Want to up your entertaining game? Summer is a fantastic time to add a bit of extra oomph to your parties without spending a lot of money since expectations are a bit looser. “Summer is naturally a relaxed and casual time, so it’s easy to lift it up a tiny bit with delightful things,” says cookbook author Laura Calder, whose newest book, the Inviting Life, is packed with ideas for creating a space where your guests feel welcome, some of which she’s generously agreed to share here. Read on for ways to make your next warm-weather bash one to remember!

People first

The right mix of people will guarantee a good time, no matter how the food turns out, and it costs nothing, so consider your guest list carefully. “When I plan a dinner party or anything, I start with the people,” says Calder. Take a moment to think about who might get along — and who might clash like oil and water. This should ideally result in lively conversation.
Summer is also great for entertaining, she notes, because it lends itself to mixing generations nicely, since kids will have lots of room to run around.

Eat with the season

There are two ways to look at this. First, when planning your menu try to keep dishes light. No one wants a heavy beef stew in a heat wave! But also, do focus on seasonal produce, as it’s less expensive and so flavorful that you practically have to do nothing to it to make it sing! “The cooking requires less alchemy if you get good ingredients, because the ingredient itself does fine on its own. In winter, things need a little assistance,” says Calder. Think corn and watermelon and asparagus, and definitely tomatoes. “You want a first course that's gorgeous? Get good tomatoes, slice them up and drizzle olive oil on top. Done,” she suggests.

Don’t plate the food, present it on platters

“Summer is a bountiful time, and having nice platters and putting things out in an abundant way is really nice, too. Let people help themselves,” advises Calder.

Drinks

Here’s another place where you’ll want to keep things light. Consider serving refreshing cocktails likes Pimm’s cups, which are full of fruit like strawberries and orange, or gin and tonics. Calder likes to make the latter extra special by adding a drop of Campari to them, which produces a pretty pink hue, she says. Or try this simple drink that she loves — sparkling water doused with Angostura bitters and topped with a squirt of fresh lemon. Another trick is to have some drinks at the ready in your fridge, like infused water or cold herbal tea, should guests unexpectedly drop by.

Play on!

If you have a grassy space in your backyard, or are planning a picnic in a park, get your guests moving about by adding games like Bocce ball or croquet to your get-together plans. Check circulars for deals so you can invest in a set that you’ll be able to enjoy for years to come.

Dress the space up a bit

People often think of summer dining as a fairly casual event, so use that to your advantage by making the décor a bit fancy, suggests Calder, as a way to surprise them. “Say you're going to eat outside, it doesn't mean you have to eat on a picnic table, you could take a table outside, or even if it is a picnic table put a tablecloth on it,” she says. “Really dress it up. Like candles in hurricane lamps so they don't blow out, nice little twinkling lights, nice cutlery and nice plates. That's really fun because people don't expect it.”

Get fired up!

Beautiful lighting is a key element when it comes to setting the mood in your outdoor space, and there are plenty of inexpensive, and even free, options. “Fire in the summer is so romantic,” Calder says. So, if your area allows it, consider creating a firepit that people can sit around and share good stories. Another great choice is solar lighting, she notes. Stores like Ikea and Walmart have plenty to choose from, including outdoor solar-powered pendant lights and lanterns.

Sharing is caring

You really don’t have to go all out or spend a lot of money to make your guests feel welcome. “Care is what it's all about. If you look like you've cared, people see care,” says Calder. The food can be simple, but presentation is important, though it needn’t be elaborate. “You can make someone something as simple as a sandwich and make it lovely, like tea sandwiches cut up nicely,” she suggests.

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