‘Tis the season when I try to eat as many meals as possible outside; there are few feelings I love more in life than sunshine on my face (with SPF) as I enjoy something delicious in the presence of friends. That said, there is an art to creating a menu that’s perfect for outdoor dining, especially when you’re entertaining a crowd. Many of y’all know that I started my career in catering, and planning menus for big groups in the sweltering mid-summer Austin heat taught me a thing or two about planning for the elements. I’ve carried those lessons with me, and now when I host outdoor gatherings at home, I stick to a few main principles when it comes to planning my menu.

Food served outdoors needs to be simple to eat, served family-style, and taste just as good at room temperature.

Since Memorial Day weekend is around the corner (insert major party emojis here), thought it would be the perfect time to roundup my favorite appetizers, mains, sides, and desserts that always get me through the summer entertaining season without breaking a sweat. Scroll on for your al fresco essentials…

image by Claire Huntsberger

Appetizers

The key to kicking off a summertime party right? Set out a board of something sturdy that can hang out for awhile without getting gross or turning brown (here’s lookin’ at you, avocado.) Dips, spreads, fresh produce, and grilled breads are a winning combination.

get the recipe: Perfect Hummus, 3 Ways

get the recipe: Burrata, Figs, & Pesto

get the recipe: Mint Tzatziki with Endive & Sugar Snap Peas

get the recipe: Prosciutto & Melon Skewers

Main Courses

When it comes to the centerpiece of an outdoor dinner party, I always opt for something that doesn’t require getting a lot of pots and pans dirty (who wants to be inside cleaning?) and that also doesn’t require me running in and out getting lots of different components from the kitchen.

Usually that looks like a simple protein (steak, chicken, or fish) that I can marinate in advance then throw on the grill or roast in the oven.

Garnish with a shower of fresh summer herbs and you’ve got yourself a perfect summer meal for a crowd.

get the recipe: Grilled New York Strip Steak with Chimichurri

get the recipe: Build-Your-Own Rainbow Grain Bowls

get the recipe: Shawarma-Marinated Chicken Thighs with Herb Salad

get the recipe: Mediterranean Pita & Kebab Board

Sides

My number one rule for outdoor summer sides is that they have to be able to hang out on the table for a little while at room temperature, and taste just as good as when they were hot (or cold.) That eliminates delicate salads that wilt in the heat, or super crispy / fried veggies that need to be served right out of the oven. Simple roasted veggies, anything on the grill, and sturdy chopped salads are low-maintenance standby’s.

get the recipe:Turmeric Tahini Roasted Cauliflower

get the recipe: Grilled Sweet Potato Wedges with Chimichurri

get the recipe: Gluten-Free Cauliflower Tabbouleh

get the recipe: Rainbow Carrots with Yogurt and Pistachios

Desserts

I usually end a dinner party by bringing out a tray of fresh-from-the-oven cookies (I roll out the dough in advance and pop in a preheated oven as I clear dinner dishes.) Everyone dives in and grabs them with their hands, which means that I don’t have to get out additional plates and silverware at the end of the night when my dishwasher is already crying for mercy. But I couldn’t help throwing in a few of my other favorite summertime sweets starring the prettiest produce. And I’ve never met a guest that didn’t love a cobbler, have you?

get the recipe: The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies on the Planet

get the recipe:Blueberry Almond Coffee Cake

get the recipe: Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberries

get the recipe: Berry Almond Cobbler

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