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Tips for Low-Key Entertaining

Summer Deck Gathering

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It’s no secret that I am not exactly Chrissy Teigen in the kitchen (in MANY ways) – and when it comes to cooking for other people during a perfectly good party, I become even less useful. My motto is that I would much rather be a party goer than a party thrower and, yet, I love to have my close friends over and not feeding them seems rude. We just finished our deck and exterior makeover and I’ve been dying to show it off to them (they had been banished due to the obstacle course that was our scaffolding for 3 months). So, with the help of Black Box Wine we threw a get-together on the deck meant to showcase some easy, delicious, and beautiful ideas to entertain your friends – in the most fun and low-key way possible.

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When Black Box Wines approached me about collaborating I said, “Maybe, but first I need to test the product, and please, send a lot.” Before I work with any parter, I always make sure that I, myself, would buy it so I need to sample it, in my stomach. Sometimes I like to sample the product all night long. Sometimes, in order to really make sure that I would buy it, I test out the product all weekend long, and often to finalize my decision I even invite all of my friends over to consume A LOT of the product, too, and give feedback. It’s my integrity and reputation on the line here. So we did just that and then decided to showcase the product in the form of a deck party.

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Let’s chat food and drink first. I’m a big fan of no-cooking, just “making food.” Off the shelf food can be arranged and styled to look like an artisan chef from Brooklyn flew in just for the occasion. We tried to basically just buy, arrange, and style pre-made ingredients on beautiful surfaces and bowls instead of slaving over each dish. For this shoot I hired a food stylist (Caroline) to execute and make sure that everything looked gorgeous for the photos (listen, while I can technically make all of these dishes, and they truly are so easy, I can’t do that and be on camera, art direct the shots, style the shots, drink the wine, etc). I know, entertaining is so easy with a crew of experts, right??

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When it comes to drinks, I love when other people spend hours prepping my muddled beverage, but I prefer ease and a stress-less process for my own parties. That’s where Black Box comes in because it’s really good wine and the large 3L boxes contain the equivalent of FOUR bottles inside and can stay fresh for up to 6 weeks after opening. So if your guests don’t drink all the wine (doubtful!), you can still enjoy it later. The smaller Go Pack boxes each contain 3 glasses of wine and they are the perfect size for picnics, outdoor concerts, or just anywhere you want to publicly drink without slugging from a bottle.

Let’s get into the menu:

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We started with a charcuterie board mostly because nobody in the history of eating has ever disliked cheese, meats, fruits, spreads, and breads/crackers. So we shopped Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and found delicious meats and cheeses ready throw on a board.

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The key to making that board look beautiful is to have a variety of textures, colors, flavors and types of food. Add footed bowls for some height and tiny bowls for composition. We put it on a huge marble slab to keep it looking fresh and modern. We paired this with the Black Box Pinot Noir, which was lovely, light, and delicious.

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We went to the farmers market and bought those carrots and those, uh, circle cucumbers (?). Not sure what they are but they make you look very fancy and well-travelled so always buy them.

Next up? Skewered appetizers.

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You can really skewer anything. We came up with the following:

–  Melon and cucumbers with pink peppercorns topped with micro greens.

 – Grilled halloumi with watermelon and mint dusted with sumac.

I loved both of them, but for those of you looking for an easier version you could easily skewer mozzarella with cherry tomatoes and basil. But they sure did look pretty and taste good.

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We paired these with the Black Box Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – I preferred the Chardonnay in this case because of the fruit. But it was also 97 degrees outside so, you know, white goes down easier.

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We also had these DELICIOUS cherry tomato and basil crostinis. We really tried to do everything without cooking and although you do have to turn on the oven for this one and throw them in to toast, we are going to say that this is a very easy step that shouldn’t “technically” count as cooking. We used store bought bread (OBVIOUSLY), sliced it, drizzled with olive oil, and shoved it in the oven for 15 minutes.

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We wanted to have one dish that was more substantial, with some protein, without having to do a ton of hot kitchen work. I suggested what I eat probably 3 times a week – a summer vegetable salad with store-bought rotisserie chicken.

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We used a few different kinds of lettuces (butter and red leaf) and then shredded chicken, some grilled corn and cherry tomatoes in a dijon vinaigrette.

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I was recently at my friend’s house who made a panzanella salad for us and I was surprised with how easy it was. She toasted chunks of bread (again, just coat with olive oil, salt/pepper and throw in oven for 15 minutes) then mix with any summer veggies you want  – always tomatoes (to add juicy-ness) and we used cucumbers, and basil. Lastly, top it with red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. Clearly there is a bread/tomato/basil theme here :). It was delicious and filling, not to mention crazy photogenic (you must always think about any instagram opportunities when crafting your low-key summer menu, right?).

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We paired it with the Black Box Chardonnay and it was lovely. In case you think that boxed wine will taste cheap and tangy, you are wrong. Half of my friends were already lovers of Black Box, and those that weren’t, were instant fans. More on that later.

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Flatbread. Something that I previously had not made even though I knew that it was supposed to be so easy. We went with the Tandoori bread from Trader Joe’s, which we topped with summer squash, onions, oregano, oil and Manchengo. You will want to roast the squash and onions beforehand by tossing them with olive oil, salt/pepper at 425 for 15-20 minutes (again this falls into the not cooking but toasting category). Then you simply place all the roasted veggies with oil and cheese on the flatbread in oven until cheese is melted, (about 5-8 min). Then finish it off with fresh herbs once out of the oven.

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While I prefer to drink my dessert, I know that one must have a dessert to be considered a lady. I thought about just doing cookies, but thought, wait, I know how to buy ice cream! And even better I can also easily throw some berries on them! I’m a genius.

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For the decor, I went with a really simple modern pieces, styled organically. I made a little prop board to help serve as inspiration:

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We didn’t end up getting everything on that board, but the general vibe is right. Simple can look boring if you don’t have a variety of textures. If you want something clean and fresh go for finished woods, marble (which is abundant these days), porcelain, ceramic and metal. We stayed away from rustic or anything too vintage, and focused on mixing some simpler plates with some standout pieces.

I hadn’t styled an entertaining story in years and trust me when I say it’s so much work. While shopping you have to think about the dishes  – will flatbread look better on wood or white? We can’t have both the panzanella salad and the chicken salad in low white bowls, and even if you mix up the finishes of each dish, you kinda want to make sure that the shapes are all different as well.

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Vary the size, shape, height, and texture (if not color!) of the serving pieces. Pair some larger platters with tiny dipping bowls, add some brass ladles, or some smaller porcelain or wooden spoons. For that “thrown together / we only have beautiful things in our cabinets” look, create a consistent color palette but then vary the textures, shapes and finishes of all the pieces within that palette. Lay out everything so that it has movement and makes sense when it comes to dishing up, without being too buffet-like.

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Granted this is all advice for a magazine (or in this case a blog) shoot, but I figured any pointers on how you get this look could be helpful. I was scrambling to make sure I had enough options for shoot. I called in pieces from Food52 (have you seen their e-commerce site??? such good stuff), ABC Home, and Lost and Found in LA. Then I mixed it all with CB2, Target, West Elm, Crate and Barrel, and some of my vintage pieces. I’m obsessed with that plaid dish up there (although it didn’t make it in the shoot).

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As far as color palette here is my general motto: Use your current color palette as inspiration for a dinner party, then add 30% more color or texture. If you love neutrals, GREAT, then for a party add more glitz or more layers of texture. I like to keep my spaces with a consistent color palette of blues, grays, whites and hints of gold and black. But for a party, I am emotionally compelled to add pink. I can’t not. It adds a bit of crazy on top of cool.

Also a good thing to do is have friends that already know what your color palette is and dress in it even when you don’t ask them to do so. It was both wonderful and HILARIOUS.

FLOWERS. Dear lord I love these flowers.

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Despite these arrangements looking really complicated they are actually super simple, in season, and really the only time of year that you can do this. They are just different varietals of dahlias with a little bit of filler and some blackberry branches (my secret favorite Oregon-inspired addition). I asked the flower market for a huge variety, from dinner plate (the huge ones) to tiny tight dahlias in the following color palette – light pink, dark pink. corals and oranges. I believe I ordered 15 of each color/size (9 total) and it ended up being $280. I absolutely over ordered and we had more arrangements than could make it in shots (all my friends took some home and a few clients got the leftovers the next day). I think we could have done with 50 flowers total ($1.30 – $2 each) for around $70. Lesson learned. The blackberry was super cheap and I think it adds this randomness about it that throws off the formality of the arrangements.

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I secretly have a really emotional relationship with dahlias. My Dad has been growing them every summer since I can remember, first in Coos Bay then Portland. The thing is, they aren’t easy to grow or abundant. It’s a really laborious, precious process full of such love and care in order to get that perfect dinner plate dahlia. It takes months for one bulb to grow into one flower and the water/temperature and moon cycle have to be perfect (jk). Some of my Dad’s have grown to be as tall as him (5’11”) and were the size of, you guessed it, a HUGE dinner plate. So impressive. But they are only around in July/August, which is why I wanted to use them here. As much as I love them, I kinda hope they don’t go the way of the peony and become year round (at least in LA you can get peonies for a fortune any month and it has made them slightly less special, although still crazy beautiful).

Anyway, my parents just left for Samoa for a LDS mission for 18 months and I can’t imagine they are terribly psyched about me doing a wine collaboration the week they leave, so I hereby dedicate these flowers to you, Dad. You taught me nothing about wine but so much about these beauties 🙂

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As far as vessels, we did a combination of simple pretty, low pieces, and even put some in glassware. Peter helped me arrange them and we basically put one of each color/size and some filler in each vase.

We shot this whole story during the day to make sure that we could get it all in before the sun went down, but around 4pm my friends started joining us and the fun began (and didn’t end until 11:30).
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Having so much help with everything really make me look good. Don’t get me wrong, all of these ideas are easy individually, but executing them all can still be work. Luckily, and I’m dead serious, we didn’t need to worry about a million bottles of wine – we opened a few of the Black Box wines in different varietals and placed them around the party so people could help themselves.

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We refrigerated the whites beforehand and they stayed really cold for a long time – although to be honest, I am not ashamed to put ice in my wine regardless of how cold it is.

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I am a very good host and insist on making sure that my guests glasses are full at all times (don’t worry, everyone ubered and drank responsibly).

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The camera left at 7, but Stephanie (who shot in the heat, for 10 hours at 8 months pregnant!!!) stayed and caught a couple twilight shots. Summer Party_Outdoor Entertaining_Emily Henderson_Blackbox Wines_Flowers_Casual_Pink_Orange_Modern_Organic_Boho_Black_Grey_Blue_36

It was a lovely way to show off our new exterior, style a big pretty story for the blog AND entertain guests (and drink on a Wednesday). Meanwhile I hope you all gleaned some ideas for a low(ish)-key party. Thanks to Black Box for partnering with us on this and letting us become true experts in your wine. Lets do it again sometime… although I might need some more samples. Please send ASAP. In the meantime, you can check out www.BlackBoxWines.com for more pairing ideas and information. And, in case you didn’t think we had any fun at all at the party, here is a little video proof that Propeller Digital (Brian’s company) put together for us:


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If you want to ‘get the look’ here you go:

Summer Deck Gathering Black Box Wine Outdoor Entertaining Dining Emily Henderson Design Get the Look1. Picnic Check Napkin | 2. Black Linen Napkin | 3. Gold Salad Servers | 4. Ash Cloud Pink Vase | 5. White Covas Planter | 6. Coffe Table | 7. Pink Salt Dish | 8. Olive Oil Dish + Bread & Butter Plate | 9. Samson Rug | 10. Cheese Board Set | 11. Admirals Tray | 12. Milk White Cheese Plate | 13. Walnut Serving Board | 14. Pink Pillow | 15. Plaid Porcelain Plate | 16. Moonrock Dinner Plate | 17. Plaid Porcelain Plate | 18. Gold Flatware | 19. Pink Glass | 20. Cube Dinnerware | 21. Directors Chair | 22. Dining Table | 23. Bar Cart | 24. Electric Cocktail Shaker | 25. Teak Stirrer Set | 26. Black Box Wine | 27. Medium Glass Tumblers | 28. Large Glass Tumblers | 29. Nesting Tables

**A big thanks to Stephanie Todaro who braved the heat and the fact that she was 8 months pregnant to get these great shots, Caroline Hwang who styled all the food, and Peter Dolkas who helped with assisting on site. Dress by The Great (and i’ve literally worn it every day since I bought it)

 

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  1. Incredible post. I love the new deck and the food you shared is right up my alley. I am not a big fan of cooking especially during the summer. I have never tried the Black Box Wine before, it sounds amazing. This post is very inspiring and offers so many ideas for decorating and food.
    P.S. tell Stephanie the photos are beautiful and congrats on the new baby.

  2. Um, can we be friends? Mkay, great.

    I am oohing and aahing over every shot, but my personal favorite is the very last one. I just LOVE LOVE LOVE the composition, and the colorful bouquet of pinks and oranges against the striped table is TOO GOOD! I love hosting parties – especially al fresco – but you are so right, it’s a lot of work. You’ve made it look oh-so-chic and doable, though. I’m sure the wine doesn’t hurt the preparation process. 😉 Super sweet note about your dad and the dahlias, too.

  3. First of all, your writing is so compelling that I was half-way through the post before I realized none of the photos were loading (my tech issue, not the blog’s).

    In some hypothetical world where all cameras catch a virus and die, please keep posting anyway.

    Secondly, that dress. Thirdly, super beautiful styling. Fourthly, I’m now hungry. Fifthly, thanks for scheduling this on a wine-tasting date day! Wednesday drinking should become a thing. Sixthly, how annoying is it that the ladies dress up and Brian totally pulls off a white tee and jeans. Seventhly, I love Emily and co. forever.

  4. This party is absolutely gorgeous , but it is anything but low-key! Low key would be ordering in pizza or something. This party is the epitome of an LA “casual” party- but so much thought, work, professionals, money, etc. went into it that I balk at the use of the word low-key. I adore the fact that your friends unintentionally dressed in your color palette, and I loved the sweet tribute to your dad regarding the dahlias.

    1. Yeah, low-key with a budget of $300 for flowers 😉
      Of course this wasn’t just a party, it was a photoshoot, too, so it makes sense.

      But it’s low-key in the California sense that there aren’t artisanal cocktails, or BBQ’d stuff (or a caterer).

      I’m going to steal the cheese & radishes idea, and the cute carrots, that looks real nice. And instead of fancy flowers, I’ll just do the $3 Trader Joe’s flowers.

      1. Ha. Yes. It’s all inspiration for a low-key party. Now if you did ALL of it like we did, no it is not low-key, but each individual idea is indeed super easy. Do 1/2 of them and you are good to go. The point is you don’t have to cook or arrange a bunch of random flowers. I guess maybe its more simple than it is low-key … xx

  5. I love everything for this party, got lots of ideas and recipes! I wanted to know where are the white short wine glasses from. I need those in my life!!!

    Thank you, Emily – I am a true fan! Love everything you touch!
    Annette

    1. I think the short ones I borrowed from my friend Scott. They are really good ‘prop’ wine glasses because its hard to shoot tall ones with food in the same shot. he’s a prop stylist so he has a bunch in his inventory but when I asked him he said he got them at a thrift store 🙁

      1. Annette, Crate and Barrel sells a short stemmed wine glass that also stacks. They’re great for parties and everyday and fit in the dishwasher. They’re called Eddy stackable glasses. I love vintage glasses, but you have to be so careful.

  6. I just love everything, for the summer gathering! Just beautiful! Where are the short white wine glasses from, I need these in my life!

    Love, love you blog and everything you do!

    Thanks, Emily!!!
    Annette

  7. The food looks incredible – as does your deck. Charcuterie and salads and nibbles are always the way to throw together an ‘easy’ party that doesn’t look ‘easy’. With all that being said – can we talk about how adorable your dress is?!? Looks as good as the food…..

    1. Thank you! It’s from The Great (Emily and Merritt/current/elliot brand) and its so simple and INSANELY comfortable. My new favorite dress BY FAR.

  8. HOLY DECK GOALS.

    Amazing. So visually stimulating. I want to throw this exact party – deck furniture included. This is marvellous. SO much good content! Thank you!

    1. It’s by The Great (we linked it at the end). It’s so comfortable and while not exactly a body-con dress it makes me so happy. (the arms are fitted so it doesn’t look a total muumuu)

  9. This was lovely to read and view, but an easy party it was not. Definitely a magazine shoot-type event with so much put into color, composition, etc. Fellow wanna-be summer entertainers, do not be afraid!

    I have a beautiful garden in the PNW and here is how I throw a simple party. One long table with all white: white linen tablecloth and napkins, white plates, and white hydrangeas picked right from said garden. While my husband grills steaks and salmon I slice a bunch of heirloom tomatoes. These are put on platters with burrata and sea salt and I add fresh baguettes from a local French bakery and plates of cold butter. That’s the food. Dessert is often a big bowl of berries with whipped cream and people can help themselves. I usually have a big galvanized tub of ice filled with a variety of sparkling drinks and wines.

    I haven’t tried boxed wine but could see it for sure on a camping trip. So easy to flatten those boxes and take out vs. the clanky bulky bottles.

  10. Panzanella is seriously the best. It looks so so beautiful and people are always impressed by it even though it’s not that hard at all. Ina’s Green Panzanella is especially delicious (you can never go wrong with Ina).

    Any chance your friend in the cute off the shoulder dress would be willing to share where it’s from?!

  11. Love so much how all of this looks – yum! And I would also like to know about the source for the short wine glasses and the ice cream bowls. So pretty!

    1. the ice cream bowls are vintage, hand-blown and the only thing that Scott would get mad if I broke (I borrowed them from him). They are soooo pretty. The short wine glasses he bought at a thrift store and I borrowed them from him.

  12. Hi Emily,
    Love the dress you were wearing in this post. Where is it from?

    I also love everything that you’ve done at your place. You are so talented!

  13. This party looks so fun! Yes, the styling is ridiculous and so is the presentation. You’re a great writer and, yes, even without pics, you manage to convey a mood. But the two tables from DWR make me want to buy a lottery ticket; I love those two and want, want, want them! So pricey, but so good…

  14. Gorgeous party! I love all of the serving pieces. Your outfit is fab as well- where is your necklace from?

  15. Daaayum, Orlando! Two tickets to the gun show? Very nice . . .
    (somebody grab the wheel – I’m swerving here)
    Gorgeous party, and truly inspirational. It makes me want to get off my flaccid ass and throw a party! My dread is always that I’ll work too hard for the meh results I get, and be all limp at my party, but all of this looks completely do-able with stunning results.
    I love these posts!

  16. “I thought about just doing cookies, but thought, wait, I know how to buy ice cream!”
    OMG, this made me burst out laughing! You are hilarious!

    Love the styling of everything, definitely stealing the panzanella salad idea (I had no idea it was a lot easier to make than to spell it.)

  17. Gorgeous party! I love the flowers! And it was fun to read about all of the planning, color design, and staging necessary to pull off that casual party vibe. Too overwhelming to do on my own, but still gorgeous to peek into your private party.

    Just a side note: the font was really wonky in the initial email on my Kindle. It started with the “r”s looking like “f”s about a “quaftef” way into article and spread into looking like that preteen type style of a few years ago. “SoMetHIng liKe tHis.” I’m fairly new to the blog but this is the first time the font has acted up. And about halfway through, the photos weren’t loading either. I switched to your website which was problem free.

    Thanks again for the fun peak behind the scenes of your beautiful party. I love your candor!

  18. i loved this post in general BUT the whole time i kept thinking: “i hope there are sources for these cute dresses!” seriously, you and your friends looked so beautiful and casual!

  19. Such a cute fun party! Definitely more work than I would put into the average get together with my friends, but it was a really pretty post.

  20. You totally rocked that deck, although with all that beautifully styled food, did anyone actually look down and check it out?
    If you need more volunteers to come and eat and drink, I’m available and will happily color coordinate with your theme.
    Just saying…

    1. For our last dinner party our appetizers were peanuts in the shell anf fresh cherries. Definitely need to up my game although everbody liked throwing pits and shells in the flower beds. I think of it as compost.

  21. beautiful pictures! but…all of that great information, but no mention of where your dress is from?? tell us tell us tell us! it’s so cute!! also, did you tell your friends to wear only blue, black, and white clothing for this party?? haha…just randomly noticed it as i was admiring all of your friends’ clothing choices! i get it, though–everything flows well and no one has the blinding red or lime green clothing that takes the focus away from the food!

    1. It was at the end!!! It’s from The Great. It’s awesome (the new Current/Elliot Brand). The most comfortable/easy to wear dress that has ever been sewn. 🙂

  22. Hi Emily, gorgeous setup as always. It’s definitely the kind of laid-back but super fun party I’d love to attend, and would aspire to host! Do you mind sharing where the footed white serving bowl (that held the salad with rotisserie chicken) is from? Thanks so much!

    1. I’ve had it forever and I think it was originally from William Sonoma or Crate and Barrel. But the rule is: always buy a footed bowl. I use them constantly and they serve (and photograph) so well. xx

    1. This is so hilarious. I mean, I love that dress but its not like its a body-con or something. Its a total sack made of cotton but cut in a really good way (skinny arms, narrow shoulders). I thought that it was going to be a total miss on camera (well, I didn’t think that or I wouldn’t have worn it but I wasn’t worried). Then as we were taking pics and I was checking them i was still into it but kinda worried. Turns out that dress is up for best leading dress in a blog post this year … (its by The Great and I bought it at Lost and Found in LA). I would buy it in 3 colors … its that wonderful.

  23. Where do you send your kids during these parties? This looks like a great shin dig. I accidentally brought my rowdy two to a party that said “adults only” in small print at the bottom of the evite and I never scrolled down low enough to read it. The hostess asked me to leave with my two children as hers had been sent away.

    I don’t have extended family nearby so it’s hard for me to host really exquisite gatherings with beautiful vessels with human tornadoes nearby.

    I would love a post that shows how to host a beautiful and relaxing (ish) gathering like this with kids nearby.

    This was a stunning post however. I give you that. I wish I was friends with Orlando.

    1. This was the first time we had our kids leave for the party – yes it was sponsored so considered “work” but man I was excited to have an excuse for one night at my own home without them. They went out with our sitter and had dinner and ice cream then they came back and we put them to bed (in the quickest way possible) then continued to hang out. So yah, we hired someone this time. I don’t like to involve the kids in sponsored posts unless its a really really really really good/organic fit (not alcohol, for instance). xx

  24. This is gorgeous. I especially love the flowers. Your dad will find a whole different kind of beauty in the flowers in the islands. My son just checked into the MTC today and will also be serving in Samoa. I’m sure he’ll get to know your parents. 🙂

  25. Great post. I love your easy-going tone while till giving us all the detail. But I have to say I was totally distracted by you in that DRESS, pendant, shoe combination! You look so cool. Thanks for the link. Love your blog!

  26. All the simple, beautiful, delicious food and the styling are excellent and much appreciated.

    Your dress – OMG! To die for. Love love love that dress.

  27. Personal opinion, but the content in your blog has been great lately. You manage to have original content with substance. Even your “advertising” posts are good.

  28. What is the purple stuff in the round bowl in the 6th picture? Love the coloring, but since I can’t identify it, obviously it’s not something I eat. LOL!

  29. Throwing a baby shower next weekend and needed to plan the menu. Pretty much copying this party the the T. Thanks for doing all of the thinking for me!! Ha!!!

  30. I test out the product all weekend long, and often to finalize my decision I even invite all of my friends over to consume A LOT of the product, too, and give feedback. It’s my integrity and reputation on the line here. So we did just that and then decided to showcase the product in the form of a deck party.