Farm to table eating at home

A successful backyard party requires planning and a little luck from Mother Nature. We just celebrated Memorial Day weekend. That holiday officially launches the summer season in much of the country. Picnics, barbecues, and pool parties begin in earnest, and after the 2-year pandemic, we deserve to let loose.

The steps to planning a successful backyard event are simple. Decide on a theme and plan food, activities, and decor. It is that simple.

Outdoor Party Theme

Don’t overthink the theme! The theme sets up your design and menu, but it doesn’t need to be a big elaborate idea. The party theme gives you direction for planning the party. It shouldn’t confine you or stress you out.

  • The movie Top Gun: Maverick opened this weekend. I loved it! So get out your Pete “Maverick” Mitchell shades and host that 1986 burgers, brews, and karaoke night with a private showing of the original movie in the backyard.
  • Stargazing Night. Mix up Blood Moon Rum Cocktails and plan a stargazing night with friends. Put up a telescope or two. Create celestial desserts like star-shaped cookies and fluffy cloud mousse. Kabobs inserted into Styrofoam balls and cones add a planetary look to any buffet table.
  • National Girlfriend Day is August 1st. That automatically conjures images of pedicures, manicures, margaritas, and chocolate.

The calendar includes hundreds of special days to inspire a party idea for you.

Don’t overlook the apparent holiday themes like July 4th or special birthdays, new homes, movies, ball games, or anniversaries.

The Guest List

Craft your invitation list with personalities and interests in mind. Don’t invite your boss to a primarily family event where they won’t know anyone else. If you are inviting all your neighbors to your home, make sure they understand the neighbors are coming. Keep in mind everyone’s common interests and capitalize on those. A cross-fit or pool party may not appeal to your elderly aunt. Be sure to ask for confirmation of attendance, so you know how many are coming, and alert guests if they should bring anything special like swimsuits. Be clear in the invite whether this party includes children or it is just adults.

Backyard Party Cuisine

Food

Naturally, single-serve foods like hotdogs and hamburgers are always acceptable. The more finger foods you can incorporate into your menu, the better. That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative! If your theme is a Hawaiian night, consider a pineapple aloha burger or a macadamia nut dessert.

Be considerate of vegans, vegetarians, and dieters. Include a creative option that satisfies their needs, too.

Pro Tip #1! Appetizers and finger foods are easily customized for vegan and low-carb guests.

My sit-down al fresco dinners focus on grilled steaks and seafood because you can’t go wrong with steaks and shrimp on the grill. I can always find a friend willing to operate the grill if I need to do last-minute prep on sides and drinks. Occasionally my main course will be a colossal pasta dish, and on those nights, I stick to the classics like Fettuccine Alfredo or vegetable lasagna.

I often commit to meat and three sides, a typical southern meal. Now is not the time to make Aunt Patty’s authentic Hungarian cabbage rolls with 13 steps. Instead, choose easy sides like a hearty salad, herbed potatoes, and steamed broccoli with hollandaise. These sides, for example, can all be partially prepared a day before and finished up before the party.

Drinks

Keep the backyard party drinks organized with Insulated multi-colored cups with lids and straws
Insulated plastic tumblers require handwashing at the end of the party, but these are easy to clean, and the set includes a brush for cleaning the straws and lids.

Solo cups, styrofoam cups, and even Dixie cups with a name tag on the front appeared at my parties over the years. I opt for plastic wine or drink glasses at outdoor events whenever possible. It is just safer.

I bought these multi-colored insulated “skinny” cups last year. They get high marks on Amazon with more than 7,000 5-star reviews. The cups are insulated to keep drinks cold (or warm), and they’re perfect for either soft drinks or cocktails. The slimmer profile is easy for kids or adults to hold. The tops are almost spill-proof, and this set includes 12 unique color lids.

The vinyl name tags and the straws are reusable.

I like to set out soda, beer, and a pitcher of tea in a cooler and then supplement with one cocktail.

Pro Tip: If you don’t have a cooler, a pool float from Amazon or the party store filled with ice will keep bottles cold!

Tables, chairs, and tableware

A backyard party doesn’t require a chair for every guest, but plenty of seating should be available. I can seat 12 in my backyard. I will put out outdoor pillows or a beach blanket if I need additional seating.

There are three types of parties in my backyard these days.

The casual get-together. If you’re inviting more than a dozen people to a party, disposable plates and tableware are the way to go. Today there are Eco-friendly alternatives. I use these compostable palm leaf plates and utensils. The plates, imported from India, are 8-inch square and super sturdy. You could wash them by hand and reuse them, but why would you? You get 50 plates and 50 forks and knives. I do rinse them before tossing them in our compost bin. They decompose entirely in less than 90 days. Perfect for significant events.

An easy organizer clean-up tip is to put out three marked receptacles: one is for garbage and food scraps, one is for recycling (for water and soda bottles), and one is for plates for the compost pile.

The seated al fresco dinner where everyone gets a seat at the table. I don’t invite more people than I can sit at the table. I never use china dinner plates outdoors. But I do recommend Corelle dinnerware. Corelle is perfect for outdoor gatherings because this tableware is chip and break-resistant.

Made in the USA, Corelle is a trademark process of Corningware that laminates thermally-bonded glass layers into super-strong Vitrelle glass dishware. Corning used this on TV screens in the 1940s. The process was modified and introduced to the American market in 1970.

My parents owned Corelle in the Gold Butterfly pattern for their travel motorhome in the 1970s. It’s a proven product. We used it for a decade, and it still looked new when we sold it in a garage sale.

I own two sets, service for 12, in the basic white pattern. Many stores sell Corelle dishes, and you can find complete sets on eBay and at garage sales. These dishes are almost indestructible. They are dishwasher and microwave safe and last for years!

A Backyard Menu

Party menus don’t need to be fancy. A simple menu accommodates the most guests. A dinner party is not the time to show off your Iron Chef routine unless you are a trained culinary genius. People who do a lot of entertaining often only make one or two main dishes, and they buy or assemble the rest.

If you are grilling, maybe focus on burgers and hotdogs. Or maybe build your kabob bar where people can pick from marinated beef, chicken, shrimp, and vegetables. If you’re making pasta, create one dish and then have chicken and shrimp on the side for guests to augment their pasta plates. Be sure to include something on the menu for your vegetarian or gluten-free guests.

Dessert bars are my go-to after dinner. I put out my Keurig™ brewer with a couple of kinds of coffee, whipped cream, appropriate alcohol, and a tray of pastries or pies purchased at an excellent bakery down the street.

I have “to go” boxes for my guests to take home whatever is left over. That eliminates half the clean-up and keeps me from bingeing on leftover pies and cookies for the week.

Keep Pests Off the Guest List

I’m not too fond of bugs at backyard events. Making peace with Mother Nature is a multi-step process, but I have a plan to keep mosquitos and most bugs from invading my space on party day. I call this an MSRR process (map, spray, remove, repel).

  1. Map. Identify those areas where guests will congregate. At my house, this is the patio, pool deck, food table, and porch areas. I thoroughly clean the area of any dust and dirt, and I will wipe down any plants in the room with a wet towel. If any plants show infection of mites or pests, I clean the leaves with hydrogen peroxide and treat them with a pesticide.
  2. Spray. A day before my party, I spray a natural pest repellent around the same party area perimeter. I check my DynaTrap® insect trap and empty its bug bin.
  3. Remove. Now is the time to remove garbage cans, watering cans, and bird baths away from the party area. I will cluster my garbage and recycling cans at the base of the patio steps. Watering cans and any items I use to maintain my house plants get put away in the garage. I drop pest inhibitors in a clean bird bath and the patio fountain.
  4. Repel. Good old-fashioned citronella or lemon balm scented candles keep pests away from an area. Insects avoid powerful scents and will avoid being near them in the short term.

I always provide guests with my Natural Essential Oil Mosquito Spray even when I take all the above precautions for controlling pests in the backyard.

Always have a backup plan.

A backup plan will save your event in case of rain. Watch that weather forecast and plan for potential disruptions. Obviously, cancel your event if a hurricane or tropical storm is headed your way. My patio and porch are covered in the event of a small shower. A patio umbrella with lights is an excellent temporary shelter.

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