During warm weather months, few things are more magical than gathering friends in the great outdoors. There’s something about being surrounded by nature, in the sunshine, or near a body of water that creates instant connection, and many of my favorite memories of all time happened when hosting or attending an outdoor party in summers past. Have you ever noticed that even the simplest food tastes better al fresco? I still remember when, growing up, my mom would pack a cooler of chicken salad sandwiches, classic potato chips, and sliced watermelon, and after a day spent playing at the park, these humble ingredients tasted like heaven.
However, anyone who’s hosted an outdoor party knows that they don’t come without some challenges. Blazing sun, mosquitos, and diligently trying to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold can put a snag in even the best-laid plans. A little advance planning goes a long way, so to kick off outdoor party season, we teamed up with our friends at Haven Well Within to stock your toolbox with everything you need to know to host an outdoor party with ease. Tip number one? Wear one of the brand’s gorgeous and breathable linen pieces so you won’t break a sweat, no matter how hot things get in the kitchen.
My hope is that you’ll get inspired to find the next open evening on your calendar (yep, weeknights work, too!) shoot a few texts to some friends, and grab the groceries for this menu that you can actually whip up after work (especially if one of your friends wants to jump in and help). Scroll on for everything you need to host your most fun outdoor party yet—as demo’d by the Spanish-inspired backyard dinner I hosted for friends last month.
(Casually) Set Expectations
Keep the vibe chill. An invitation sets the tone, so for a simple outdoor party, don’t overthink it. In my opinion, a group text or email is the way to go. And I’ve found that when I make things really easy on myself, I’m naturally inclined to invite friends over more frequently.
Include the details. In addition to arrival time, I like to let people know the approximate time we’ll be eating so we’re not firing up the grill multiple times over the course of an evening (i.e., “come at 4 to swim, burgers at 6!”)
Provide a loose dress code. Swimsuits? Shorts? Summer dresses? Since summer parties can have drastically different dress expectations, everyone will appreciate a few clues as to what they should wear.
Tips for Cooking Al Fresco
Make it no-cook. Summer is the perfect time to curate a delicious spread of store-bought staples with a few artisanal treats. Assemble a snacking board full of delicious cheeses, olives, crudités, dips, dried fruit, nuts—really your options are endless. Green goddess dressing is downright addictive, and the perfect accompaniment for any type of seasonal veggies.
This citrus salad is as simple (and beautiful) as it gets—the ultimate example of assembling a few ingredients with wow factor! Just peel and slice a variety of oranges and grapefruits, arrange in overlapping circles on a platter, then douse with olive oil, big pinches of salt, thinly sliced onion, and whatever fresh herbs you have on hand.
Serve it room temp. One thing I learned in my catering days is that way more dishes can be served at room temperature than you might think! Grilled meats, roasted vegetables, dips and spreads are all dishes that can be prepped when everyone shows up, and hang out for an hour or two on the counter before meal time. Remember that anything with dairy or mayonnaise-based dressings should be chilled until it’s time to eat. Removing the pressure to keep everything super hot (or cold) will allow you to be a way more chill host.
Take some shortcuts. The goal is to be able to relax and hang out with your guests, so no matter how experienced a party-thrower you are, it’s great to have a few hacks up your sleeve. To save tons of time, try a “semi-homemade” approach. Buy the main course from a fave spot (like a roast chicken from the deli, or bagels from your favorite bakery) and fill in with homemade sides and salads that can be made in advance and will make it feel like you cooked it all.
Advance prep is key. Speaking of which, you don’t want anything on your menu that will have you cranking out food like a short-order cook when guests are there. When planning the menu, choose items that can be cooked almost entirely in advance—or, if you’re grilling, have items already marinating or seasoned before guests show up so that all that’s left to do is throw them on the grill.
Keep dessert easy. A bowl of yummy candy, some berries and whipped cream, cookies from the local bakery—just a little something sweet will ensure your guests leave happy.
Outdoor Party Set-Up Tips
Decide on your food format. Since I started my career in catering, naturally my first step to planning any party is thinking about how I want to serve the food. Is it buffet-style, seated and served, family-style, straight off the grill? There are so many options that create a different feel and flow, and for this laid-back gathering, I placed a few family-style platters on the table so that everyone could help themselves and linger for hours.
Create space for lounging. Sometimes it’s nice to forego a traditional dining table and chairs in favor of a comfy spot where everyone can settle in for good conversation. It makes people feel at ease, and any time I can kick off my shoes and curl my feet up on a sofa for a good chat with a glass of wine, I’m in my happy place. That said, if you don’t have an outdoor living room, you can still achieve comfy vibes on the fly. Pull out a couple chairs from inside the house, throw a few pillows on a deck or outdoor rug and create a makeshift lounge space for the evening.
Outdoor party seating. Embrace a mismatch when setting up your dining area—few of us have loads of outdoor dining chairs, so use what you’ve got! I have a couple of 6′ folding tables that I keep on hand in the garage, and when I’m seating a group of eight or more, I pop them up in the backyard and top with linen tablecloths.
What To Drink at an Outdoor Party
Calculate your quantities. For any party drink, plan on 1 1/2 drinks per person per hour. If you’re batching cocktails, use 8 ounces (1 cup) as a standard drink size for your calculations.
Pitcher drinks are your friend. Sangria, margaritas, punch—take a batched approach and let guests help themselves. Less time spent bartending means more time sipping cocktails yourself. A few favorite pitcher drinks? My Classic Margarita and this Strawberry Rosé Sangria are about as perfect as they come.
Choose one cocktail and stick to it. No need for a myriad of options—choose a signature drink and make your life easier. Aperol Spritz is a summer cocktail beloved by all, perfect for an Italian menu. Or, try a Blood Orange Margarita for a delicious twist on a classic.
Ask guests to bring a bottle. Wine is the perfect thing for guests to contribute. If they ask, share what you’re serving so they can consider a solid pairing (though when it’s really hot outside, you can never go wrong with a chilled rosé or dry sauvignon blanc).
Fill up a huge carafe of water. Staying hydrated is a must for an outdoor party, and a host’s responsibility is to make sure there’s water within easy reach. I like to fill up a large carafe or beverage dispenser with water, ice, and fruit or herbs to make it festive.
Have a fun non-alcoholic option. There are all kinds of reasons why someone may not be drinking alcohol, and one way to create a welcoming vibe for everyone is to provide at least one festive non-alcoholic option. Sparkling lemonade, minty iced tea, fizzy water with fruity garnishes—a little thoughtfulness goes a long way. These hibiscus spritzers are just as good if you swap the Prosecco for sparkling water.
Outdoor Party Essential Supplies
Bug Spray. Bugs are an annoyance in some parts of the country more than others, but here in Austin, I’m always wary of mosquitoes crashing an outdoor party. I love this clean bug spray that features an effective strain of Indonesian citronella and a citrusy, vanilla scent.
Citronella Candles. For wide-sweeping, bug-repelling support, nothing beats a citronella candle. I’m fully here for any and all outdoor party essentials that do double duty to perfection.
Cooler. While serving your outdoor party dishes at room temperature keeps things easy-breezy, there’s no getting around it: In the summer heat, drinks have to be served chilled. An easy solution? Durable coolers that are easily portable. This hard-sided cooler comes in a bunch of different sizes, so you can customize yours to get exactly what you need. Or, if you’re looking for something a little lighter, I love this beachy cooler bag.
Sunscreen. No matter the activity, sunscreen is my #1 summer non-negotiable. It’s my best anti-aging, wellness trick in the game, plus no guest wants to wake up the next morning with a sunburn—ouch! But know this: Not all sunscreens are created equal. Browse our favorite clean options for a safe, but effective sunscreen.
What to Wear for an Outdoor Party
A matching set. I love a matching tank and shorts in linen—it looks put together but feels like pajamas.
Breathable materials. Cotton, linen, and silk are summertime classics for a reason. They look beautiful and keep you cool, naturally.
A swimsuit. If you’re partying at a pool, lake, or beach, go with a cute one-piece paired with cutoffs or a maxi skirt for the ultimate effortless vibe (that’ll also allow you to dive in whenever you feel like it!).
Outdoor Party Games and Activities
Yard Games. Games and activities are a great way to encourage guests to get up, chat, and continue the fun. Nothing beats bocce ball, croquet’s a classic for a reason, and things are definitely getting competitive if you break out the cornhole.
Dance Party. PSA: Even if you think you don’t have moves, everyone can dance. Because here’s the truth—dancing’s about letting loose and having a good time. I find that as things get later into the evening and if I switch up the music to something with a little more energy and beat, guests will naturally hop up and start dancing. A little Harry Styles doesn’t hurt, either—trust me, he’s everyone’s jam.
Card Games. The possibilities are endless with a tried-and-true deck of cards. Ask guests to volunteer their favorites and teach the group. Don’t be surprised when the game gets heated.
Conversation Starters. Need to brush up on your conversation skills? I can guarantee you’re not alone. Feeling a little timid about starting up my social life again, I put together a list of 30 conversation starters to inspire thoughtful and engaging chats. Keep a few of these in your back pocket and you’ll step into every interaction with confidence (and curiosity!).
Set up an Outdoor Movie Theater. This is one of my favorite ways to create a casual, but memorable outdoor party experience. Set up a projector and string up a white sheet for the clearest picture. This option is a little pricey, but trust me, setting it up the first time will convince you to host movie nights every week. Add to the mix a few blankets, pillows, and outdoor lanterns to create a cozy oasis where guests will feel comfortable lounging about. And don’t you dare forget the popcorn and candy!
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