Guest post by Renata Stone
A 10-Step Guide to Planning an Outdoor Dinner Party
We’ve all seen it on Instagram: the perfectly-set table in a beautiful wooded setting that looks like a National Parks poster—complete with handcrafted cocktails and camera-ready food. We all love it, but we all also know that it's not an entirely realistic expectation for our own parties. Those events take months of planning, cost the whole of your kids' college funds, and require a dozen vendors.
But what you may not know is that with a little creativity, resourcefulness, and elbow grease, you can create an equally magical outdoor gathering for the people you love.
My name is Renata Stone. I’ll start off by telling you all the things I’m not: I am not a professional event coordinator. I do not have any background in art or design. And I am not exactly good in the kitchen. All things considered, I probably have no business throwing outdoor gatherings for my friends. But I do. And I’m surprisingly decent at it. What I lack in practical skills, I make up for in passion and creativity.
I love creating beautiful outdoor dinners because it’s a really thoughtful way of sharing quality time with those I love in a way I feel is special and unique. I do it out of love.
Hosting an outdoor dinner party is honestly not as intimidating as it looks. When I’m planning an outdoor dinner, I make sure I limit my guest list. This will be different for everyone, but 20 people is the magical number that makes things manageable for me. Then I break up the planning into tasks: venue, set up, food, and drink. Here's my guide to creating your own backyard dinner party in 10 simple steps.
1. Venue. This is the easiest part: it’s always in a backyard—usually my own. You really don’t need to hike miles into the wilderness to make your dinner feel intimate and magical. It’s all about being in nature. Backyards are full of nature.
2. Dinnerware. I suggest only using real plates—never paper or disposable plates. This one element makes the entire dinner feel so much more elegant than a normal backyard get-together. I love using enamelware for durability, but your plates don’t have to be expensive. It's okay to decide to spend your money where it matters to you and source some items from thrift and other stores.
3. Tables and seating. This the largest logistical hurdle to pass. I have a beautiful set of outdoor tables that were custom built, but there are so many options that are far more low key. One good DIY option for a low table is putting a large piece of wood from a home improvement store on cinder block legs—you can cover up the mechanics with a tablecloth if you want. I generally host my outdoor parties on the ground so I don’t have to buy a ton of chairs. We sit on pillows, cushions blankets, and other textiles I have around the house.
4. Flatware. Borrow from friends! Mismatching flatware can add a layer of texture to the table. Another good option is to look for reusable bamboo flatware online.
5. Lighting. Good lighting makes your outdoor dinner feel cozy and magical. String lights hung back and forth over your table add ambience. If your venue permits, use candles en masse. (A really affordable option is to use plain white prayer candles.)
6. Table linens. Another layer to help bring the inside outdoors. I try to use fabric napkins whenever reasonable—similar to the dinnerware, it really dresses up a table. You can find beautiful and economical cotton buffet napkins in an assortment of colors or you could purchase the white ones and hand dye with natural materials yourself. Or buy a few yards of cotton muslin and rip your own napkin squares.
7. Glassware. Confession: glassware is something I never buy at retail stores; I only go to thrift stores. You can get the most beautiful vintage glasses for under $1 a piece.
8. Floral. Flowers can be as complex or simple as you want. Living in Utah, we have plenty of foraging opportunities, but if you're not near a lot of nature, I’d recommend the farmer's market. If you’re intimated by making a statement arrangement, use a few small shallow bowls with 2” floral pin frogs to arrange some greenery and a couple of blooms and spread them throughout the table.
9. Food. I try to prep and cook before the event so I have less to do the day of. I always do family-style food so I won’t have to worry about plating individual dishes. Precook the sides ahead of time so only thing to cook the day of is the main dish. Some great options for main dishes: pot roast, tri tip, pork belly, vegan loaf, and pollo asada tacos.
10. Drinks. I ask guests to supply beverages (typically a bottle of wine). It’s a great way to involve your guests and cut back on costs for the dinner. A signature batch cocktail is another great option.
I hope these tips will make it a little less intimidating to plan an outdoor dinner party. I truly hope all of you try hosting outdoors soon. It's as fun and amazing as it looks, I promise.