Al Fresco Soirées: Make the Most of Your Outdoor Entertaining

table outside

If backyard barbecues, dinner under twinkling lights, or cocktail hour spent on the terrace are your favorite way to entertain, these tips from four Scouted experts are sure to take your next outdoor gathering to the next level.

Decor should be natural. Kathleen Varner, owner of Kathleen Varner Petals & Props in Birmingham, Alabama, shares her number one tip for outdoor decorations: keep it simple. “I don’t like to be too fussy with arrangements outside, decorations should be natural and approachable,” she says. Her go-to decor options for outdoor occasions include potted plants scattered about, bowls of citrus on tabletops, or a few stems cut from your very own yard.

Styling by Ramblewood. Photography courtesy of Ramblewood.

Keep it casual. If there’s ever a time to make things less formal, it’s when entertaining al fresco. One great way to accomplish that, according to Zach and Riley McDonald, owners of Ramblewood Events in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is to give guests the opportunity to serve themselves. “This makes guests feel more at home and can help assuage any awkwardness that may come with wanting seconds,” they share. If you don’t want to totally give up control, offering a self-serve drink or dessert bar is a good option.

Food and styling by Haute Feast. Photography by Alyssa Mancini Photo.

Think seasonally. It’s no secret that fresh ingredients taste better when enjoyed in season, so when it comes to menu planning, head to your local famer’s market, says Carey Semprevivo and chef Pablo Toxqui, co-founders of Haute Feast in Long Branch, New Jersey. “We love to offer a crudité of colorful veggies, including items that are more non-traditional for a fun twist,” Semprevivo says. She recommends serving things like scallions, crisp romaine leaves, or colorful pole beans, alongside your favorite dip. “Garnish with some fresh herbs and edible flowers and your guests won’t be able to resist,” Toxqui adds.

Styling by Ramblewood. Photography by Alexis Dimmer.

It’s all about the prep. Whether you’re entertaining indoors or out, Zach and Riley McDonald share the secret to looking like you could host a party in your sleep is to plan ahead. For cocktail hour, a pitcher of batch drinks allows for plenty of time to greet guests and socialize prior to the meal. Sufficient meal prep, setting the table in advance, and easy hors d’oeuvres mean you can enjoy your party. “Guests came to be with you and socialize, not watch you work and be in the kitchen cooking,” the duo confirms.

Styling by Kathleen Varner. Photography by Eden Blackburn for Alkmy.

Consider your tableware. When hosting an outdoor soiree going casual is not only expected, it’s encouraged, especially when it comes to tableware. In place of less eco-friendly options like paper plates, Varner encourages stocking up on a set or two of melamine plates. “Just about indestructible, and perfect for outdoor entertaining, melamine has come a long way,” she says. “I have a set of marbled ones from Hammett, but have also been eyeing ALKMY and a’mano for their great selection of chic options.” 

Drink and styling by Haute Feast. Photography by Alyssa Mancini Photo.

Stay hydrated. “In the summer we drink a lot of agua fresca,” Toxqui says. “This non-alcoholic beverage is made from fresh fruit, water, citrus, and a sweetener, and is a very easy beverage to make for outdoor gatherings thanks to its ability to batch in large quantities, and it feels fancy compared to just having a plain water pitcher.” For an adult spin on this fruit-forward hydrator, He recommends serving aqua fresca alongside your favorite spirits for easy cocktails. Give it a spin with Toxqui’s recipe below. 

Watermelon Agua Fresca

Yields 4 servings


  • 16 ounces fresh watermelon juice (either made with a juice extractor, or in a blender)
  • 2 ounces filtered water
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 1 ounce agave syrup
  • 1 pinch of large flake sea salt


Mix all ingredients together and chill until ready to serve. When ready to serve, shake or stir well and pour in a glass over ice. Garnish with a citrus wheel or an edible flower.

Put it on ice. During warmer months, having cool drinks on hand is key. As part of party prep, Nicole Kaney, founder and owner of NK Productions of Sarasota, Florida, ices down all of the drinks and coolers the night before to ensure that they’re properly chilled by party time, adding more ice as needed. She notes that you can never have too much ice, so she keeps an extra cooler nearby, for drinks and coolers. 

Styling by NK Productions. Photography by Cornelia Zaiss.

Add lighting. The magic of outdoor entertaining really comes into play after the sun sets, so Zach and Riley McDonald stress the importance of considering lighting options. Just like indoors, having levels of lighting will add to the overall ambiance. They recommend a combination of low lighting such as candle-lit hurricane lanterns, outdoor lamps, and string lights to create a cozy vibe.  

Styling by NK Productions. Photography by Everence Photography.

Have a backup plan. The weather during the summer can be unpredictable (here’s looking at you heat dome), and Kaney notes the last thing you want are uncomfortable guests, or worse, a party ruined because of inclement weather. Having a plan B is key, in case of storms or excessive heat. If you don’t have readily available space inside, or ample outdoor coverage large enough that your guest won’t feel crowded, set a rain date when you send out your invitations. 

Be neighborly. Let your immediate neighbors know in advance of any outdoor gatherings where the noise might be more than usual, Kaney says. Share the hours of the party and when they might expect the noise to die down. As a general rule, if your crew is excessively rowdy after 10 p.m., move it indoors. She adds that delivering the information with a plate of chocolate chip cookies never hurts.

Feature photo: Styled by Kathleen Varner for Virginia McCrary; photography by Hector Sanchez. TSG Tip 462 from Kathleen Varner, owner of Kathleen Varner Petals & Props in Birmingham, Alabama; Zach and Riley McDonald, owners of Ramblewood Events in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Carey Semprevivo and Chef Pablo Toxqui, co-founders of Haute Feast in Long Branch, New Jersey; Nicole Kaney, founder & owner of NK Productions of Sarasota, Florida. Kathleen Varner Petals & Props appears in The Scout Guide Birmingham. Ramblewood Events appears in The Scout Guide Chattanooga. Haute Feast appears in The Scout Guide Two Rivers & The Shore. NK Productions appears in The Scout Guide Sarasota.