5 Outdoor Dinner Party Ideas

By: Jill Jaracz

After dinner, some people may want to take a dip.
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When the weather's great, the outdoors beckons. One of the great warm-weather rituals is the outdoor meal. Whether you're having a casual picnic or an elegant tented dinner, eating outside always seems like a special event.

Having an outdoor dinner party can be as simple as throwing some meat and veggies on the grill and calling the neighbors over, or, in the case of an elegant outdoor soiree, it can involve some planning. Before you get ready to entertain outdoors, it helps to prepare, so ask yourself these questions:


  • How formal will the party be?
  • Will it have a theme, and if so, what is it?
  • Will we cook inside, outside or hire a chef?
  • Will we have entertainment?

Deciding your party's level of formality will help guide your other decisions, but selecting a theme could be tough. Here are five ideas that will spark your imagination and set the stage for an incredible outdoor party.

5: Cocktail Party

Friends always enjoy getting together for drinks and conversation.
Friends always enjoy getting together for drinks and conversation.
Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Thinkstock

Outdoor cocktail parties are a perfect way for a novice party-thrower to get her feet wet. With a cocktail party, you don't need to worry about preparing a full meal -- just set up a bar and have some snacks on hand.

An outdoor cocktail hour can also be a prelude to an indoor dinner party. This opening act is especially good on days when the weather is being a little temperamental, or when it's a bit cool.


When throwing an outdoor cocktail party, it's helpful to have the drinks and snacks on a table or cart. Don't forget a bucket of ice, and use a large container to keep wine chilled. Find a recipe for a special cocktail for the evening. Be sure to include drink tags for the glasses.

Create a place where your friends will want to linger. Seating with comfortable cushions, ambient music and twinkly outdoor lights can set the proper mood for a good time.

4: Potluck Swap Meet

Are your closets and shelves stuffed with things you don't use any longer? Consider hosting a potluck swap meet party, and your guests can help provide the food and fun.

Ask everyone to bring a side dish or dessert, as well as one or two small items they'd like to trade, such as old housewares or books. Tag each item with the original owner's name.


In setting up your outdoor space, create four distinct areas:

  • Swapping area
  • Main course buffet
  • Drink station
  • Dessert table

Keep these areas separate to encourage mingling.

After everyone's eaten, hold your swap meet. Set parameters ahead of time:

  • Whether everyone must take home something
  • What happens if two people want the same item
  • Where unwanted items will be donated

Then stand back and share in the fun!

3: Barbecue Cookout

Serve up kabobs made with beef, chicken or salmon.
Serve up kabobs made with beef, chicken or salmon.
Lew Robertson/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

A warm day can make you hungry for barbecue, so get out there and light up the grill!

The great thing about grilling outside is that you can use the grill to prepare your entire meal. Meat, vegetables, fruit and even dessert taste great cooked over an open fire. Share your hamburger recipe. Make kabobs with meat and vegetables. Bake a cobbler on the grill.


Give the day a picnic feel by using strategies that will also keep cleanup simple. A butcher paper "tablecloth" can be a no-fuss way to set the table, and children can color on it while they wait for their food. Disposable plates and cutlery will also help you "cheat" when cleaning up.

2: An Elegant Meal

When the sun goes down, you'll really shine when you go for elegance under the lights.
When the sun goes down, you'll really shine when you go for elegance under the lights.
Simon Watson/Food Pix/Getty Images

Outdoor parties don't have to be casual affairs. Turn any outdoor space into an elegant setting for a special-occasion dinner. Place your table under a tent or canopy and cover it with a classic linen tablecloth. Use the fine china.

Pay special attention to lighting to make your dinner stand out. Try some of these lighting techniques:


  • Candles or candelabras on the table
  • Paper lanterns draped among the trees
  • Sparkling holiday lights draping around the canopy

Food for this type of dinner party should also be special. Bring out your best recipes or even consider hiring a personal chef to create an unforgettable menu.

1: Beach Party Clambake

If a fun day at the beach leaves you famished, stake out your own little slice of beachfront property and throw a clambake. Find a section of beach where you're able to dig a fire pit to cook your meal. Traditional New England clambakes involve cooking clams, lobster, corn, potatoes and sausage in the seaweed-lined pit using hot stones.

In setting your table, use environmental elements to maintain that feel of the beach. Use a natural colored tablecloth and scatter shells on the table for decoration. Gather large pieces of driftwood for makeshift seats. Also be sure to keep any additional sides or snacks covered so that sand doesn't blow on them.


If you don't live near the beach, you can recreate the clambake experience by using a stovetop or grill-top smoker to cook your seafood feast.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links


  • "9 Easy Ideas for Outdoor Entertaining." Midwest Living. (July 8, 2011) http://www.midwestliving.com/homes/entertaining/9-easy-ideas-for-outdoor-entertaining/
  • "30 Tips for Easy Outdoor Entertaining." Real Simple. (July 8, 2011) http://www.realsimple.com/holidays-entertaining/entertaining/seasonal-events/easy-outdoor-entertaining-00000000014966/index.html
  • American Personal & Private Chef Association. "FAQs to FIND and HIRE a CHEF." (July 8, 2011) http://www.personalchef.com/personal_chef_faq_hire_a_chef.php
  • Bond, Jason. "How to Host an Urban Clambake." Boston Magazine. (July 8, 2011) http://www.bostonmagazine.com/misc_guides/display/how_to_host_an_urban_clambake/?gallery_idx=883&row_position=0&photo_idx=9115&thumbnail_num=1
  • Chamberlain, Jess and Miranda Jones. "20 tips for your best outdoor party." Sunset. (July 8, 2011) http://www.sunset.com/home/outdoor-living/outdoor-entertaining-tips-00418000069644/
  • "Patio Parties: Throw a Backyard Party." Good Housekeeping. (July 8, 2011) http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/food/entertaining/backyard-patio-party
  • Hueston, Marie Proeller. "Swap Party." Country Living. (July 8, 2011) http://www.countryliving.com/cooking/about-food/swap-party-0405
  • Smith, Riann. "How to Host a Clambake." The Nest. July 8, 2010. (July 8, 2011) http://ideas.thenest.com/dinner-recipes/entertaining/articles/how-to-host-a-clambake.aspx?MsdVisit=1
  • Tutera, David. "David Tutera's summer party ideas." Star-Ledger. June 16, 2011. (July 8, 2011) http://www.nj.com/homegarden/index.ssf/2011/06/david_tuteras_summer_party_ide.html