Backyard parties are essential to summer. They’ve got a built-in, laid-back vibe that makes it easy to slow down, fill up your plate with easy summer party food, join in a game and kick back in the sunshine. But there’s still plenty to plan for when it comes to these outdoor soirees. From the setup to the food served and what to do when the sun sets, make sure you’ve got every step covered so you can host the ultimate backyard (or patio, or deck, or porch…) bash that’s the stuff of summer dreams.
1. Plan the menu around your guest list.
Once you’ve made your guest list, send out an invitation (for casual get-togethers, a simple email or private Facebook event is just fine). Make it clear what you plan to serve, make requests for anything specific you’d like guests to bring, and be sure to ask if any guests have dietary restrictions. To make everyone feel happy (and well-fed), make sure you have enough food options for partygoers who want vegetarian, dairy-free or gluten-free fare. Need some ideas? Here are our favorite barbecue dishes, some easygoing vegetarian options, unbelievable dairy-free recipes and gluten-free winners everyone can enjoy.
2. Prep early.
Making food ahead of time can alleviate stress. Here’s one brilliant tip if you’re serving ice cream: scoop it ahead of time, freeze single scoops on a cookie sheet, then set out the scoops just before serving. You’ll save yourself so much time (and stress) when dessert rolls around! (Buying ice cream for the party? Check out our staffers’ favorite chocolate ice cream pick.)
3. Add extra seating.
Plan to have enough seating for everyone—they may not all be sitting down at the same time, but it’s always best to have the option. If you don’t have enough chairs for everyone, bring out stools, benches, blankets or even that old beanbag. Don’t be afraid to mix and match what you have! You can always rent folding chairs, too—they’ll only set you back about $2 per chair for the day.
4. Make “cool” DIY crafts.
Summertime soirees equal fun in the sun, but that means they can also get pretty sweltering. Help guests beat the heat by setting out baskets of homemade hand fans (make your own by accordion-folding scrapbook paper, then cinching and fastening the bottom with colored washi masking tape). Or if things get really steamy, set out small spritz bottles filled with water and a drop or two of peppermint oil for guests to mist themselves as needed.
5. Have a cooler handy.
Cool drinks are a must at any summer shindig. To add a laid-back summer vibe to your party, fill water balloons with water, tie them off and place in the freezer until frozen solid. At party time, add the frozen water balloons to a small kiddie pool, and nestle in your bottled beverages to chill until sipping time. If you do go the conventional cooler route, tie bottle openers to the handles so guests never have to go on a quest to find a way to crack open a cold one.
You can also keep food chilled throughout the party by filling a kiddie pool with ice and placing dishes like potluck salads, crowd-pleasing dips and icebox desserts on top. Just make sure to set it on top of a table so it’s off the ground and easy for people, not critters, to reach.
6. Serve with speed.
When eatin’ time rolls around, speed up the buffet line by leaving enough room on either side so two lines can go through at once. (This means you may want to set out additional serving utensils for each dish, too.) Make it easy to see what’s being served by making little labels you can set beside each dish (bonus points for labeling whether something is gluten- or dairy-free!). And keep a small basket or box filled with bundled silverware and napkins so guests can grab, go and grub in a flash.
If you’ve got a platter of incredible grilled burgers or hot dogs set up, corral toppings and condiments nearby in a standard muffin tin. Each cup can hold the ketchup, mustard, onions, pickles, mayo and more. Serve with small spoons for each.
7. Say “bye-bye” to bugs.
Shoo bugs from the scene by setting a pretty pot of herbs on your table. Plants like lavender, mint, rue and tansy are natural insect repellents. You can also add a bundle of sage to your fire pit to ward away pests.
8. Keep kids entertained.
If you’re expecting young partygoers, keep them from feeling bored (and asking to leave) by ensuring there are lots of fun activities throughout the day. Try this simple trick: Fill a kiddie pool with water and stir in a few cups of gentle dish soap, then let kids take turns dipping in giant bubble wands. Or even better, place a plastic hula hoop in the soapy kiddie pool and let a child stand in the middle. Slowly pull up the hula hoop around the kiddo and they’ll be blissfully surrounded by one humongous bubble! Lawn games like giant Jenga, croquet and cornhole are fun for kids, too.
9. Create a summer soundtrack.
What’s a party without fun tunes to go with it? Make a sunny-day playlist and have it softly playing through speakers as the day goes on. Make sure it’s upbeat and filled with songs all ages can enjoy. Here are a few of our favorites:
- “Summer of ’69,” Bryan Adams
- “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” Jimmy Buffett
- “In the Summertime,” Mungo Jerry
- “California Girls,” The Beach Boys
- “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Sly and the Family Stone
- “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding
- “Summertime Blues,” Eddie Cochran
- “Wipe Out,” The Surfaris
- “Walking on Sunshine,” Katrina and the Waves
- “Sunny Afternoon,” The Kinks
10. Let there be light.
Chances are everyone’s going to be having so much fun the get-together will run into the night. Plan to party past sundown and set up lights to illuminate your backyard-and make things look magical under the stars. Simple string lights hung on a fence, around the deck, or over the yard keep everything in plain sight. Lanterns are also a fun way to add light and ambiance outside. You can hang them from shepherd’s hooks around the yard, or place them in clusters on the ground.
11. Keep guests comfy.
As the party rolls into the night, remember that it may get chilly outside. Keep a basket of blankets or cozy pashminas outside, and let guests know they can snuggle up with one when they start feeling a chill.
But our biggest tip when it comes to planning an outdoor party this summer: have fun! As long as the weather’s in your favor, the drinks are flowing, there’s plenty of food and everyone’s smiling, you’re pretty much guaranteed a great time. So pour yourself a glass of lemonade, put on your shades and have a blast while the sun’s shining bright.