Summer is all about kicking back, relaxing and keeping things casual. This relaxed vibe also tends to inspire us to entertain more. And why not? The warm weather and ease of dining al fresco makes hosting your friends and family a little less daunting than, say, cleaning the entire house and slaving over the stove. However, even if it’s just an impromptu barbecue with the neighbors, when it comes to planning summertime parties, it’s important to give your guests the best experience possible.
“Everyone’s more casual in the summer,” says entertaining expert and author Jeanne Benedict. “We’re dressing down; relaxing on the beach and it’s so easy, maybe too easy, to carry that over when hosting. Creating some sort of structure is key to a successful event.”
If you’re planning an evening affair such as a cocktail or dinner party, Benedict suggests waiting until the weather cools down and starting the party around 6pm or so. That way, you’ll give your guests time to come home and refresh themselves from the day’s activities so they’re ready to focus on enjoying the evening.
“Plus, dining by candlelight after the sun goes down is just the best during the summer,” she says. “Filling your space with candles is such an easy way to make it festive and magical.”
Now that you’ve set the time for your party, think about how you’ll set up the space. Of course a huge plus of hosting outdoors is making use of the yard, but keep in mind that not everyone loves balancing a plate of barbecue on their laps while sitting on a folding chair.
“You want your guests to be as comfortable as possible, so don’t be afraid of bringing the indoors out,” says Benedict. “For smaller events, bring your dining table and chairs outside and set your table as you would if you were eating in.” To protect the legs of your table and chairs, Benedict recommends wrapping them in plastic food wrap.
Also, Benedict suggests turning off your lawn sprinklers the day of the event (no one wants to be socializing on wet grass) and setting the furniture on an outdoor PVC or cotton throw rug—both can provide a cushy barrier between your guests’ open-toed shoes and the grass.
For larger events, try lounge seating. “This is something so many of the pros are doing right now,” she says. “Oversized outdoor pillows, cushioned benches, even a rollaway bed that’s covered in a sheet and bed skirt can work. Just be sure to have ample seating for your guests.”
Decorating your tables and party space can be as simple or as dramatic as you like. In addition to candles, the best way to create the mood you’re hoping to set is to use flowers.
If you’re on a budget or simply don’t have the time to do it yourself, Benedict suggests talking to the pros in your neighborhood. “Make it easy on yourself and take a trip to the florist,” she says. “I love the idea of doing one larger arrangement with your favorite flowers for the main eating area and then using smaller bouquets or single stems all around the party space.”
Also, Benedict recommends going with hardy-stemmed flowers such as orchids or sunflowers, both of which can last a long time without water. For something more intimate, try floating flowers in low, glass bowls filled with water.
Decorating is certainly fun, but to keep things in check, Benedict suggests taking a few photos with your digital camera. “It’s the easiest way to figure out if you’ve over- or under-decorated an area,” she says. “Checking out your handiwork through a camera lens is a very good way to see what your guests will see, it gives an objective view.”
How to serve your food and beverages during an outdoor bash is another challenge. While you don’t necessarily want your guests to fend for themselves, you certainly don’t want to be too busy serving rather than spending quality time with your guests.
“Setting up ‘stations’ is always a good idea,” says Benedict. “The pros use this term, but it doesn’t mean people at home can’t do it and do it easily… If you’re having lots of guests and they’re entering the party from the yard, make sure everything is outside,” she says. “You should have one main area that is set up buffet-style for the food, one for drinks and then other clustered spots for eating.”
When planning what type of food to serve, Benedict suggests keeping it simple. “Well-cooked meat, chicken and shrimp always go over well when grilling,” she says. “Plus, it gives you the opportunity to get creative with your toppings, which can all be prepared ahead of time. Stay away from complicated dishes to avoid the risk of being overwhelmed.” Another smart option? Kabobs. They are a great way to sneak in veggies, cutting down on the need for several side dishes.
Also, be sure to spread out the courses as best you can. If you know your main course, say a steak, will take a certain amount of time, have your appetizers ready-to-go or plan something that can come off the grill quickly (jumbo prawns take seconds to cook). You’ll want to give yourself a breather between courses so you can relax and enjoy yourself.
When it comes time for dessert, keep that grill going. “I’m a big fan of grilled pineapple served over a sponge cake saturated with rum,” says Benedict. “It’s just enough to end the meal.” Or, for a smaller crowd, choose something more interactive such as s’mores.
Another fun surprise for guests is to use a serving cart. “This is my favorite way to entertain,” says Benedict. “Hire a server to push around a cart filled with appetizers or prepped with treats for an ice cream sundae. Your guests will be entertained and you’ll get a well-deserved break.”
This can also work for serving beverages as well. “I love having a signature cocktail at all of my parties and for me, anything made with rum in the summertime is a big hit,” says Benedict. “Serve it up in a martini glass and you can’t go wrong.”
Of course, it’s also a good idea to offer additional beverages, including non-alcoholic options, so be sure to have plenty of water, iced tea, beer and wine on hand.
Finally, don’t forget the little things that can really make all the difference: Paper towels for spills, ample outdoor lighting for safety, plenty of pails for garbage and citronella candles and bug spray to ward off those unwanted guests.