Whether it’s a picnic, a casual dinner on the deck, or a brunch in the garden, sharing food with friends in the open air is irresistible. With a little planning and organization, outdoor entertaining can be even easier than hosting indoors. Read on for ideas and tips to pull off effortless outdoor parties, from made-ahead, portable foods to strategies for lighting and setting the scene.
First, decide where to entertain. If you don’t have space at home, consider a casual picnic or even a more elaborate sit-down meal at a local park or beach. But if you do have a backyard, patio or deck, hosting at home is usually the best option because you can prepare and serve the food from your own kitchen. Even a small terrace in the city will work — the trick is matching the site to the right serving style and menu.
Next, map out the logistics of the setting and choose a serving style that will work best. How many guests will be there? Will there be kids? How casual or formal? You want to make guests feel welcome and comfortable, so let simplicity, ease and fun be your guiding principles.
- Family-style service, with platters and bowls of food passed at the table, works well for big, informal groups, especially if you’re serving on a deck or other small space without a separate buffet table. If your dining table is small, set up a side table, bench or ledge to use as a sideboard for the platters.
- Buffet service is ideal for backyard barbecues and big crowds. Set up one or more buffet stations for food and drinks with easy access on all sides. Arrange small satellite dining tables nearby in comfortable spots around the yard.
- Restaurant-style service, with food plated in the kitchen, is suited to an elegant multicourse meal. It works best when the dining table can be set up close to the kitchen.
- A combination of styles is often your best bet. For example, plate the salad and dessert , then pass around the main course and side dishes family-style.
The Outdoor Menu
Outdoor meals are your chance to serve casual food that makes the most of fresh, seasonal produce. Use our recipes for inspiration and make a trip to your farmers’ market to find ingredients at their peak.
Serve mostly cold or room-temperature foods when entertaining outdoors. Salads, chilled soups and simple antipasto platters are particularly refreshing, and they’re also portable, holding up well on a buffet or table. For cocktail parties, offer cold, self-serve food along with one or two hot passed appetizers.
A single hot item — usually the main course — accompanied by room-temperature dishes is all it takes to make a meal feel substantial and satisfying. An easy solution is to fire up your grill! Plan a menu around a grilled main course, and you can also throw on side dishes like corn or zucchini.
Choose recipes you can largely make ahead of time, adding finishing touches just before the meal. Consider a do-it-yourself course, too, such as a make your own grilled sausage sandwich buffet or an ice cream sundae bar. Desserts can be easy and light; think make-ahead cakes or cookies.
Get creative with your beverages! Sparkling wine, colorful cocktails and refreshing coolers are perfect for an outdoor party. Greet guests with an aperitif, then serve a signature mixed drink. Set out glassware to show it off, and prepare a colorful garnish to complement it, such as a mint sprig or lemon peel. Always offer a nonalcoholic option, too.
For daytime parties, set up a self-serve beverage station in a shady spot. Fill a bucket or tub with ice and pack it with white wine, beer, sodas, juices and bottled water, replenishing as needed. Offer red wine at cool room temperature and set out glassware, ice, cocktail napkins and a bottle opener.
A beautiful outdoor location does most of the work for you when it comes to decor — a few accents are all you need.
If your outdoor table is small, bring out a larger table from indoors (any sturdy table will work well). You can also rent a large folding table or set up a few small ones. Dress it up with place mats, a tablecloth or a runner and a simple, natural centerpiece that ties in with your party theme. Set the table with everyday dishes, glassware and flatware, adding specific elements as desired (think rustic serving dishes or woven linens). Add pillows to outdoor furniture, especially benches or hard wooden chairs, so guests can get comfortable.
Set a mood with lighting. Try lanterns, oil lamps, unscented votives or pillar candles in jars on the table, buffet and bar. Use twine for a decorative touch. Tiki torches and strands of tiny white lights can add sparkle, as will hanging lanterns in trees and bushes. Always be sure pathways and stairs are well lit.
Set up a portable stereo or satellite speakers near your dining area, and choose a selection of songs to fit your theme.