type jar or a clean jelly or salsa jar (with the label removed). Choose a pattern or color you know your friend will love.

In a mixing bowl, combine the following:

  • 1/2 cup dark honey
  • 1/4 cup white cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup grape seed or extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 20 drops essential oil (a scent you know she likes, like lavender or mint)

Spoon the mixture into the jar, secure the lid and tie on a tag with ribbon that tells her what’s inside (e.g., “Sally’s Lavender-mint Body Scrub”) or what to do with it (e.g., “Pamper, polish and perfume!”). 

For Your Child
This idea works for your own child, or a friend of your child’s who might be having a birthday party or other special event. On this one, you will need to get hands-on help from a company called Me and My Peeps Books (meandmypeepsbooks online). Start by uploading a few snapshots of the child to the Web site, then work with the Me and My Peeps team via email or phone to come up with an idea for a storybook featuring the boy or girl. You pick themes like families, numbers and friends, and the company creates the 5-by-5-inch hardcover book.

“Every kid loves looking at pictures of himself, so he’ll read it again and again,” says co-owner Keri Nathan Stern. “And the small size easily pops into a bag or stroller.” Bonus: At less than $30, this pint-size, personalized present won’t break the bank.

For Your Co-worker
Baked goods are a tasty and comforting gift, but unless the recipient lives with a hungry crew, your tin of two dozen may go stale before she finishes it. Instead, gift her frozen cookie dough balls so she can bake them depending on her own time frame or temptation scale (e.g., two here, 10 there).

Spend one afternoon mixing up a few of your favorite cookie recipes -- peanut butter, chocolate chunk or simple sugar cookies. Use a small ice-cream or melon scooper to make lots of mini-balls, then store them separately in freezer bags, says Jennifer Lewis Benerofe, a personal chef in New York. “Whenever you need a gift, wrap two dozen in parchment and put the package in a takeaway plastic container,” she says. Tie a ribbon around the container and create a personalized label that includes baking instructions.

To give her another surprise sweet treat when the cookies run out, place a few recipe cards for your other favorite desserts on the bottom of the container.

Whether a gift is for your girlfriend, a co-worker or someone else in your social circle, it can be easily customized to make the recipient feel special. And isn’t that what gift giving is all about?

Yummy (and Healthy!) Kids’ Halloween Treats

If you’re planning a Halloween party, but the amount of sugar your kids eat this time of year gives you a fright, then it’s time to make over the menu. With a few simple ideas, Halloween party food for your little ghosts and goblins can be healthy, nutritious and fun!

Start by using October’s abundance of fresh vegetables to your advantage, and then apply just a little creative magic. Presentation goes a long way with kids when it comes to Halloween. “Children gravitate to unique-themed food, so I believe in playing with your food -- especially at this time of year when there is just so much candy and sweets,” says Gina Meyers, author of the new e-book Hands on Halloween: Cookbook for Kids as well as From Muggles to Magic: The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook and Love at First Bite: The Unofficial Twilight Cookbook. Try these spooky-but-good-for-you snacks:

Monster Hands

1.    Popcorn, a kid-pleasing whole grain, doesn’t need to be loaded with butter and salt for this Halloween treat. Pop a couple of batches and set them aside.

2.    Grab a pair of clear disposable gloves that are approved for food handling. Cut a small hole in each fingertip and place a piece of candy corn in the glove and through the hole for each “fingernail.”

3.    Fill each glove with air-popped popcorn and tie a black or orange ribbon on the base. “My 7-year-old loves these monster hands,” says Meyers.

4.    For extra fun, fill a glove with water and a little red or black food coloring, wrap the base tightly with rubber bands and freeze solid. Then peel off the glove and add the frozen hand to your punchbowl!

Spooky Chips

1.    Put your bat- and witch-shaped cookie cutters to new use. Cut shapes out of lightly salted soft tortillas. (Flour, corn or whole wheat will do.)

2.    Place the tortilla shapes on a sprayed baking sheet and bake at 325 F for 3 minutes. Voila! You’ve got custom Halloween chips to serve with a protein-packed black bean dip or fresh tomato salsa.

3.    Bonus: Those cutters are also terrific for adding a new twist to sandwiches. PB&J or hummus on whole-wheat bread is a treat when cut into bite-size ghosts and pumpkins.

Pepper and Orange “Pumpkins”

1.    Think outside the pumpkin when you carve! Try using an orange bell pepper as a serving bowl. With a small knife (or a knife from your pumpkin carving kit), cut a circle around the stem. Then remove the seeds and carve a simple spooky face right through the pepper.

2.    Pour a little low-fat ranch dressing (or another healthy dip) into the pepper and place carrot and celery sticks in the top.

3.    Navel oranges are also easier and cleaner to carve than a pumpkin. Use a small knife to cut eyes, a nose and a mouth -- jack-o’-lantern-style -- just far enough into the rind to reveal the white pith. Kids will love to peel off the face and eat the juicy orange flesh beneath. Spooky!

Creepy Crudites

1.    A plate of nutritious vegetables can be a delight if you let your creativity run free. Use a large tray as your canvas and cut up pieces of crunchy vegetables such as celery, carrots, red pepper strips, snow peas, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower florets.

2.    Assemble the veggies to make a skeleton body or a crunchy cat -- perfect for dipping into that pepper bowl. Your kids will be screaming for more.

Pizza Mummies

1.    Cut a whole-wheat English muffin in half and top with tomato sauce.

2.    Starting a third of the way down, layer strips of low-fat mozzarella string cheese to look like mummy wrappings.

3.    Cut pimento-stuffed green olives into slices and place on the top of the muffin for eyes.

4.    Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes or until cheese melts.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/NNehring

The Friends/Family Balance

The Beatles got it right: You can get by with a little help from your friends. Trouble is it’s tough to get their support if you don’t see them! So what to do when you haven’t had a girls’ night out in ages or your job leaves you feeling like you don’t have energy for your loved ones? Make a plan to get your life in a balance that includes both friends and family.

“Research shows that maintaining friendships increases longevity and boosts the immune system,” says Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing and Keeping up With Your Friends. “But it’s hard for many women to prioritize friendships because they don’t seem as crucial as our families, jobs and responsibilities.” Follow this stress-less plan to strike a better balance and stay connected with all the important people in your life.

1. Don’t settle for Facebook newsfeeds.
“Me” time is vital to self-care -- and self-care is crucial to staying in balance and having the energy you need for your family. “Give yourself permission to talk on the phone with a friend or do something fun together -- even if you have to plan it four weeks in advance,” says Bonior. “You may feel like you keep up with friends over Facebook, but you’re not getting the same emotional connection when you’re clicking and commenting on links. You need more sustained, face-to-face contact or voice contact.”

2. Keep family time separate.
Does your friend always call when you’re getting your preschooler ready for bed? Or when you and your husband are trying to relax after dinner? Solution: Be assertive and set boundaries.

“It’s OK to screen your calls and tell friends that your evenings are family time,” says Joyce Marter, a psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance LLC, a multisite counseling practice in Chicago. Let friends know when you’re free to dish -- perhaps on your lunch hour or before you leave work. That way you won’t miss their latest news or your game of Monopoly with the kids.

3. Set a standing date.
It’s hard to coordinate a meet-up with a friend when your kids’ activities keep you hopping and chores keep you busy on weekends. Choose a day and time that fit your lifestyles and workloads -- perhaps coffee at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, or brunch on the third Sunday of every month. Then stick to it, just as you would stick to a spinning class.

“Standing dates are also a good way to get a group of three or four friends together,” says Bonior. “It gets drilled into your brain that it’s something you want to do and should do.” Plus, by having it on your calendar, you’ll avoid all the back-and-forth “When are you free?” texts.

4. Be flexible.
Not big on breakfast, but 8:00 a.m. is the only time your friend is free? Take one for the team and nibble a bagel anyway. What counts is getting together -- and it’s a guaranteed mood-booster. “When you connect and laugh with a friend, you know you’re not alone in dealing with life’s challenges,” says Marter.

5. Think small.
Back in the day, you lingered together over martinis and escaped to luxury spas. But those gal-pal outings aren’t realistic right now when you’re busy with family matters. So settle for close encounters of the quick kind. It’s better to squeeze in 45-minute lunch dates between client meetings than to have no F2F time at all!

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/webphotographeer

How to (Finally!) Agree About Money

When it comes to love, opposites attract -- and that goes for your financial styles, too. “It’s extremely common for couples to have different spending and saving habits,” explains Matt Bell, author of Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples.

Are you and your husband always arguing over how much he spends on golf? Or how much of your paychecks to put toward a down payment on your dream house? Don’t despair: You can overcome your mismatched money personalities.

And tackling something tough, like paying off your credit cards, is good for more than just your bank account. “Accomplishing a goal together strengthens your relationship and will make you happier as a couple,” says Bell. Here’s how to get started:

Study Your Money Styles

Does your husband pinch every penny, or do you splurge on unnecessary things? Identify your honey’s money traits, and ask him to do the same for you. Careful, though: Finances are a highly emotional issue, so be careful not to judge. Ask questions and listen so he feels supported, not defensive.

Find a Common Goal
“Money is an unromantic topic, but focusing on an end goal -- like a European vacation or a beautiful home -- makes the conversation interesting or even fun,” says Bell. Talk about where you see yourselves next year, in five years and in 10. Then, post a visual reminder (a postcard of Pisa, maybe?) as inspiration.

Divvy up Tasks
“By working from each person’s strengths, you’ll minimize weaknesses -- without trying to make your loved one into something they’re not,” says Bell. Is your husband detail-oriented? Let him track the budget. If you’re a Google whiz, you can be in charge of researching investments and finding the best deals on big-ticket items. You’ll both feel like you’re contributing to the partnership -- without forcing yourselves into unproductive roles.

Compromise
So you want to save for a home-remodeling, but he wants to pay off his student loans early? You’ll have to find some middle ground.

“Trade-offs are what relationships are about,” says Bell. Talk about the underlying reasons behind your desires -- maybe you want to add a playroom so your kids will have a fun place to hang out with their friends -- to open up communication and make it easier to reach a decision. Consider creating a savings account for each goal and contributing to each one equally every month. Your first priority, though, should always be getting rid of credit card debt. You don’t need those high interest rates or the potential damage to your credit rating.

Take a Time-out
If you can’t agree on a spending decision, drop the subject and revisit it in a month. “Your highest priority is the relationship; you don’t want money to get in the way,” says Bell. You may find that time makes compromise easier. If not, ask for advice from a financial adviser or friends whose money-planning skills you admire.

Check in Periodically
Like your relationship, your finances need constant attention to succeed. Plan a monthly “money date” to reevaluate your budget, incorporate any changes and celebrate successes.

The bottom line: Building your financial future together bolsters trust and respect in your relationship. “Remember,” says Bell, “money is a means to a far greater end: your happiness together.”