Keeping guests comfortable and entertained while dining al fresco can seem daunting.
But a few fun items can help you create a cozy space, serve summer foods with flair, and send guests on their way with a reminder of a special backyard barbecue or patio party.
These 10 outdoor dinner party essentials are easy to find, easy to use and easy on the budget:
1. String Lights or Paper Lanterns
You don't have to deal with the mess of tiki torches to create a warm ambiance. Instead, frame your best outdoor views with string lights or paper lanterns that can range from whimsical to contemporary to sophisticated. They're affordable and easy.
They also make a smooth transition from the indoors and help define the outdoor dining area, says Stephanie Grotta, lead designer for Target Corp.'s Smith & Hawken line.
"You really want to create that intimate environment," she says.
2. Outdoor Throw Pillows
Provide plenty of seating, and dress it up or tie together mix-and-match pieces by piling on colorful throw pillows. The trend is to "make the outdoors as comfortable as your living room," says Leigh Oshirak with Pottery Barn Brands.
Use bold patterns, including thick stripes, geometric designs and Indian-inspired florals. Or make your mark with monogramming. Since just about any eye-catching color is in this summer, go with the one you like best or add to what you've already got.
3. Mister and Fire Bowl
When you're expecting high temperatures, don't just set up fans. Rent, borrow or buy a mister to help tame the heat. You can also find inexpensive kits to turn your garden hose into an effective mister.
If the evening air cools quickly, a fire element will make your outdoor space cozy. Choose from wrought-iron lanterns, fire bowls and rings, or a chiminea. Prepackaged outdoor fire logs only require striking a match. An added bonus: Guests can get campy and roast marshmallows or hot dogs.
4. Insect Repellent
Put away the sticky sprays, and provide guests with wearable insect-repelling items such as bracelets and belt clips. For kids and the young at heart, there are stickers available in fun shapes, including hearts, flowers, dinosaurs and, of course, insects. They'll help protect from pests without leaving residue on skin and clothes.
5. Grilling Pizza Stone
Want to make eating alfresco a little easier? Prepare pizza dough beforehand and use a grilling pizza stone on your barbecue. Allow guests to add sauces, slices of fresh summer veggies and grilled meats.
Myra Adkins, general manager of Word of Mouth Catering in Austin, Texas, says portable food like pizza "helps break the ice if it's a group of folks who don't know each other very well."
6. Outdoor Drink Dispenser
Give yourself even more party time by setting up a drink station where guests can serve themselves. Many department stores offer plastic and glass dispensers in various shapes and sizes. Add slices of lemon, lime and orange to ice water, or frozen berries to adult drinks for added color and flavor.
7. Pie Stand
Foodies are calling this "The Year of the Pie," so break out your pie tin and use a decorative rack or stand to serve up this all-American favorite. Try seasonal fruits for a classic pie, or get nostalgic with a s'mores pie. For something more elegant, try a raspberry cheesecake pie or a white chocolate banana crème pie. Whipping up a meringue or offering any slice a la mode makes it an even cooler treat.
8. Party Playlist
Find out beforehand what type of music your guests enjoy and download their favorite tunes. It's a mood setter and a conversation starter.
If you don't want to compile your own music, try a movie soundtrack or best-hits CD. That will provide smooth transitions between songs and bring back memories.
9. Personal Comfort Items
Think "washroom attendant's table" for the outdoors. Offer a small table of essential summer items, including sunscreen, lip balm, fresh wipes, hand sanitizer and insect repellents. At the end of the evening, set out bottled water for guests to grab for the ride home.
Tina Hayes, founder of the School of Etiquette and Decorum in Antioch, Calif., says planning for comfort is just as important as preparing the meal.
"From the initial greeting at the door to the last goodbye, all should feel welcomed, comfortable and relaxed," she says.
10. Party Favors
For an even more memorable event, hand out small gifts that guests can use at the party and then take with them. Inexpensive favors can include insulated bottle and can holders, flip flops, colorful paper fans for the ladies and tiny, battery-operated fans for the men. Or give guests a CD of that great playlist you put together.
For special occasions, treat guests to pinwheels, party poppers and sparklers.
School of Etiquette and Decorum: http://www.etiquetteschool.us/
Word of Mouth: http://www.wordofmouthcatering.com/
Pottery Barn: www.potterybarn.com/