How to Plan an Outdoor Party

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Whether you're hosting a summer pool party, a football tailgater in the
fall or a winter excursion and picnic on snowshoes, entertaining outside
is fun, different and exciting. Serve plenty of food and drink, bring
all the necessary gear--and don't forget the sunscreen!

  • See 342 Throw a Party and 316 Throw a Dinner Party.

  • Establish the tone when you set the table and put up decorations. Use crisp linens and fresh flowers for an elegant garden luncheon party, jaunty bandanas for a barbecue rib bash, and sand pails and seashells for a beach party.

  • Ply your guests with plenty of fluids: Lemonade and mint iced tea for a summer garden party, buckets of icy beer for a clambake on the beach or rich, hot chocolate and mulled wine for a holiday party. See 359 Plan a Holiday Open House.

  • Make your guests comfortable. Keeping age and ability in mind, provide blankets and cushions or portable tables and chairs. Look into folding camp chairs at stores such as REI.com.

  • Set up a changing room for your pool party, with extra towels poolside. If it's a big group that includes children, hire a lifeguard.

  • Decorate with team colors, flags and pom-poms for a tailgate party, pails and shovels, umbrellas and beach balls for a clambake; or cactus and western gear for a barbecue.

  • Feed everyone family-style. Set up a buffet on a picnic table and let guests serve themselves. If you're entertaining at home, position the table near the kitchen for easy transport and serving.

  • Choose foods that travel well if you're going farther than the backyard. Salads are perfect for feeding crowds: classic potato, pasta, turkey with dried apricots and walnuts, cold tofu with shiitake mushrooms and napa cabbage, and wild rice or tabbouleh.

  • Bring on the fun with a football, Frisbee or volleyball set. Start a game of croquet, lawn bowling or softball. The kids will love sack races and an egg or water balloon toss. For pool or beach parties, provide air mattresses, boogie boards, fins and goggles.

  • Turn up the tunes. Hire a musician for an hour or two, or provide plenty of CDs and a boom box (don't forget extra batteries).

  • Find a spot for the table with the right mix of sun and shade, sheltered from the wind if possible. Create shade in open areas by setting up umbrellas, pitching open-walled tents or building makeshift "forts" of blankets strung between chairs or trees.

  • Make reservations well in advance for national and regional parks or campsites, especially for three-day weekends and major holidays. If no reservations are accepted, ask a relative or friend to stake out the site early and partition your area with ribbons.

  • Prepare for less-than-ideal conditions. Pack insect repellent, extra sunblock and hats; or extra coats and sweaters. When the sun goes down in the mountains, desert or at the beach, it can get bitterly cold in no time--particularly if there's any wind.

  • Scout the parking situation in advance and clearly designate where guests should park their cars. Hire a van or bus to shuttle guests to and from remote spots or those where parking is difficult.

  • Light up the party if it goes into the evening. String lights or Chinese lanterns from trees to create a festive glow at a park or stick tiki torches in the sand at the beach. Votive candles in paper bags weighted down with sand (luminaria) cast a lovely glow on paths and in seating areas.

Tips & Warnings

  • Staple-gun paper tablecloths to tables if it's windy. Anchor cloth corners with stones, pinecones or seashells.
  • Check to make sure you're fueled up with lighter fluid, charcoal or a full tank on your gas grill.
  • Pack plates, napkins, silverware and cups as well as serving spoons, garbage bags, a corkscrew and bottle opener.
  • Separate beer, wine and nonalcoholic drinks into three separate coolers or iced buckets so that guests don't have to fish for their drink of choice.
  • Bring extra toilet paper and moist towelettes to wash hands. If there isn't a bathroom or port-a-potty at the site, rent one.
  • Rent portable gas heaters.
  • Do double duty with centerpieces of citronella votives-- you'll have light, protection from bugs and a cozy centerpiece all in one.
  • People tend not to eat or drink as much when the weather is either extremely hot or bitterly cold or windy. Move your party indoors if that's an option--physical discomfort will trump fun every time.
  • Food should not sit out for more than a couple of hours, even less if it's hot. And to ensure food safety, use coolers with plenty of ice to keep foods chilled while you're en route.

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