Picture this. The hostess hands you a plate that is overloaded with unboned duck and a flopping green salad. She then graciously places a wine glass in your left hand with a fork and knife wrapped in a napkin. Providing no clues, she leaves you alone to solve the puzzle: How to balance the plate on your knees, sip wine and cut and eat the duck without a mess of wine and food landing smack on her new carpet -- or on your lap.

Lap food has always had an awkward reputation. Julia Child, nibbling tiny shish kebab at Shezan Restaurant recently, mouthed her opinion of lap food: "I put it in the same category as eating with plastic glasses, forks and paper plates. The only [lap] foods worth serving are tea sandwiches or little tidbits. Nothing else will do."

But given most cities' small spaces and crowded gatherings, lap food is hard to avoid. Local caterers have become adept at planning around knee-balanced plates.

"One of my first questions to a client is whether the dinner will be lap food," says Chanterelle Catering's Carol Mason, who has been cooking for local parties for 14 years. "Lap food limits the possibilities. No knives. Everything has to be bite-size stews or braises. Even pasta in noodle form -- like fettuccine alfredo -- has to be negotiated, with the knife as a manipulator."

Unboned chicken and red wines are also taboo. Mason suggests a galantine of chicken, seafood paella, boeuf bourguignon or a good fillet, sliced thin and fork tender. A cold poached salmon or paella can be seryed, but, ordinarily, fish is out. "Filleted fish is difficult to serve buffet style because of the heating problem," says Mason. "It is so delicate that it is hard to have a perfect heat."

Mason never serves lettuce -- only colorful marinated vegetables, blanched if necessary so that they can be more easily speared with a fork.

She serves one sauced dish, and no more than three dishes total. "Otherwise, sauces merge and you don't have a real taste of good food."

Beryl Chase of Sutton Place limits dishes to for and suggests hot fish stew and newburgs, which he fee work well in a chafing dish a steaming oven. Chase insist on rolls -- never bread.

To Chase the size of the party-givers' plates is important. He recommends 10-inch plates for luncheons and 12-inch for dinner. "Coordinating with the hosts is essential," he insists. "More and more people are preparing half the meal, with the caterer preparing the other half. The danger is too much food spilling over plates, with everyone wanting to taste a little bit of everything."

Jerry Croce of Lansdowne Catering has shrewd advice in lap food is to be served. "We make sure our waiters come around to serve wine. It's difficult to get up when you're on your knees." Croce comes prepared with club soda and salt to soak up spilled sauces and red wine. "We advise against red wine and bloody marys -- period. Tomato juice and red wine stain."

Croce is adamant about using only forks. "It is impossible to use a knife if you are not seated at a table."

Lettuce works for Croce. "All one has to do is roll a leaf around one's fork or spear a small piece."

But even if all this seasoned advice makes lap food manageable, Ann Holoka of American Amber Grain Fruited Plain and Shining Sea Company has related worries about the aftermath of lap food: sticky fingers. "We learned the hard way," she says. "Be prepared with steamed towels."

Now: how to handle that hot towel...