1. Never serve just one dish, especially when it's something exotic - for example, seafood gumbo - without enough other side dishes to cover. Otherwise, if a guest is allergic to or dislikes a key ingredient in your dinner - shellfish - you will have no backup.

2. Whatever the main course, serve lots of different vegetables--three or four varieties. Not only do vegetables add necessary color, but if you get an unexpected extra guest, you can reduce the size of entree and still fill the plate.

3. Many vegetables can be prepped in advance of use. The day you buy cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, green beans and other "hard" vegetables, wash, pare and cut them into bite-sized pieces. Then cover them with a little water in airtight containers, and refrigerate for up to a week. Fresh vegetables will always be available, regardless of how last-minute the meal may be.

4. For impromptu barbecues, chicken thighs and drumsticks can be defrosted very quickly. Also, hamburger meat can be made into patties and frozen. Separate these with wax paper and wrap in freezer paper, not foil--the latter has a tendency to stick when you're in a hurry.

5. A supply of ice cream, topped with frozen berries quickly thawed in the microwave, will always yield an easy, pretty dessert. Also, don't overlook your liquor cabinet. Liqueurs such as Kahlua, Creme de Cassis, Creme de Menthe, Grand Marnier, Amaretto, Frangelica, or any cream liqueur such as Bailey's Irish Cream make elegant toppings for ice cream. Serving ice cream in footed glass bowls or large wine glasses with a single mint sprig adds extra flourish.

6. A dish containing avocados is never a good choice for last-minute entertaining (unless they're in season and you have a tree in your garden!). Avocados are ripe when they're just soft, and for general recipe use should be purchased at least a week in advance.

7. Make and freeze homemade soups, particularly when seasonal vegetables are most abundant. Heated and served with hot rolls or a loaf of fresh bread, it is one of the coziest meals possible on short notice.

8. If you boil a chicken, reduce the liquid and freeze it. Chicken stock is the best base for soups, and homemade is still far superior to canned.

9. Your freezer should always have frozen peas and corn. They are quick to cook and are great for adding color to any dish.

10. Have at least four types of pasta on hand in the pantry. Most cook in less than fifteen minutes. The addition of sauteed fresh vegetables, some cream and Parmesan cheese results in Pasta Primavera, an excellent vegetarian alternative to omelets.

11. Frozen shrimp (30-40 count) and scallops, often available in 1-1/2 pound bags in discount food warehouses, are invaluable. They can be defrosted in minutes and added to pasta, sautéed with garlic, butter and wine and served with rice, or boiled briefly and served on ice with cocktail sauce - a perennially popular hors d'oeuvre.

12. For picture-perfect vegetables, even when the meal is delayed, parboil the vegetables until just tender, then plunge them immediately into ice and cold running water. (This arrests the cooking process and also fixes the color.) After a few minutes in the cold bath, drain the vegetables and set aside. A few minutes prior to serving, finish cooking them by dropping them back into hot water, or by quickly sauteing them in butter for a couple of minutes. (Carrots finished this way are glistening.)

13. Try to prepare as much of a meal as possible in advance. If it is ready to go, you can delay or move a meal up if necessary. Choose recipes that can be made in advance, and simply finished off at the last minute. Pre-prepare salads, pates, soups. Even souffles can be prepared to the stage of needing only the addition of the whipped egg whites.

14. Buy food in season, in good supply. Never buy cheap provisions; quality will always win out. (I made the mistake of buying frozen fruit cocktail in bulk once. It was limp, tasteless, and without color, and no one finished it.)

Information is excerpted from the book: "A Butler's Life" by Christopher Allen and Kimberly Burton Allen. Based on Christopher Allen's experience as a butler in Europe and the United States, A Butler's Life is a contemporary account of this fascinating, yet demanding profession. Part memoir, part how-to, it includes stories and anecdotes about Christopher's duties behind the silver salver that will give you an appreciation for what goes on in the background of the mansions of some of the very wealthy. The International Guild of Professional Butlers is proud to count Christopher Allen amongst its Executive Members.