Entertaining pros share their best ideas for setting the scene, preparing for the elements, and what to serve when dining outdoors.

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It's outdoor dining season, and if you're planning on having guests over, there are some key things to keep in mind to help your gathering run smoothly and ensure everyone has a great time—you, the host, included. Eating outside comes with its quirks and challenges, and you'll want to make sure you're prepared so that you're not running back and forth to your kitchen or getting eaten up by mosquitoes. The tips below, all courtesy of entertaining experts, will help you plan a perfect evening.

wood table patio

Setting the Scene

For Jenni Kayne, lifestyle guru and author of Pacific Natural: Simple Seasonal Entertaining ($45, barnesandnoble.com), a timeless table with plenty of seating is a must when eating outside. "A rustic wood table will work for any occasion, while benches create that perfect laid-back feeling for hosting friends and family," she says. Ferial Sadeghian, co-owner of Cuyama Buckhorn and iDGroup, is partial to a linen tablecloth. "It needs to be ironed, so it's a bit more of a hassle, but a linen tablecloth will elevate the dining experience by adding a simple but statement texture," she says.

When setting an outdoor table, Kayne goes for an understated, yet elevated, look, which she achieves with simple linens and neutral stoneware. And don't feel like you need to buy a new set of plates, glasses, and utensils for use outside. Kayne notes that pieces you use indoors work just as well, so don't be afraid to bring your favorites into the backyard. Sadeghian also recommends incorporating potted herbs, which can be used to decorate your table and serve as a garnish for drinks (or used to muddle in cocktails—mojitos, anyone?) "You can also use a rosemary stem for tying the napkins or leave them on each plate as part of the setting," she says.

When setting the table, YouTube creator Beth Le Manach, known as Entertaining with Beth, leans into her surroundings. "When entertaining outdoors, I like to use pieces that integrate the feeling of nature and the garden, so the table setting and decor doesn't feel out of place," she says. "Some of my go-to favorites are water hyacinth placemats, earthy terra cotta platters for serving, cutlery with wooden handles, recycled drinking glasses, and plates that feel like hand-thrown pottery. These elements add a wonderful earthy vibe to outdoor entertaining."

To light your outdoor dining scene after the sun goes down, string lights (from $8, target.com) can create a nice, soft vibe. Candles also work, however Le Manach prefers lining the table with old-fashioned kerosene lamps ($18.03, walmart.com). "Candles can burn down too fast, especially with the wind," she says. "These lamps cast the most amazing glow and everyone looks great in this light! When they burn down, you just refill them."

Preparing for the Elements

It doesn't get much better than dining outside on a beautiful day, but the weather can be fickle, so it's good to be prepared. "Nothing will distract or ruin an outdoor meal like the pelting sun, bugs, or being cold," Meg Walker, CEO and executive chef of Made by Meg and exclusive operator of La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes Estates, California, says. Protect yourself from the sun with an umbrella or hat and a layer of sunscreen. Have sunscreen on hand for guests, too. Walker recommends burning some citronella candles to keep away pests. If you know your backyard is particularly buggy, you can put a screen around your outdoor dining setup. Food covers are also a good idea for keeping bugs off your food when dining al fresco.

It can get chilly when dining outside at night. To keep guests warm, Le Manach recommends filling a basket with cozy, inexpensive blankets and throws.

Planning the Meal

If you have little ones or peckish guests, ensure that there's at least something to graze on as people arrive and to give yourself some buffer if the main meal is not quite ready. "Every parent knows that kids need to eat the second they sit down," Walker says. "Cut down on fussing with yummy frozen fruit treats. Some of my summertime favorites are frozen grapes and frozen blueberries." A cheese board or charcuterie board prepared ahead of time or some bowls of nuts, chips, and dip give your guests something to snack on while they're sipping cocktails.

Keep drinks cold and concentrated with reusable ice cubes ($2.99, bedbathandbeyond.com). "These are awesome when you want to enjoy a drink without it getting watered down," Walker says. "When it's a hot day, reusable ice cubes keep your drink cold and tasting like you just poured it until the last drop. I personally don't like to rush a beverage." Consider investing in a console or bar cart if you don't have one already. Not only is it the perfect place to set up drinks, Sadeghian points out that it can be used to store extra cutlery and napkins so that you don't need to go back and forth to the kitchen when the need arises, like if someone accidentally drops a fork. "There are beautiful vintage bar carts that can add extra character to your garden dining," she says.

For the actual meal, Walker recommends preparing "no pressure" dishes. "These are the kind of meals that can sit in the sun or out for a few extra minutes while everyone settles into the meal; forgiving dishes that are good hot or room temperature are fantastic," she says. "I love grilled seasonal veggies tossed with rosemary-garlic olive oil, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and topped with burrata cheese." In other words, an outdoor dinner party probably isn't the best time to make anything fussy or time sensitive. Opt for a dessert you can make ahead of time and store in the fridge.

Consider serving the meal family-style for a casual feel and to decrease the amount of dishes you need to bring out when it's time to eat. Kayne recommends having carafes of water throughout the table and a signature cocktail in rattan pitchers so that guests can refill their glasses with ease.

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