Summer parties are meant to be carefree with loud laughter, cool drinks, and more than likely, a few people with drips of condiments on their shirts.
While throwing one seems less intimidating than say, Thanksgiving for 20 in your dining room, there are a few tips to throwing a summer gathering that keeps the vibe easy going.
The menu for a summer party is all about the grill.
Whether it’s a simple burgers and hot dog fete or the perfect opportunity to pull out your bleu cheese beef tenderloin recipe for a smaller party, your oven deserves a break. Stock your grillmaster’s area up with serving plates, tin foil, drinks to keep him or her hydrated in the heat and separate utensils for raw and cooked meats. There is no need to exhile your cook to a back or side yard. Find a spot where they can still socialize without smoke blowing into people’s eyes and consider putting out two cones or markers in front if kids are around so you can give clear instructions of “don’t go past the cones” rather than “don’t touch the grill.”
If you’d like to try to work ahead of time, there are a few ways to keep food warm. Your cooler doesn’t only keep things cool- it can also keep them hot for a few hours. Start by leaving very hot water in the cooler for half an hour, then discard.
Wrap meat or batches of corn and vegetables tightly in foil, then place inside the cooler with a towel or two at the bottom and the top. You could also cook just ahead of time and keep foods warm in your oven set on the lowest temperature. (You wouldn’t want to do this too long or with meat that easily dries out, such as chicken). Hot dogs and burgers can also do well in a crockpot or warming tray set on low.
The rest of your summer spread can be as simple as you’d like, and of course potlucks are a great way to go as everyone seems to have a favorite recipe to bring. To organize the food, Facebook event pages can be great so all guests can see who is bringing what. If inviting in person or mailed invitation, don’t be shy to ask. Chances are your friend will be more than happy to bring her famous pepperoni pasta salad and be happy she doesn’t have to rack her mind on what to bring, or show up with the same dish as three other people!
If you choose to serve alcohol for a larger scale party, work with a local liquor store that can not only advise you on amounts, but will let you return unopened bottles and may even deliver. Typically, you can expect one drink per person per hour, but that depends highly on your crowd and their preferences.
With beer options aplenty these days, if you have a craft beer crowd, grab a few growlers or crowlers for people to sample in smaller taster size cups and provide a few domestic neutrals like Bud Light and Michelob. For wine, think of the time of day and menu. Lighter Proseccos or Rose, are good chilled during the day where you may want to go for heavier reds later in the day.
Going for a tropical theme? Set out a nice fruit press near a bowl of pretty oranges, grapefruits and other ingredients with a simple recipe card and measurement glasses so your guests can create their own crush. You could also rent an frozen drink maker for margaritas or daiquiris to cool the crowds on a hot day or whip up a large batch of punch or lemonade without alcohol and welcome guests to spike it themselves. (To keep your punch chilled but not diluted, drop in frozen fruits or keep some extra punch frozen in cubes to cool it).
Don’t stress that you aren’t going to be able to provide everyone with their signature drink. Even if your great aunt so-and-so only likes dirty martinis, chances are, she does not expect you to have the ingredients on hand at your get-together, so go for pleasing the masses!
Do label any punches or neutral looking drinks as alcoholic if necessary and be sure to keep non-alcoholic refreshers readily available too.
Coolers should be clearly labeled with signs marking them as water/juice/soda etc as when guests start bringing their own coolers, folks are less likely to want to dig through someone else’s by mistake!
And speaking of coolers, one of the most common things to forget is the ice- remember to grab enough for in drinks and in coolers.
The Elements
While you can’t simply turn down the temperature outside, if you are able to add shade and a slight breeze, do it! Ask around if some of your guests have pop up tent you could use and get it from them before the party so it will be all ready to go and round up a few box fans to keep a slight breeze going.
The fans will help cool guests and also keep bugs away.
As for food, if hosting on a real scorcher over 90 degrees, try to have your serving area indoors when possible and don’t leave food out for more than an hour if serving outside.
If you are having a longer event where guests pop in and out, try portioning food into two containers, so you can keep one in the fridge or cooler to bring out for the second round of guests. A popular method to cool foods is a shallow inflatable pool filled with ice to keep serving bowls in, but of course, remember that even the ice will go pretty quickly in the heat!
When it comes to condiments, many of us stick them in the fridge but know that ketchup can be stored out of the fridge for up to a month whereas yellow mustard has no ingredients that will spoil if left out (however, dijon and horseradish mustards do).
The USDA does say that mayonnaise can be left out for about eight hours over 50 degrees, but after that you’ll want to chuck it. And yep, always follow the saying, “If in doubt, throw it out!”
Having families over but no pool? Never underestimate the party power of a cheap kiddie pool, squirt guns (at your own risk) and bubbles in their own area that’s easy to view from the rest of the party. And of course, give the parents a heads up for back up clothes.
Bugs are another unwelcome guest at a summer party.
Consider serving scoopable foods in canisters and crockery that has a lid to keep the flys out and mesh table tents to keep over food before and after serving times.
For ants, wrap dryer sheets around the legs of food tables to deter their ascent. Especially if your party is heading towards the evening hours, keep bug spray handy.
Things to have on hand
Besides the basics, there are a few things to have available to make your life as hostess a bit easier.
An extension cord and power strip near an outlet in your serving area is great for when the crockpots start rolling in.
You don’t want to choose between hot meatballs or hot buffalo chicken dip! Keep a pile of assorted serving utensils out as well, so people place them near their dishes as they come in. A few cards that say “contains nuts” are helpful as well to place near dishes for folks with allergies.
Permanent markers for guests to write their names on drinks will not only reduce cups used, but half full drinks going to waste too.
Even if it is not a birthday celebration, a lighter can always come in handy whether lighting a citronella candle, sparklers, etc. and scissors are also something that is bound to come up for whatever miscellaneous reason!
If your party area is inside and folks tend to gather around your kitchen island, your hidden trash can inside your cabinets is not ideal as guests may just leave their plates to take over later and then forget them. Keep your party tidy with trash cans handy at each guest area with extra bags draped over the edge. If your household recycles, label cans for what you’d like where. Is it for paper products or for aluminum cans and glass?
Short on trash containers? Pop up laundry baskets with a trash bag clipped on work well too.
Anything that you may run out of, keep handy so guests are able to be self serve: Paper towels where people can see them for quick spills (again, indoor and outdoor for larger party area) and always have extra toilet paper visible in your bathroom.
Serving something messy? A few packs of baby wipes can help corn cob/watermelon/barbecue hands!
For an outdoor crab feast, keep a few five-gallon buckets of water handy with some towels for folks to rinse off their Old Bay and JO seasoned hands.
When the party ends, be sure to have tin foil, cling wrap, and some containers that you won’t be disappointed to not have back to send guests home with.
After a big party, you will likely be too tired to play Jenga in your refrigerator with 12 different serving bowls and casseroles, and organization will make food easier to find and not go to waste!
Besides hot dogs, consider your actual dog. If he or she is one to jump or beg for food, doesn’t like lots of strangers or even if they have impeccable manners, the excitement of a party can be overwhelming. Try to find a quiet spot in your house or at a friend’s where your pup will be set up to enjoy themselves without having to bark at, sniff or tackle every guest.
And speaking of things to have on hand, another set of hands is great! Invite a good friend or two to come over early to help with some of the set up (and settle your nerves if you are the type), and reward them with their favorite cocktail or other treat for their time. Set a few minutes aside at least an hour out to get yourself ready. If early birds decide to come in, you may find yourself still in your pajamas! Early arrivers are also great to put to work or send out to grab the ice so you don’t have to store it too long.
On the same note, while it might seem easier to clean up yourself or if you are slightly neurotic with they way your dishwasher is loaded, don’t be quick to shoo away offers of clean up help. A few folks to bring in empty plates or stack tables and chairs will give you time to relax later, so do give a few specific requests when asked.
Let the good times roll!
If you are already planning next year’s soiree, jot down notes from this year while your thoughts are fresh so you’ll have a better idea on what you’ll need. Did you buy multiple cases of soda, but your guests preferred water? Ended up with way more hot dogs than you needed but ran out of burgers? Even in the world of party planning, practice makes perfect.
With a summer calendar full of cookouts, you can also prep yourself to be a good guest. Stock up on inexpensive serving dishes at discount stores so if you have to leave someone else’s party early, you can leave your dish without having to track it down later. If you do bring your own dish, stick your name on the bottom with some tape to make its return easier.
Frequently have spur of the minute summer time gatherings (or ones your husband forgets to tell you about until the hour of)? If you have a famous recipe that can be made in bulk and frozen, such as chocolate chip cookies, make a huge batch and freeze in party size portions. Always get requests for your pasta salad? Keep the ingredients on hand so you don’t need to run to the store first. And if cooking just isn’t your thing, grab a case or wine or prosecco and you’ll always have a grab and go item to bring!