One of my all-time favorite hobbies is hosting dinner parties (but my absolute favorite thing is outdoor dining and since I live in Winnipeg this always feels like such a fleeting novelty.) Entertaining friends and family is a huge part of my life and I find myself getting more and more excited about doing it the older I get. Now, let me start by saying that I am by no means a "dinner party expert" but I have hosted quite a few over the past few years so I thought it would be fun to share a few tips with you today on how to throw a successful outdoor dinner party:
(please note: the following photos are from two separate backyard parties that I hosted: some are from emery's birthday last year, and the others from I party I threw for my parents' anniversary last week! happy 30th guys! love you both to bits. )
1. Decide on a theme.
This doesn't necessarily have to be anything very specific but it is good to decide on what direction or feel you want your dinner party to have. An example of a more defined theme would be the tiki party that I threw for my husband, Emery, last summer. He has a big collection of tiki mugs and is totally into the tiki culture so I thought it would be fun to make a bunch of different "authentic tiki drinks" accompanied by some Polynesian inspired appetizers for this birthday. This was a more casual event so we didn't actually sit down at the table and eat at the same time, but instead we had people help themselves to appetizers at their leisure. A few other fun theme ideas would be to create French, Mediterranean or Mexican inspired evening.
If you don't want to limit yourself to such a specific theme, you can should at least decide what type of evening you would like to have: Do you want to have a buffet style dinner or a more formal sit-down one? Do you want to have full place settings or finger-food? Is this a casual, semi-formal or formal event? These are all good questions to ask yourself before you begin planning your menu.
2. Select your menu based on your theme.
This is a very important step because your whole evening is based around the food! This might just be me, but if I am planning an outdoor dinner party I like to try to cook as much food as possible outside on the barbecue, so my menu is definitely effected by whether I can grill it or not. Always make sure that your appetizer, main, side dish, and dessert all compliment one another well. However, this doesn't mean that every dish has to have the same food in common, they just need a complimentary feel.
I always like to try new recipes for my guests so that I'm not always serving them the same thing, however this can be a little risky to do in a dinner party setting. Trying out a new recipe that you have never made before in this type of a setting is way more stressful than going with a recipe that you know you are comfortable with. If I know ahead of time that I want to try something new, often I will try making the recipe earlier in the week so that I know what to expect and so that I can work out any possible kinks. When the day of your dinner party comes you want as little surprises in the kitchen as possible!
3. Create an inviting atmosphere.
I always want to create an enjoyable dining experience for my guests so I always try to pay attention to the little details. It's good to take into consideration everything from dishes to centerpieces to music. For instance, if i'm having a more casual buffet style dinner I will use my bright retro dishes and play some fun music like Band of Horses or The Shins on my iPod dock, but if I want to create a more elegant atmosphere I will go with a simple classic white dish instead and play some Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra records instead. Simple decisions like that can go a long way in setting the mood for your guests. Also, when dining outside I love to pick some fresh flowers and greenery and put them into mason jars to make cute centerpieces. In my opinion, when you're eating outside you pretty much have to have fresh flowers!
4. Get as much prep work done ahead of time as possible.
The more you can prepare ahead of time, the easy your life will be. Cooking for a large group of people is way more time consuming than just cooking for one or two, and if you have never done it before you may underestimate how much time it will take, so it's best to just get as much done as possible before your guests arrive. Make everything that you can ahead of time, however there will always be some things that have to be prepared at the last minute so just try to at least get the prep work out of the way, such as pre-chopping your vegetables, grating your cheese, and putting anything that you can into cute serving trays so that it's ready to go! This may not all seem necessary but once your guests arrive, the less mess and fuss you have to make in the kitchen the better! Also be sure to have your table set or if your dinner is less formal, be sure to set out the dishes, glasses, cutlery, napkins, and serving trays that that you plan on using. (If you're not sure which side the fork or knife goes on, take a peek at our post on how to properly set the table.)
5. Have plenty of drink options and garnishes.
Not everybody likes wine or beer so it is always nice to have a few other hard liquor and mix options as well. Be sure to pick up a few different mix options as well as a good selection of drink garnishes (some basic garnishes to have on hand are lemons, limes, mint leaves, cherries and plenty of ice!) Make sure that you also have a good selection of non-alcoholic beverages as well, such as a fruit punch, pop and of course water! San Pellegrino and Perrier also make great additions to your bar. All of these bottles and garnishes would really clutter up your dinner table so it is nice to have a bar or drink table set up off to the side so your guests can comfortably help themselves to the drink of their choice.
6. Get a few after-dinner activities ready.
This doesn't have to be anything major, but I always find it fun when the host of party has a few things planned, whether it be a board game, yard games, a card game or even roasting s'mores by a bonfire! All of those are very easy and enjoyable outdoor activity options.
7. Have good lighting ready for when the sun sets.
It feels like summer evenings last forever so often we overlook the fact that it will eventually get dark. When that inevitably happens it's best to be prepared with some low wattage dim lights to transition smoothly into the night while maintaining the relaxing ambiance. Strings of clear-bulb Christmas lights or little twinkle lights work great for this or you could also go the old fashioned route and light a bunch of candles and tea lights. Lanterns hanging in trees and solar lights randomly distributed around your lawn give off a very pretty light too! From time to time I even move some of my cute vintage lamps outside for an extra special event (but I am always careful to check the weather forecast first to insure that there is no rain in sight!)
Another thing to keep in mind is that more bugs come out in the evening (or at least they do where we live!) so it might be a good idea to have some citronella candles and mosquito coils on hand so your guests don't get bitten!
8. Sit, eat, and enjoy!
Sometimes this step can be harder than you realize. Once you get into work mode it's easy to get carried away and caught up in cleaning and fussing inside, but as soon as your dinner is served you've gotta get out of the kitchen, or as my mom would lovingly tell me, "you've gotta let it go." I'm the type of person that once I get on a mission I just keep running with it and working until the job is totally done, but it is also important to be able to separate yourself from your work and sit back, relax, and enjoy. Messes can wait til later (or even til tomorrow, believe it or not!)
I hope these tips help you out a bit or maybe even inspire you to plan a little get together!
Happy hosting from our home to yours!