Have you ever looked at a photo of an outdoor dinner party, lit by twinkling lights and the romantic glow of candles, and dreamed of hosting an elegant outdoor dining experience of your own?
Fall is the perfect time to get out and enjoy an entertaining evening with friends, and it’s simpler than you may think! Here’s how to get that festive glow.
1. Size Up Your Space
Think about the number of people you want to invite, and how the group could comfortably sit in your outdoor space. Would you use one long dining table, or set up several small tables?
A dinner party of 8 people or less can sit together and easily talk with everyone at the table. Any more than this will probably feel more comfortable sitting in groups of 4, where they can more easily converse with others at their table.
Be sure when you arrange the tables to leave plenty of space between seats. Better to have more tables – or fewer guests – than to have an elbow-jabbing arrangement where people eat quickly just so they can stand up to stretch!
Lawn furniture and folding chairs can make for comfortable seating as long as there is plenty of room for folks to change position, get up to serve themselves another drink, or just wander away from the table to look over the moonlit landscape.
2. Determine Your Serving Line
The easiest way to serve meals for elegant outdoor dining (assuming, of course, you don’t have a wait staff), is to bring all the food out to a serving table, and let guests help themselves.
If you have a large gathering, you might even arrange the serving table so that guests can serve from either side, allowing more people to get their food more quickly.
Placing napkins and flatware at the end (not the beginning) of the serving line will make it easier for your guests to carry them. Even better, go ahead and place them at the table.
As the host, you’ll want to keep a close eye out for any condiments, food or utensils that need replenishing. People do drop things, and occasionally want the unexpected – just pay attention and be close enough to get anything your guests may need!
3. Plan Your Menu
To be sure your hot foods are hot, and cold foods are cold, include a range of dishes. Try to have no more than two hot dishes, and serve sides, salads, and breads that can be served at room temperature. The longer the food stands on the buffet line, the more important it is to be sure temperature won’t affect its taste or texture.
Make your buffet table more interesting by elevating some of the dishes (a bowl turned upside down and covered with a cloth can be used to support another dish). Use different sized / shaped bowls, and set out individual servings of certain foods rather than one large dish.
Salads, especially, are easier to serve already plated, although this will take up a good bit of room on your serving table. (An alternative is to place salads on the table ahead of time – as long as temperature and outdoor considerations (like bugs) don’t post a problem.
Use labels for anything that might be hard to identify in subdued light (salad dressing, for example). Use small serving dishes for the entrees if you can replace them quickly and easily – this will keep your food hot (or cold). Alternately, use deep, narrow dishes rather than long, shallow ones, so that the bowl looks full longer. It’s a small point, but when your guests are in line serving themselves, you won’t want them feeling like they are getting the “last of” a dish.
4. Designate Helpers
If you can enlist the help of just one or two people during your party, it will go a long way toward giving you peace of mind, and helping you feel assured that all of your guests’ needs are met.
A great way resource is a younger sister or brother, or a niece or nephew, who is willing to help you serve your guests in exchange for a small fee (think an amount equivalent to a babysitter’s fee). In no time at all your helper will become adept at offering refills and removing empty plates from the table, and you will have a ready and able assistant for all of your parties.
No handy relatives? Ask a close friend or your hubby to help you watch the food and drink situation and alert you to any needs that arise. Just having an extra set of eyes can make all the difference in staying attuned to all of your guests and making sure that everyone stays happy.
5. Add Twinkling Decor
It’s hard to overstate the romantic ambiance a candle lit dinner creates. Getting the lighting right can transform an average get together into a magical soiree.
The easiest way to do this is to make sure your lighting comes from multiple small sources, rather than from one giant spotlight.
Your buffet table should be well lit, so that your guests can see what they are serving (and how awesome it looks!), and you’ll want to be sure that the guests’ shadows won’t hide the food.
Place candles on the tables to create a romantic glow. Hang patio lights or wrap clear Christmas lights around tree trunks, or cluster landscape lights near your dining venue to provide as much light as needed. Give your yard the once over a few nights before the event, walking through all the places you expect guests to be (and even places you don’t) to be sure there aren’t any areas you overlooked. It’s especially important to ensure your paths and walkways are well lit – you don’t want anyone tripping over a step or object hidden in the dark. You don’t have to go fancy – inexpensive solar lights will do the trick nicely.
6. Create a Destination Point
Your guests have enjoyed a lovely meal by candlelight – they’ve talked, laughed, and complimented the menu. Now what? A really nice optional extra is to create a “destination” area; a place where your guests will naturally drift as they talk together and walk around just to enjoy the ambiance.
Creating a destination point – a place where guests can explore as they chat with their drinks and desserts after dinner – isn’t difficult. You just need to walk around your yard at night and look for inspiration.
The edge of a deck that overlooks a pool, or offers a vista across the pasture into a starry night, can be highlighted with a few solar lights or decorated with string lights to make it festive.
A gazebo or pergola, set across the lawn from your garden party, can be the perfect focal point. Decorate the space with a few potted plants, garden furniture, and some simple lighting to let your guests know they are welcome to visit.
Your destination point can even be a simple seating area next to a fountain, fish pond, garden statue, or any other nook. Place a few simple landscape lights and candles close by, along with a potted flower or a large fern to make the area feel cozy and exotic. It’s the perfect end to an elegant outdoor dining experience.
7. Add a Little Music
Finally, consider adding a little background music to enhance the mood. Keep it relatively quiet – after all, you want conversation and dinner to take center stage. Some subdued jazz or quiet instrumentals will lend an extra level of elegance to your gathering.
Enjoy Your Evening!
Elegant outdoor dining doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep it simple, and invite friends and family that you feel most comfortable around. Relax and enjoy the special ambiance of an evening filled with good food, laughter and a beautiful outdoor setting.
Do you have ideas for making an outdoor get-together special? Share them in the comments below. I can’t wait to hear your take on dining outdoors!