Entertain Outdoors With Style and Comfort

Here's how to create a sophisticated outdoor space perfect for summer entertaining.

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Buffet Style Party Plans

Summer is the time for outdoor entertaining. It wasn't so long ago that outdoor entertaining meant a picnic in the park with a drink cooler, paper plates and plastic forks. If entertaining at home, it meant throwing hamburgers on the backyard grill.

The secret is to bring your favorite indoor decor items outdoors and to have fun decorating with them. Think about how you want your space to look when planning an outdoor get-together:

Plan ahead, and keep it simple, so you can enjoy your summer gathering as much as your guests will.

Lay Out the Basic Space: Planning the space before the party is key. First, decide if guests will be seated at tables or will be eating while standing or seated in the nearest lawn chair. When I had my family over recently for a Sunday afternoon get-together, I pulled out some of my favorite Oriental rugs in smaller sizes that I had rolled up for the summer and created seating areas under shady trees for relaxed dining. Plan a main buffet table for entrees, salads, side dishes and condiments. Put drinks in ice in waterproof containers ranging from copper tubs and wheelbarrows to terra cotta pots.

Dress the Tables: Use paper for cocktail napkins only; for dining, use cloth napkins. Arrange silverware in inviting "take-one" containers like planters or cachepots. To add color to the table, invest in mix-and-match china pieces in colorful hues. Centerpieces can be as simple as small containers of Gerbera daisies or impatiens, along with greenery, or even bowls of summer fruit or veggies. I like to use a row of glass canning jars to hold cut flowers from my garden.

Choose Suitable Food: Place buffet tables in shady areas because direct sunlight will cause even the freshest salad to wilt and dairy-based dishes to curdle. Foods that contain lots of oil or gelatin also don't do well in direct heat; be sure to cover them with waxed paper or old-fashioned netting baskets. A good choice for buffet fare is dishes that serve well at room temperature, like vinegar-based salads, grilled kebabs, beans and noodle dishes.

Light Up the Night: If your gathering will last into the evening, add a little romance with lighting. Strands of small, clear lights look wonderful woven through trees, shrubs and fences and they are available in lots of different shapes and styles. Candles are my favorite source of party lighting; they can be placed as groupings on tabletops in small jars or holders. Consider the citronella variety if insects are a concern. Hurricane lanterns, another lighting option, will stay lit even if it becomes breezy and they can double as centerpieces. You may also opt for gas- or oil-filled tiki torches in either rattan or metal styles that can be placed in different spots in the outdoor space, creating "rooms" and separate areas or walkways.

Make Children Feel Welcome: If young ones will be a part of the festivities, plan creative ways to keep them entertained. A table just for the kids is a good idea; cover it with white butcher paper and have crayons available so they can draw to their hearts' content.

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