Easygoing Entertaining Essentials for the Perfect Backyard Get Together

After running an entertaining blog for six years, I surely must have an archive’s worth of hosting do’s and don’ts right? Tips, “musts,” embarrassing faux pas. Truth be told, it all comes down to one simple mantra: Take a deep breath and have a good time.

It’s a tad cliché, but it also works. My relaxed attitude has been the common denominator to every great dinner party I’ve ever hosted. If you are relaxed and having a good time, your guests will follow suit. On the flipside, if you’re running around frantic and fussing over the menu, music or place settings, your guests will feel that energy and want nothing more than to leave. A fun, carefree, attitude starts first and foremost with you. But there are a few party-prep steps that can help you get there.

1. Be spontaneous.

Spontaneity is vital — especially when we’re all so busy and so plugged-in all of the time — so make your party a last-minute plan. Asking friends to ditch their Thursday evening plans in favor of an off-the-cuff get-together sets the scene for a casual, relaxed time. My go-to move is to throw spontaneous spring and summer soirees in my backyard.

2. Text your invites.

Mobile texts are the diametric opposite to formal invites. For max easygoing effect, I send personalized texts to each invitee. Something along the lines of, “Dina, drop whatever you’re doing and come have dinner al fresco with us!” Let guests know you’ve got the food and drinks covered, but they are welcome to bring their own if they’d like — wine, music, games, the leftover pasta they were about to reheat — “anything or nothing” is how I often put it. “Come around 7 p.m. and come as you are!”

3. Set a simple table.

Once your replies start rolling in, start planning your table. Stay true to the casual expectation you’ve advertised by using fabulous paper plates, disposable napkins and everyday flatware. Next to each place setting station a tall wine glasses and a short water glass, and throughout your tabletop arrange several glass pitchers of water for everyone to serve themselves. Just before guests arrive, open a few bottles of wine and place them alongside the water pitchers. Sometimes I pour wine into shapely glass decanters and treat them as pseudo centerpieces.

4. Make a menu with what you have.

This gets tricky, so pay close attention: Open your fridge and pantry. See what you have. Serve that. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of hosting, (second to “attitude is everything”), it’s that food is secondary. What people are most excited about is coming over and having fun — food is a bonus. I’ve gotten overzealous a few times, cooking something out of my league, only having to trash it in the end and order emergency pizza instead. Guess what? No one cared.

5. Turn it up.

An hour before everyone arrives, throw on a good, upbeat playlist, (I love anything Spanish guitar); uncork the wine; kick off your shoes; apply a little lipstick; and mix yourself a cocktail. Don’t fret about dirty dishes, or when your friend’s new boyfriend breaks a glass. And don’t forget to take a deep breath. These nights are about being thoughtful, not perfect.