How To Throw A Stress Free (Well Almost) Outdoor Party
There is good stress (like worrying about what you are wearing to the Bachelorette premiere party) and bad stress (like worrying that Britt will beat out Katilyn, ugh). Throwing a party should be good stress – full of excitement and maybe some last-minute panic, but ultimately fun. I think what stresses me out about parties is a. managing guest expectations and b. making sure there is just enough for everyone, and that people can serve themselves, so that once the party starts my job is over. I was a waitress/bartender for years and those days are over if you know what I mean.
Let’s talk about the expectation thing – I think since I’m a stylist/designer person, I get it in my head that people expect it to look totally curated, pulled together, a la Martha (and they do). And unless it’s for a big shoot, it very rarely is. So what I ALWAYS do is frame it as a ‘casual backyard affair’ with comfort food and lots of options and then people don’t have high expectations (and are easily impressed). Have you ever been to a wedding where the venue is really luxurious and its black tie dress but everything else is super not and then its kinda jarring? Well, that’s because your expectations were high, based on the high-end location – so sadly the rest of the party kinda should match that in style. So if you just send out the ‘its a casual bbq’ vibe then people have pretty low expectations and then you can wow them. ‘Social Manipulation’ by Emily Henderson – the name of my next book.
This party was set up with Target, and I had loads of help so no, it wasn’t just ‘thrown together’. But the principles of how we set it up are easy, and things that I actually do (or ideas that I will start doing immediately).
Click through to see all the steps, tips, photos and resources:
Family style food, instead of a sit-down dinner with courses is key and non-negotiable for summer time parties (for me, anyway). In order for you to not have to work your own party you need to either prepare food ahead of time, or hire help to serve everybody at a sit down dinner. The answer is pretty obvious to me.
Make (or buy) just a few things and make high quantity of those things – so its easy to replenish. Those sandwiches are my personal speciality that I wrote about here although for this shoot they were made by a food stylist, Jeannie Kelley because I was busy being all hosty. If you want even more low maintenance skip the salad because it can get soggy and go for sandwiches, crudite, chips, cheese/crackers, or big pans of lasagna/stew/chili, etc.
Those watermelon popsicles are pretty darn adorable and obviously very easy and can be made beforehand. One or two things like this make it look like you care, but are still super simple to do.
Regarding the vessels/serveware – remember my ultimate rule/tip for ‘throwing anything together’ – pick a color palette then shop/use things within that color palette. You don’t have to match up pantone chips – but just make sure that the general tone of each piece is in your palette then mix them all together. Get things of varying heights – flat platters, bowls and then lighting or branches for some height.
Ha. Yeah, that’s a tip. ‘Get your adorable friends to do some work’ is really the key to my party success. But seriously it depends on a. how much help you need and b. if you have a friend that is good/willing to do that help. I think that if you do have someone who checks those boxes then generally they are keen to help out as long as what their doing is special and pretty – schlepping ice isn’t for everyone, but pulling together flower arrangements can be.
So Joy ‘dropped by’ my little party and brought those adorable mini citrus cakes and then helped me make these flower arrangements. Of course for these we used peonies and crazy beautiful dutch ranunculus with herbs, but honestly just really open roses or even just potted herbs can do the trick if you don’t have someone like Joy to manipulate into helping.
The good news is that its peony season so right now these arrangements are actually doable (typically when we do these for shoots its 3 months in advance and its like $7 a stem). When it comes to flowers at my parties I really just play it by ear based on how much I’ve already spent, how much time I have and whether I want to go down to the flower market at 6am. Sometimes I’m strangely excited to do the flowers (because flowers are simply wonderful) and other times I just go to a nursery and buy potted plants or even simpler – clip branches from outside.
The idea behind these arrangements is to buy some flowers but then just mix them with herbs that maybe you have in your garden or are easy to find. The larger the bud the easier it is to style. Also lemon leaves are a really good (and often free) filler. Just ask your florist to throw some in and they usually do at no charge.
This is always part of the last-minute scramble and I feel like my buffets never look this pulled together. I will be pinning this shot myself for my future parties. First off we brought an indoor table outside for the night and it’s totally ok to do that. Sure you can have folding tables with tablecloths, but don’t be afraid to look around your house and bring something that typically belongs inside, out.
We tried to make it as easy as possible for people to serve themselves (thus taking away all responsibility for you to do so) so we bought these mason jars (for their drink), and put the napkins and flatware inside of them. It’s cute and very functional.
Now this is something I make sure to do: Have one or two special cocktails or drinks prepped beforehand. This makes the party feel more special and really does make your life easier. You can still have an open bar, but a lot of people would rather just drink whatever the house drink is rather than try to concoct their own. For our very intimate holiday party this year (that I didn’t blog about) I did a big bourbon holiday punch the day before and shoved it in the fridge and it was a MASSIVE hit. I used this recipe.
Punch is back. Get into it. You can either use a punch bowl (inside is best for that so you don’t get foreign floaters) or one of these drink containers for indoor or out. Here we made some options – cucumber infused water, rosemary lemonade or a citrus punch.
Of course we used lucite (plastic) ice cubes for the shoot to keep the ‘ice’ looking fresh all day, but I don’t necessarily suggest that. In fact if you have the time make fruit infused ice cubes to help the drink stay potent instead of super watered down.
Drinks are messy which is why I think its best to have them be their own station. They create traffic jams so make sure that it’s in a more open area, preferably away from the food so that the traffic is dispersed a bit.
We used a planter as an extra cooler (underneath the table) which I think is pretty adorable if you don’t want to pull out your gross camping cooler which we inevitably end up using because we never buy enough drink buckets.
I know that having a ton of seating options can be tricky because its limited by the space you have but I always think its nice to create smaller, more intimate areas in addition to your more traditional outdoor sofa situation. Indoor/outdoor rugs, poufs and pillows can become a makeshift lounge, like above.
Smaller folding bistro tables with indoor (or outdoor) chairs can become a little bar/cafe area. Each area just needs to have something decorative (pillows or flowers) and some lighting to draw people to sit down.
Bad lighting at a party or bar/restaurant BUMS ME OUT. Most of the time it’s too bright, but then at night if it’s too dark it’s really hard to have conversations and obviously can be dangerous. First off: turn off those flood lights that show every single little blemish and wrinkle on your hard-working face.
In a perfect world here is what you’d have in regards to the lighting – something overhead (string lights), and something on tables/surfaces (candles).
We strung the string lights on the pergola, which is easy because there was a structure to work with, but if you don’t have a structure then what you can do is use buckets, filled with sand or gravel with bamboo sticks shoved inside (paint them) and string the lights along those. I hadn’t done it before and it totally worked and was relatively affordable. This is also a really good way to create a perimeter around your party in case you don’t want people to go towards the disgusting garage or step off a cliff. It helps create the feeling of a room.
Plus Charlie loved them. We also hung lanterns from the tree and a basket with candles as a chandelier in the middle of the table. Just make sure you buy dripless or battery operated candles for that so you aren’t flavoring your sandwiches with sprinkles of wax. Lastly for the tablescape we used old pretty wine bottles (just keep hoarding) with taper candles. They look best when they have wax just dripping all over them, a la an old Italian cafe, so light them early so they can do that job.
In a perfect world the drink and food is organized the day before, so the day of the event is just about setting everything out, tweaking here and there, and booking your blow-out. I think it’s when you don’t prep things out beforehand that the real stress sets in. So, my advice is to shop in advance, organize the props and ask for help. For this party/shoot we had a food stylist but often when we want something more than just sandwiches and we don’t want to have to work too hard we buy huge vats of chili from our local chili dude, or since we live in a highly Armenian population buy big vats of delicious Armenian food and put it all on pretty platters. Or we buy already marinated meat and bbq with less work. Generally people don’t care where/how they get good food in their mouths as long as they do and can sit somewhere pretty with a drink in their hand.
We are finishing the deck makeover as we speak so I’m gearing up for our first mini-outdoor soiree. This party/shoot was very good practice and is getting me super excited. Everybody in the world loves a casual outdoor bbq. There is no ‘am I assigned to sit by the weirdo?’ or ‘will I get enough food in my food hole?’ anxiety.
Of course I typically don’t just have Ginny and Brady as my guests. 🙂
I’m not sure anything makes me happier than that photo above.
Although this one is a pretty close second.
So go watch the video, and meanwhile don’t just be a party thrower – be your own party goer. I came up with that tagline, by the way. Video script gold right there. But seriously, lower expectations and then use these tips to impress everyone while actually enjoying your own party. Good Luck.
**all photos by the lovely Tessa Neustadt
Now, we linked to most of the items under the photos but here is a roundup of my favorite pieces for your convenience:
1. Diamond Outdoor Rug | 2.White Bistro Table | 3. Mini Serving Bowls | 4. Paper Lantern Lights | 5. Turquoise Outdoor Pouf | 6. Fish Platter | 7. Clear Beverage Dispenser | 8. White Outdoor Lantern | 9. Blue Stripe Placemat | 10. Printed Napkin Set | 11. Silver Hammered Platter