10 top tips for planning an outdoor dinner party or picnic

This year, many of us will be looking forward to getting our social lives back on track. And often, there’s no better way to spend time catching up with friends and family than with good conversation over some delicious food and drinks.

If you’re planning to host a garden dinner party, or a picnic in the park with friends and family, a bit of planning and preparation can help to make sure everything runs smoothly.

With this in mind, we’ve put together some top tips that’ll hopefully make your outdoor meetup one to remember. From DIY decorations and delicious recipes, through to mobile drinks stations and tips to help you stay out of the kitchen on the night – we hope you find them useful!

1. Get plans in the diary early

Many of us lead busy lives and will be making plans for the year ahead to see loved ones, visit restaurants, and go on staycations or abroad holidays. With people’s diaries getting booked up, it’s worth getting your invites out early to avoid disappointment.

2. Decide on your menu well ahead of time

When catering for people, it can be useful to plan in advance what you’ll serve, and to avoid making it too complex, to minimise stress in the lead up, or on the day. If you’re hosting at home, recipes that are quick and easy but equally tasty, can help take some of the hosting pressure off of you – and if you’re meeting for a picnic in the park, often the most simple picnic foods are the most popular!

If you’re unsure how much of everything you need to buy in order to avoid under or over-catering, this party food calculator from Love to Know has some great advice and general guidelines.

Main meals

If you’re in need of some main meal inspiration for your dinner party, you could try making some melt in the middle fishcakes, a comforting spaghetti recipe, a refreshing salad, or any of these sun-inspired recipes or easy dinner party mains from Delicious Magazine.

If you’re planning a picnic, you could have a go at making your own delicious burritos, wraps, quiches, pies, breadsticks and dip, inspired by these easy picnic food ideas from Olive Magazine. If you’re also wanting to save money while still making some delicious food, then you might be interested in some of these budget recipes by Jamie Oliver, or these cheap picnic recipes from Cheap Recipe Blog.

Opting for recipes that you’re familiar with can also be a good call because you’ll be better able to determine which steps you can (or cannot) complete before the event. Plus, you’ll know what the dish should look like, so you can feel more confident about achieving a successful end result. However, if you’re wanting to use this opportunity to try an exciting new recipe, then by all means go for it. Perhaps just trial it beforehand!

Snacks and sides

When planning your menu, it’s also worth thinking about any snacks and sides that you’ll want to include. For example, if you’re hosting people in your garden, you might like to serve some canapes or simple appetizers like nuts and crisps prior to the main meal, or perhaps some cheese or late night snacks like mini waffles, churros and cookies. And if you’re planning a picnic, don’t forget about the classic snacks that everyone loves like sausage rolls, cocktail sausages, and scotch eggs!

Drinks

When it comes to drinks, it can be helpful to have a mix of different beverages on offer. Alongside any alcohol you might serve, soft drinks like elderflower presse, ginger beer, or pink lemonade are delicious, not too pricey, and add great colour and variety. If you’re wanting to keep the cost down, you could consider asking your guests if they’d be happy to bring a bottle with them or split the cost.

If you fancy adding an extra treat to your gathering, then why not make some delicious summery cocktails and/or mocktails? From minty mojitos and easy sangria, to summery pimm’s and frozen margaritas, you’ll find a whole list of mouth-watering recipes here on BBC Good Food.

It’s also a good idea to make sure you’re well stocked up on ice – there’s nothing worse than sipping on a white wine, champagne, or beer that isn’t chilled enough. To avoid using too much freezer space and keep drinks chilled throughout the day, you might find simple ice buckets or cooler boxes or bags useful. For further tips on how to keep your food and drinks cool, have a look at this article by Picnic Lifestyle.

Dessert

Ending your dinner party or picnic with a delicious dessert can be the perfect finishing touch – and choosing an option that’s simple to make can be a lifesaver after a lot of preparation and hard work. For inspiration and ideas about what you could whip up, have a read of the section below…

3. Choose a fun and simple dessert

After serving the main meal, sometimes the last thing you want to think about is making dessert. If that’s the case, you might want to opt for a simple dessert that’s not too fussy. BBC Good Food has a range of 37 delicious quick and easy desserts that won’t have you slaving away in the kitchen. From 5-minute mocha pots and quick peach crumbles, through to easy tiramisu, trifles, and sticky toffee pudding, there’s something to tickle all appetites.

If on the other hand you’ll be eating in a park or other outside area, it’s usually best to pick a dry dessert option, or something that won’t be affected by temperature, to avoid it losing its desired appearance or texture. Traybakes, cookies, or a fruit salad are usually good options, as are banana bread, carrot cake, or vanilla cupcakes. Or if you’re wanting to keep dessert as healthy as possible, then you could try some of these baking ideas with a healthy twist.

For some further inspiration, check out BBC Good Food’s best baking recipes or picnic dessert recipes.

4. Save time and money by making to-do lists

Once you’ve got your menu in place, it can be helpful to work out exactly what ingredients you need, and to confirm how many guests you’ll be catering for – rather than starting your shopping and simply hoping for the best. It can be tempting to skip out on a shopping lists if you’re short on time, but catering for people can be expensive – so keeping lists can help you avoid buying unnecessary items, and racking up an unpleasant bill. Being as organised a possible can also help you to avoid panicking later if you realise that you don’t have enough food or drink.

While recipes will tell you how much you need of each ingredient to serve a particular number of people, this can be trickier to work out with drinks. However, this helpful guidance from Vintage Roots might help you figure it out. For example, for a regular 125ml serving of wine, you’d get around six servings per standard bottle (750ml); so if you had six guests who all had two glasses of wine, you’d need around two bottles. Though of course this can vary depending on the size of your glasses (and the appetite of your guests!).

To keep track of everything you’ve got going on in the kitchen, it might be worth making a checklist of all the components of your menu and what preparation is required – including any side dishes or appetizers – to make sure nothing slips through the net. It can also help to make lists of all the non-food items you might need, like blankets, decorations and cutlery – as whilst this might seem obvious, it’s easy for small things to slip through the net when tackling several tasks at once.

If you like your to-do lists and want to take your planning to the next level, then you could try using this dinner party planner pad from Amazon, or perhaps this dinner party log book, where you can record your favourite recipes and ingredients.

5. Save time on the day by preparing food and drinks in advance

Preparing food the day before a dinner party or a picnic is a great way to save time and prevent you from having to spend all your time in the kitchen on the day. It also means you can be confident that you haven’t forgotten anything. You might find it useful to make and then freeze some of your food too, and defrost it a few hours before. You can find further advice on how to freeze all types of food here on Taste of Home.

If your chosen recipe doesn’t allow you to prepare the whole meal in advance, you may still be able to get some tasks out of the way; for example chopping up vegetables, or measuring dry ingredients and storing them in individual containers. These things can end up being much more time consuming than we initially imagine, so it’s great to get them ticked off early.

However, while preparing in advance works in a lot of areas, it’s also worth keeping in mind that some foods won’t withstand time quite so well, and might benefit from being made on the day. For example, if you’re packing sandwiches for a picnic, consider only adding in wetter ingredients like fresh tomatoes or sauces at the last moment, to avoid the bread going soggy. Similarly, if you’re serving drinks like cocktails at your gathering, these can be made up in jugs or dispensers not too long beforehand – just make sure not to add any ice until the last moment to avoid watering it down.

To keep track of everything you’ve got going on in the kitchen, it might be worth making a checklist of all the components of your menu and what preparation is required – including any side dishes or appetizers – to make sure nothing slips under the rug. If you like to-do-lists and want to take your planning to the next level, then you could try using this dinner party planner pad from Amazon, or perhaps this dinner party log book, where you can record your favourite recipes and ingredients.

6. Consider creating a ‘help yourself’ drinks and snacks station

Stocking an area with essentials like glasses, ice, plates, a cocktail shaker, and appetizers, can help aid the smooth running of any outdoor gathering. Instead of having to keep an eye on everyone’s glass, or continually pass around the snacks and appetizers, having a help-yourself station means guests can top up as they please, and no one will be left hungry or with a dry glass. It’ll also take some of the hosting pressure off your shoulders, so you’ll be more free to join in the fun too.

A small table, serving trolley, or anything similar with a nice table cloth over the top will work perfectly for this – the required size really depends on how many drinks and snacks you’ll be offering!

If you’re meeting in a park or other outside area, you could always make use of an existing chopping board to serve food on, or invest in some portable serving trays, like these ones from Lakeland, or these from Amazon.

7. Think about adding some decorations

Adding some decoration to your outdoor gathering can work wonders in bringing it to life and adding a great atmosphere. You can keep your decorations as simple or complex as you like.

For quick and easy options, tealight candles and simple flower decorations like this floating floral arrangement are beautiful to look at, make great centrepieces, and take almost no time to prepare at all. All you’ll need to create this floral arrangement is your favourite flowers, a vase, and some bubble wrap. Other great options that can bring any space to life include garden bunting, paper lanterns, and garden fairy lights.

If you fancy pulling out all the stops for your outdoor decorations, then you might like to consider making some DIY decorations that require a bit more time. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out these 15 DIY Summer Table Decor ideas by DIYS.com. From pineapple vases and pom pom twigs, through to sand bottles and paper flowers, these gorgeous decoration ideas add a warm summer touch, and will bring any table to life.

If you’re gathering away from home, perhaps for a picnic in the park,then there’s still plenty of opportunity to add decoration. For example, you could add some character with a coloured picnic blanket, plates, or matching cutlery – these cutlery sets from Amazon are even eco-friendly! If you wanted to, you could even go for a full outdoor basket and cutlery set, like this charming wicker coloured set on Amazon, or perhaps this fairytale themed one if you’ve got children attending your picnic.

8. Take measures to keep bugs at bay

While we might enjoy observing from afar, there’s nothing more annoying than having an insect or wasp buzzing around you whilst you’re trying to eat outdoors. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help you keep any bugs at bay. For example, some herbs like basil, lavender, lemongrass, rosemary, and mint actually repel insects, so you could include some in a centrepiece for your table, and scatter them around the area for good measure.

You’ll also want to keep any food safe and away from bugs, and simple swaps like using drink dispensers rather than jugs, or using bowls with lids, can prove useful for this. You could even put some of your kitchen equipment to use; for example by using a wire-mesh colander to cover your food. If however, you’re worried about ruining the look of your outside set up, you could always invest in some outdoor food covers, or make your own decorative ones.

For picnics, smaller food covers like these on Amazon might be preferable because they’re lightweight and take up less room. If however, these plain covers don’t quite match your theme, you could always opt for a more stylish version, like these patterned reusable food wrap and bowl covers.

9. Prepare for all types of weather

We all know that UK weather can be unpredictable. If you know you’ve got an outdoor event coming up, it’s always best to check the weather forecast in advance. But if you’re hit by unexpected weather on the day, there’s precautions you can take to avoid it ruining your plans.

For warm and sunny weather, it’s a good idea to provide ample shade for your guests and have sunscreen on offer to avoid anyone getting uncomfortably hot or sunburnt. In case it’s chilly, you might like to have some extra layers and blankets at the ready that people can place over their laps. 

Another useful tip is to invest in some table cloth weights to help keep any outdoor tables intact on a windy day. And lastly, it’s best to have some umbrellas at hand – and if possible a larger garden umbrella to gather under if you’re at home – to stay dry through what will hopefully be just a passing shower.

10. Take precautions to allow social distancing and cleanliness

While we can now enjoy meeting up with family and friends, it’s also important to make sure that we continue to take the necessary steps to keep both ourselves and others safe.

Therefore, whether you’re hosting people in your back garden, meeting for a picnic, or have another outdoor event, it’s important to abide by government rules and maintain good hygiene. If you’re not 100% clear on the rules then it’s worth reminding yourself of the current government guidelines before arranging any plans.

Final thoughts…

There’s really never been a better time to gather your loved ones and share great food, delicious drinks, and good times. Whether you come together in your back garden or a local park, anyone can have fun playing host, and planning a great outdoor dining experience.

Have you enjoyed dining outside with friends and family recently? What are your top tips for hosting the perfect dinner party or picnic? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.

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