Have you ever gazed at a photo of a gorgeous garden setting at night, lit by twinkling lights and the romantic glow of candles, and wished you could create the same ambiance at home? It’s simpler than you may think – and these tips will show you how.
It’s summer time, and as the days get longer and folks have a little free time, our thoughts turn to entertaining. And why not? It’s simple and fun and not even too expensive to host a dinner right in your own backyard. You can celebrate a holiday, like the 4th of July, or host an engagement party, or simply invite some close friends and family to enjoy the ambiance of a meal served under a star-lit sky!
The biggest “trick” to hosting a successful dinner party lies in the planning – and that doesn’t need to be terribly complicated. Follow along this simple list of considerations, and I promise you’ll be ready to invite guests over in no time.
Setting the Table
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 at one table and still converse with everyone. 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.
Create a Serving Line
The easiest way to serve an outdoor party (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. 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!)
Here are a few other pointers to keep in mind.
Save Forks and Spoons for Last
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.
Make Sure Your Menu Stays Fresh
Serve no more than two hot dishes, along with sides, salads, and breads, to ensure that the food on your buffet line is the ideal temperature and texture. The longer the food stands on the buffet line, the more important it is to choose food that will stay crisp, taste moist, and retain its goodness.
Select Your Serving Dishes With Care
You can add interest to the buffet line by elevating serving dishes, using different sized / shaped bowls, and by setting 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.
Having one or two people to help during your party 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 to enlist help is to find a young sibling, 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 unobtrusively offering refills or removing empty plates from the table, and you will have a ready and able assistant for all of your parties.
No available youth to help? Just ask a close friend (or your spouse or child) to help you watch the food and drink situation, and ask them to pour drinks or 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.
Make Use of the Darkness
One of the most appealing aspects about a garden party held after dusk is the rich ambiance created from the darkness contrasted with pools of light.
From the outset, realize that one bright light source will NOT meet your objective.
Generally speaking, small pools of light make for a more romantic and engaging space than one or two bright overhead lights. The most attractive lighting will come from a combination of path lighting and lighting for conversation areas. Strings of patio lights (or Christmas lights) will create a romantic atmosphere as well.
Light the Path
It particularly important to illuminate turns and steps along your walkway where a guest may stumble over an unseen object. Guests who are not familiar with the landscape will appreciate seeing where they are going.
If you don’t have low voltage lighting already installed, don’t be discouraged. Inexpensive solar lights will illuminate pathways, and a dozen of these lights can match the elegant effect of a professionally installed system.
Your buffet table should be well lit, so that your guests can see what they are serving. Place the table where multiple light sources show it off and be sure that the guests’ shadows won’t hide the food. In contrast, people who are sitting and talking don’t need a bright light to disclose their partners face. What people really prefer is the flicker and glow of candlelight, or the soft glow from landscape lighting. A candle or lantern on a table or low wall, or a spotlight that shows off a garden corner, will create enough ambient lighting to cast those soft shadows that make a candlelight dinner truly romantic.
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 additional touch 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 – is a wonderful addition to the garden setting, and one that will ensure your party is talked about long after the event.
Take a look at these ideas, then walk around your own garden at night 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. Arrange a few chairs and add a lantern on a small table to encourage guests to linger. Remember that lighting should not compete with the view (at night, the moon and stars can be the attraction!) It’s helpful to walk through your venue a few nights before the actual event, to be sure you know what sights, sounds and obstacles will come into play.
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.
A Private Bench
A bench next to a fountain, or fish pond, or garden statue, or any other nook for sitting can be highlighted in the dark with a few simple landscape lights and candles. Add potted flowers or a large fern to make the area feel cozy and exotic.
Your destination point can be partially hidden from view, tempting guests to walk around the corner to explore, or it can be situated across the lawn from the dinner party; as long as it attracts attention and invites a closer look.
Don’t Forget the (Mood) Music
A little background music can enhance the mood as well. 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.
You CAN Host a Fabulous Evening Soiree!
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. It will be so successful, and so enjoyable, that you may find yourself planning another get together in the very near future!