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10 Tips for Hosting an Epic Summer Outdoor Dinner Party

Summer. The word alone conjures up afternoons by the lake, goofing off with friends well into the night, and eating your weight in watermelon. Summer is the very embodiment of fun. As kids, we always looked forward to this respite from school inspired by the endless possibilities each sunny day might bring us.

Just because we are grown-ups now, doesn’t mean the magic of summertime isn’t meant for us, too. After a week of 9-5ing, we could use an evening sipping tea on creaky porches or watching kids catch fireflies in mason jars.  Of course, if you are game for something a bit more festive, one of the best ways to celebrate the remaining weeks of the season is to throw a summer dinner party.

It’s a piece of cake, and you will probably love the planning as much as the party! To help you along, we’ve compiled a list of 10 tips to help you throw a casual-yet-classy outdoor dinner party and avoid any pitfalls along the way.

1. Choosing the Perfect Menu

One of the beauties of hosting a summertime dinner party is that the options for the menu are infinite. Remember, we are taking this shin dig up a notch so don’t be thinking weenies on the grill.

Get inspired by the plethora of appetizers, entrees, and side dishes at your fingertips on Pinterest, Epicurious.com or your favorite websites or blogs. Some sites do all the planning for you from soup to, well, dessert.

Here are a few menus that struck our fancy:

Country Living’s “Outdoor Dinner Party with Ted Allen” includes an appetizer of bruschetta with strawberries and tomatoes, a main course of grilled skirt steak with red wine chimichurri, a goat cheese tart, spicy greens and plum salad, and a desert of mixed berry crumble. Yum, right?! 

PopSugar's “A Mediterranean Cookout That Will Make You Want to Cry Happy Food Tears” includes meze platter appetizers, orzo pasta salad, grilled broccolini, lamb kebabs, and a cheese platter for dessert. 

Real Simple’s “The All-American Summer Menu” suggests a coleslaw, fried green tomatoes, grilled salmon, Texas style baby-back ribs, and a blueberry cobbler. 

Williams-Sonoma’s “Summer Picnic” offers up fried chicken sandwiches, creamy potato salad, a green bean salad, homemade pickles, and individual blueberry-lemon cakes.  

Two Peas & Their Pod’s “Summer Outdoor Dinner Party” includes a watermelon, feta and mint salad, Mediterranean couscous salad, Greek grilled chicken skewers and veggies kebabs, and deep dish chocolate mint cookies. 

*TBH&H TIP: Look for menu options that allow you to prepare a day or two in advance. That way, you’re not stuck slaving in the kitchen all day on the day of the party—and you can actually enjoy cocktails and conversation with your guests before the meal is served.

2. Quick and Easy Snacks & Appetizers

Summer Dinner Party Appetizers
[Photos by Thomas J. Story. Courtesy of Sunset Magazine.]

We believe snacks and appetizers should require no fuss, especially when you’re cooking up a storm to prepare the entrees and side dishes.

Here are a few great resources for quick and easy appetizers:

Southern Living: http://www.southernliving.com/food/entertaining/appetizer-recipes
Saveur: http://www.saveur.com/gallery/Party-Perfect-Appetizer-Recipes
Sunset Magazine: http://www.sunset.com/food-wine/entertaining/quick-easy-appetizer-recipes 

3. It’s All About the Drinks

No party is complete without drinks—whether they be a cucumber mojito or a virgin daiquiri.

We’ve combed through the web for some beverages you may not have dreamed up:

Consider offering aguas frescas (a blend of fresh fruit and water) instead of soda or juice. Aguas frescas are a refreshing treat for kiddos and those who don’t imbibe. In addition, they make the perfect mixer for cocktails. Win! Win! Cookie and Kate and Epicurious both offer great recipes.

In addition to the usual suspects of beer and wine, offer your guests summertime inspired cocktails. Blended drinks are a great option to keep your guests cool. Try one of these Pitcher Perfect cocktails from POPSUGAR. Or opt for one of the Punchbowl’s summer recipes.

If you want to try a classic cocktail with a summer twist, make Curious Cuisiniere's Cucumber and Rosemary Gimlet.

Don't forget. Make sure to have plenty of water and cold beverages available for your guests to keep them cool and hydrated. 

4. Paper? Or, Not to Paper? 

DesignLoveFest and Cheeky for Target 

[Photos by Brittany Wood. Courtesy of Designlovefest and Cheeky for Target.]

Who says paper can’t be classy?! Disposable plates and cups have come a long way from Dixie and Solo. Just take a peek at these adorable, party-appropriate plates from Designlovefest and Cheeky for Target. They scream summer dinner soiree! Plus, they’re great for when little ones are on the guest list or you want cleanup to be a breeze.  

If only the finest will do, go ahead and whip out your fine china. Not only will your place settings look incredible, you’ll take outdoor dining to the next level.

*TBH&H TIP: But, no matter what you decide to serve your menu on, paper or china, always provide your guests with cloth napkins. They are far more elegant than paper and won’t disintegrate upon heavy usage. And, no, they don’t have to match. Mix it up and give your table a bohemian flare!

5. Let Them Have Seats

Make sure to have enough seats for all your guests. If you don’t have enough chairs to accommodate everyone, opt for a picnic style party with blankets, pillows, and poufs.

World Market offers a number of poufs and chairs that we think are the bees’ knees for any outdoor dinner party.

Outdoor Seating from World Market

[From left to right: Green Durresi Metal Chair, Aqua Suti Pouf, Santiago Club Chair]   

6. The Playlist’s the Thing!

Creating the right ambiance there are two things you must get right – music and lighting.  To get everyone in the groove, we recommend generating a playlist approximately 4-5 hours long (or nearly the length of your party). You may want to mix it up and use one playlist for the cocktails and mingling to get people in the party mood and another for the dinner when being able to comfortably converse with people calls for something a bit more mellow.

To help get you started on the ultimate playlist we solicited our best in-house discologists, our colleagues at Tim Barber Ltd, Leonardo d’Anconia and Patrick Tennant. Charged with creating an Eclectic Mix and an Old Standards Mix, Leo & Patrick have put together some stellar Spotify playlists.  Feel free to use them for your party:

Eclectic Mix Playlist

Old Standards Playlist Mix

*TBH&H TIP: Try pointing your speakers at an upward angle or towards the side of your home. This will help diffuse the sound and prevent your guests from having to compete with the music to have a conversation.

7. Mood Lighting

Lighting is the other key component to creating ambiance.  The outdoors presents some fantastic opportunities to get creative with lighting – string lights, up lighting, lanterns, candles and more.   We’ve found clever ideas for setting the mood from the following articles:

28 Outdoor Lighting Ideas to Brighten Up Your Summer by BuzzFeed offers a great selection of DIY projects for your outdoor lighting needs

Or take a peek at Martha Stewart’s Outdoor Lighting Ideas for some inspiration.

For additional ways to create the perfect mood at your dinner party, check out these wonderful blog posts:

Get some inspiration for your cozy outdoor fiesta by visiting Oh Happy Day. We adore the simplicity of inexpensive strands of lights, a crisp white tablecloth, and the garden setting.

Or for swoon-worthy ambiance for your larger party, take a peek at “Outdoor entertaining ideas by Eye Swoon” on the 100 Layer Cake blog. Ideas abound for table settings, bouquets, arranging platters and appetizers, and setting the mood for a chic event.

Outdoor Entertaining Ideas by Eye Swoon on 100 Layer Cake
[Images courtesy of 100 Layer Cake. Photos by Winnie Au. Concept, Planning, & Styling by Athena Calderone of Eye Swoon. Menu by Jeff Schwarz. Dinnerware by Canvas Home. Rugs from Athena’s own collection]

*TBH&H TIP: Purchase inexpensive outdoor landscape lighting from Home Depot. Point them up into the trees and bushes in your yard to create diffused ambient light perfect for an outdoor dinner party. 

8. Game On!

Tap into the childhood fun that makes summer, summer. Offer games for your guests regardless of whether kids are present or not. Enjoy a raucous game of oversize Jenga, a tipsy round of Lawn Twister, or go head to head in a battle of Lawn Bowling. 

With the help of Country Living, you can make a number of lawn games for your next party. 

9.  Keep the Bugs in Check

Citronella Candles by Target and One Good Thing by Jillee
[Left: Citronella candle in glass jar available at Target. Right: DIY Citronella Candles. Image courtesy of One Good Thing by Jillee

Don’t let mosquitos ruin your party. Keep them buzzing elsewhere with citronella candles. Citronella oil is made from the leaves and stems of lemongrass. Not only is it proven to repel insects, but it has a nice, refreshing scent.

You can buy Citronella candles from Target or make them yourself. One Good Thing by Jillee has an excellent tutorial for DIY candles. 

If candles aren’t your thing, try making your own bug spray. Wellness Mama offers several recipes that are DEET-free, smell terrific, and are all natural. Place a few spray bottles around the table so guests can spray their clothing when necessary. 

Or create simple herb bouquets for the table with plants that naturally repel mosquitos.  Lemon balm, lavender, mint and sage would not only be a sweet-smelling addition to your table, but will keep the mozzies at bay. For more plant options, read http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/wellbeing/8-plants-repel-mosquitos-naturally

10. Bring Your Own…

Parties are about enjoying your guests’ company including plenty of laughter, great conversations, and those warm feelings of spending time with the people you care about most. So what can you do to encourage your party to be a communal event? Make your outdoor dinner party a potluck—you provide the entrée and ask guests to bring an appetizer or dessert. Make people feel at home by asking your friends to share one of their party-perfect Spotify playlists.  People can also bring drinks or their favorite games for after dinner fun. Or get clever, if you don’t think you’ll have enough seats, make the party a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair).... After all, coming together is the reason for throwing the shin-dig in the first place. 

So tap into your inner child and enjoy summer before it’s too late—send out the invites, plan the meal, and throw an outdoor dinner party that you and your friends will talk about for years to come. Happy hosting!