Eating outdoors should be fun, hassle-free, and low-key, not---except, perhaps, for the rare outdoor wedding reception---al fresco interpretations of a formal dinner party. Keeping a few basic principles in mind will ensure that things stay loose and enjoyable. Essentially, you just want to make sure your outdoor dining area is situated in a spot that's cozy, protected, and comfortable, that the menu is not overly complex, and that you anticipate and prevent potential problems.
Make An Outdoor Dining “Room”
Creating a cozy outdoor dining area is easy. Just remember that most people are more comfortable in a situation where there's a wall (or preferably two) anchoring the dining area. That's why attached patios and decks are so popular. If you don't already have a patio or a deck, though, it's still quite easy to create a pleasant outdoor dining area. Enclosure on at least two sides is the key. Use an exterior wall of your house as one of the sides of the outdoor dining area (try to make it convenient to the kitchen), and plant a hedge to form another, adjacent "wall" of the dining area, as well as to screen out any distractions or eyesores. One of the fastest ways to do this is by planting sunflowers, which can quickly grow very tall. For a somewhat more formal yet still casual look, consider a hedge of hydrangeas. Or, if a very formal look and feel is what you're after, choose classic boxwood. It will take a few years for these shrub hedges to fill in, but a fence could be put up in the meantime, then removed as the shrubs put on some size. The goal in any case is to create a bit of privacy and enclosure, as well as a sense of place.
Define A Space
Consider using structures like an arbor or trellises to help define a dining area in the yard. Containers with plants or planters with attached trellises are an easy and portable way to create the feel of an outdoor dining room, especially on a deck or patio.
Metal fencing or screening, or portable willow screening, are also easy and pleasing ways to help establish a cozy outdoor dining area. Another way of setting off and highlighting an open dining set in the yard is to add a pergola or gazebo as a decorative feature over the dining furniture.
Eucalyptus Bench Planter
Serve Up Simplicity
Keeping the menu straightforward is also important to relaxed outdoor dining. Save the five-course extravaganza for a special indoor dinner party when the weather's not so fabulous. For balmy summer dining, however, you want to keep things simple. Basic barbecued fare is always delicious, but the addition of cool summer soups (like gazpacho) and fresh garden salads---whether a traditional green salad, a spinach salad, or freshly dug new potatoes scrubbed and tossed with olive oil and chives---make for a more memorable and enjoyable dining experience, and they're easy to prepare ahead of time.
Ensure A Stress-Free Dining Experience
Just as critical as creating the right kind of space and serving simple yet inspired fare is making sure that minor but annoying things don't destroy the mood and drive you indoors on a beautiful July or August evening. Citronella-scented candles or oil lanterns can help keep mosquitoes at bay, and food covers can keep other pesky insects off of your carefully prepared dishes. Unbreakable dinnerware and serving platters can eliminate the possibility of a treasured dish being broken, spoiling your evening. And something as simple as a napkin holder can keep you and your guests comfortably in your seats rather than scurrying across the lawn chasing a flock of fluttering napkins.
Woven Outdoor Serveware
Find Comfortable Seating
The kind and style of outdoor dining furniture you choose will help set the stage for beautiful meals. Choose dining furniture that will complement the look and feel of your home so the outdoor dining area can be come a natural extension of the overall style of your indoor and outdoor rooms. Wooden dining furniture made from teak, eucalyptus or cedar has the warm appeal of natural wood, is very durable, and low-maintenance. Resin wicker furniture offers the classic, casual outdoor look and comfortable feel without the fragility and extensive upkeep of traditional wicker. Cast aluminum can be elegant, comfortable, highly durable and easy to maintain. Wrought iron and steel dining furniture are great choices for value and style that will fit in anywhere, but occasional touch-up painting may be necessary. For more information on these materials, check out our Outdoor Furniture Buying Guide.
The Difference Is In The Details
Adding an umbrella not only provides comfortable shade, but a splash of contrasting color, as well. Durable outdoor seat cushions help keep everyone comfortable right through dessert. New cushions are also a quick and easy way to update an older dining set.
Furniture covers are available that cover the entire dining set. Using covers will extend the furniture life and insure that it is clean and ready to use.
As with most things in life, a bit of forethought will reward you many times over---in this case, with a pleasant, relaxed dinner and an enjoyable evening under the stars.
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