outdoor entertaining hacks, tips, and tricks

Summer exerts a pull as compelling as any siren song; the fair weather and the fully blossomed beauty of nature in its prime draws us all outdoors, and dining al fresco is one of the season’s greatest pleasures—at least in theory. It is nice to grill out in your backyard, take a picnic to your nearest park, and drink cocktails on the beach, but all outdoor dining has particular pitfalls too. You’re courting sunburns, battling bugs, dealing with a higher level of mess in general, and probably worrying about food safety issues, but none of those drawbacks need stop you. Check out these handy tips to make outdoor entertaining as pleasant as it can be, for you and for your guests.

Keep perishable food cool with this shower cap hack.

ice filled shower cap hack for keeping food cool at a picnic or cookout

The Krazy Coupon Lady

You can’t have a cookout without potato salad—if you believe that’s true, while you know you could make a mayo-free version, there’s something about the classic creamy concoction (not to mention mayo-based coleslaw and macaroni salad) that just screams summer. Unfortunately, it also screams danger, or so we’ve been told. In actual fact, mayonnaise will almost never make you sick, but it’s still a good idea to keep all perishables chilled while they chill out on a table. One way to do it is to simply nestle the serving bowl or plate in a larger bowl full of ice—only, most of us don’t have a limitless supply of dishes, plus it’s a pain to pack extras if the party is located farther away than your own backyard. Enter: shower caps!  The elastic band holds the makeshift ice pouch securely around your bowl. You can buy a bunch of plain ones for under $7, or pay a bit more for sturdier ones with fun designs, like this polka dotted version. They also work well for covering bowls more securely than plastic wrap, which often fails to cling.

Keep bugs out of your drinks with cupcake liners.

cupcake liner hack to keep bugs out of drinks

Metros Events

A similarly brilliant—and simple—inversion of an inexpensive item keeps pesky gnats, flies, wasps, and other bugs from drowning in your drink (the worst, for the bugs too). Simply flip a paper cupcake liner upside down and cut a small x in the center with a sharp knife, then gently poke a straw through it to make a lid for any cup! (Speaking of straws, please consider ditching environmentally unfriendly plastic; there are lots of great reusable straw options these days.) It still works as a between-sips shield for glasses without straws—maybe not quite as well, but it still beats dead insects floating in your wine—and if you have a wide enough array of colors and designs, they can also serve as drink markers so no one forgets which glass is theirs. Pro tip: go with the foil versions to ensure they’ll fit snugly; you can mold them to your glass more easily than you can the paper versions, and you can still write your name on them if need be.

Make s’mores any time, anywhere.

S’mores are an eternally delightful (and easy) dessert, but if you have a charcoal grill, it’s often died down before you’re ready for sweets. If you have a fire pit, that’s no problem, but if you don’t, just re-purpose a terracotta pot. Grab a glaze-free, clean pot (even a truly miniature one for an individual s’mores maker), line it with heavy-duty aluminum foil, fill it with enough charcoal briquettes to reach the top, and light it, then toast your marshmallows over the open flame. Obviously, you’ll want to closely supervise kids, and set this on a surface away from flammable objects. See how to pull it off here. You can also hack it with a can of Sterno instead of charcoal if you prefer.

Keep food contained.

If you’re packing a picnic, or opting for picnic-style foods that don’t need to be cooked on cue, take inspiration from sub shops and construct hearty sandwiches on sturdy bread—and don’t merely wrap them up in plastic. Secure them snugly in waxed paper, parchment, or butcher paper, and then again in foil if you’re transporting them; this helps protect them from moisture if they’ll be stored in a cooler, and also keeps them from falling apart once you start to eat, since you can fold the wrapping back bit by bit, bite by bite, and then throw it all away with the inevitable drips and drops still safely inside, instead of on your shirt.

Transform your chip bags into bowls.

There’s nothing wrong with setting out store-bought chips at your next shindig, but there is a better way to do it than simply tossing the bags on the tables (or dirtying more bowls, for that matter): just follow these simple folding instructions to craft a neat container that sits upright and keeps arms and sleeves clean to boot.

Compartmentalize your condiments.

This shows up a lot in backyard barbecue tip pieces, and for good reason. Rather than schlepping multiple bottles and jars out to the table where they’ll take up space and get messy and possibly wander off, portion everything out into muffin tins and set them out with knives and spoons as needed. This doesn’t work quite so well for full slices of onion and tomato in large quantities, but everything else fits fine, including crumbled bacon and blue cheese—particularly handy if you want to set up a build-your-own hot dog or hamburger bar.

Spell it all out.

DIY party buffet food labels with cardstock and clothespins

Paperkat Design, via Michelle Lonecke/Pinterest

It may seem like a precious idea and possibly a waste of time, but it’s actually really helpful to create cards for each dish, noting what it is and whether it’s suitable for various diets (vegan, paleo, gluten-free, etc.) It makes it much easier for your guests to navigate the array of offerings, and saves you from having to answer that eternal question—”What’s in this?”—over and over again. You can buy adorable mini chalkboards for the purpose if you want, but simple index cards will suffice; you can glue them to wooden clothespins so they clip onto your bowls and plates and won’t blow away. Alternatively, just roll out butcher paper for a rustic table cover, and write the labels directly on it wherever you’ll position the food. If you have containers for recycling and garbage, label them too, so no one has to second-guess where to put their bottles, cans, or dirty napkins.

Don’t get burned (or bitten).

You can get a nasty sunburn even on cloudy days, and if your party stretches past sundown, mosquitoes are sure to turn up, even though they were definitely not invited. To ensure everyone actually enjoys a prolonged spell in nature, set out sunscreen and bug spray, as well as hand sanitizer and/or wet wipes. Group these all together, preferably in a reasonably attractive bucket, basket, or other container so they stay together and you can keep track of them. Bonus: get a free printable sign here to draw attention to your skin-protection station (and your exceedingly gracious nature as a host).

Assemble a drinks station.

Speaking of stations, if at all possible, set up a dedicated area for grown-up drinks separate from the communal cooler full of soda (and the other cooler full of beer), and clear of the main table too, where people can either mix their own simple cocktails, or pour servings from whatever batched drinks you’ve made (say, sangria). Include plenty of clean glasses, and ideally, a bus tub for collecting empties. This does require more space, but if you’ve got it, use it, and then you’ll have more time to relax and socialize instead of fetching fresh libations every few minutes, or pointing out which cabinet the cups are in. There are countless ways to DIY a drink station, and making one from a stepladder and some boards is actually really easy. That said, setting up a folding card table is just as good as upcycling a vintage dresser or leveraging a ladder you already own.

Pull your weight(s).

tablecloth weights

Lisa Kay Blake (Blickley)/Pinterest

You know the scene: there’s a gentle breeze barely stirring the tree limbs and the grass, so your guard is down, and then a sudden gust sends plates and napkins sailing clear across the yard. You can avoid that and be eco-friendly by using regular, reusable plates, silverware, glasses, etc.—but honestly, that’s not always realistic. So, since the wind will have its way with anything that isn’t weighted down, make sure you secure not only your tablecloth, but your napkins, disposable utensils, cups, and plates (preferably all compostable), and garbage bags as well (if you don’t have an actual garbage can at the ready, just tie the bag to a fence, picnic table, or heavy backpack, because chasing a flying Hefty bag while it spills a trail of litter behind it is only sort of funny for like three seconds).

For lightweight plastic cups, corral them in a large basket. If you’re setting out some of the plastic cups to hold disposable utensils so guests can help themselves (a classic cookout move), anchor them with a layer of pebbles, sand, or even uncooked rice or beans; just pour a few inches’ worth of your chosen material into the cups, then plant the handle ends of the forks, spoons, and knives firmly in place. Even better, group them all in glass mason jars—which you can make into a caddy if you’re crafty. Napkins and plates can be held down with something as simple as a clean rock (bonus points if it’s pretty) or seashell. You could also invest in paper plate holders to give them more individual heft, and tablecloth weights are pretty inexpensive too (but again, you can always make your own).

Get more great outdoor entertaining and grilling tips here. And check out our advice for perfect picnics too.

Header image courtesy of The Krazy Coupon Lady.

Jen is an associate content producer at Chowhound. Raised on scrapple and blue crabs, she hails from Baltimore, Maryland, but has lived in Portland (Oregon) for so long it feels like home. She enjoys the rain, reads, writes, eats, and cooks voraciously, and stops to pet every stray cat she sees. Continually working on building her Gourmet magazine collection, she will never get over its cancellation. Read more of her work.
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