August is, for many, Summer's final hurrah, but sweet weather often holds on until September and even October so opportunities for evening entertaining outside are still abundant. Summer makes dinnertime magical somehow. Kid’s bedtimes slip ever later as evenings double in length and stretch before us, bathed in golden light. Plates and glasses are brought clattering outside, blankets billow as we lay them on the warm grass. We are struck with the desire to have friends over for a barbecue and invitations from friends ping into our phones. Summer fruits and vegetables are sweet and abundant; we throw together salads, eat things with ice and the hiss of sizzling meat jumbled over hot coals is never far away. I love entertaining over summer, whether that’s for 2 in the garden or a solstice party with 20.
There’s no need for fancy furniture or lots of equipment – you can throw a stylish dinner in the garden or your house with stuff you already have in your home, garden or neighbourhood with just a few clever tips.
Preparation is key
Prep in advance. I cannot overstate the importance of this one. Dinner parties for 15 people at home, or 40+ people when I style events like The Sisterhood Supper or Kino Vino, have felt relatively effortless simply by preparing as much as I could in advance. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than your friends sharing the juiciest stories whilst you sweat it out over a fiddly dish in the kitchen.
Send invites out weeks in advance, choose the menu as far in advance as possible and opt for easy crowd-pleasing dishes that can be cooked the day or so before. Do your food and flower shopping a couple of days before. Get a shop delivered to your door if you’re really tight on time- I like Ocado or Abel and Cole for this. If you can, lay the table the day before too, or get the plates, glasses and cutlery ready.
Clean and tidy the day before.
The most important thing to remember here is that unless you are a competent cook and enjoy cooking for lots of people, ask people to bring a dish. I love cooking but never cook a whole meal for friends by myself. Not only is it expensive, it’s also very time-consuming. I find that by contributing, friends feel more invested somehow; it’s a conversation starter if people don’t know each other and a wonderful way to discover new tastes and dishes. I give a theme/cuisine to friends to make sure the dishes broadly go together. You could start a Facebook/Whatsapp messaging group in advance for people to declare their dishes. Let really busy friends off though, or give some easy options (bread, olives, wine) for friends you know are juggling a work deadline, house move, new baby etc.
You can create a lovely dinner party in almost any setting with a little creative thinking.
Candles and fairy lights cover a multitude of sins- you can’t have too many! Use blankets on the floor of you don’t have enough tables and chairs. Some vintage linen napkins are always lovely and add a nice depth to the table (try markets and charity shops). A tablecloth (or bedsheet if you don’t have one!) can cover up an ugly table.
Always, always have something ‘alive’ on the table. I always opt for 3-5 smaller arrangements in small vases or bottles or jars on the table rather than a large single display as they’re easier to talk over. Visit your florist or forage in the garden or your neighborhood for blooms. If flowers aren’t really in abundance around you, go with greenery. Small leafy branches, sprigs of thyme and any kind of climber (clematis or honeysuckle laid down the table for example) will look breathtaking. Don’t forget to make room for food on the table too.
Put a little something on each place setting. If you want to be a little bit fancy you could make simple name tags out of a bit of square brown cardboard with handwritten names. Pair with a flower head, single stem, feather or twig. I also like putting something edible on each plate (instead of a stem, or as well as.) Examples would be a small bread roll, seasonal piece of fruit, a little pinch pot of olives etc.
Lastly, accept help to clear up!
Don’t let the fact that you don’t have matching plates or linens (things I now have, but have built up over time) or lots of space, a fancy grill or a manicured garden stop you from throwing a dinner party this summer. Call in favours, ask for help, and gather your friends or family around you.
I hope these tips will encourage you to celebrate the last of the summer sun with those you love- whether it’s a lovely meal for your mum or a big Indian Summer Soiree. To sit at the table with people you love, who intrigue or inspire you; this is the most important thing. Go forth and gather!
A fuller version of this guide first appeared in Stitch + Forage- a Slow Summer e-guide by writer and stylist Hannah Bullivant and herbalist Natasha Richardson. In it we hope to inspire you to live the best summer you can, with whatever time and means you have, whether you're planning to spend the whole summer wild camping in the mountains, or you're a parent juggling work and childcare. We wrote it for anyone short on time and money who'd like to make the most of the natural beauty of Summer in a mindful and eco-friendly way. You can read more about it here www.stitchandforage.com