Outdoor entertaining can be easy without resorting to a cooler with plastic water bottles, paper plates, and paper napkins. In this article I am sharing my best tips for easy, sustainable outdoor entertaining.
Think quick dishwashing hacks, low effort ways to remove stains from cloth napkins, and sustainable ways to source budget-friendly outdoor furniture. Keep reading for everything you need to know in order to host a simple, sustainable outdoor gathering.
One of the best parts about entertaining guests outdoors is cooking outdoors. What’s great is you do not need a fancy setup to make a great outdoor meal. There are plenty of outdoor cooking tools to choose from that can fit within a variety of budgetary and square footage requirements.
NOTE: If you’re in the market for a built-in kitchen setup, I recommend listening to this episode of the Alice Lane Interior Design Podcast. In that episode they discuss materials, layouts, furniture, and more.
When it comes to grills you have a lot of options. The most popular grills people like to choose are either gas or charcoal. Both are great, but there are pros and cons for each.
Gas Grill Pros and Cons
- PRO: Smoky flavor that can really only be achieved when you grill over charcoals.
- PRO: Generally less expensive than gas grill setups.
- CON: The “fuel” (charcoal) cost is higher than gas, especially because you need to replace the charcoal after every 3 uses or so.
- CON: Charcoal grills take longer to heat up to desired grilling temperatures.
- CON: More cumbersome cleanup process.
Charcoal Grill Pros and Cons
- PRO: Much easier temperature control.
- PRO: Easier to clean.
- PRO: While you won’t get that smoky charcoal flavor on your meats that you do when using charcoal grills, you can grill a wider variety of foods including delicate fish, fruits, and veggies, without any concern of smoky flavors disrupting the end result.
- CON: Initial product cost tends to be higher than a charcoal grill.
How to Clean Grill Grates
Regardless of what grill you choose, cleaning the grates after every use is simple and easy to do. Here’s how:
- Get grates hot (or just keep the grates hot after you’re finished cooking).
- Scrub grates with a grill brush (or use grilling tongs to grip a ball of foil and scrub).
- For a deeper clean, use a long handled fork to spear half a lemon dipped in salt. Rub the salty lemon over the hot grates. Acid from the lemon juice will cut grease, the salt will act as a scrubbing agent.
- If you have super dirty grates, you can wait until they’re cool then use a pumice stone to scrub and rinse clean.
Once a year, my husband and I like to hire a professional gas grill cleaner to do a deep clean. If this is in your budget then I highly recommend this type of annual service! ESPECIALLY if you chose to invest in a high quality gas grill. We pay $150-$180 (plus tip) and our cleaner spends hours doing a detailed deep clean.
Flat top Griddle
If a traditional grill isn’t for you, then perhaps you might prefer a flat top griddle. These are easy to use, easy to clean, and offer the versatility to cook things like pancakes and scrambled eggs or chopped veggies right next to burgers and hot dogs.
How to Clean a Flat Top Griddle
- Use a griddle scraper to clear any leftover food debris.
- Pour a small amount of water on the griddle while it is still hot. This will cause some steam to release and will loosen the remaining bits of food and grease.
- Use a scouring pad with a handle to scrub the surface clean.
Propane Stoves / Hot Plates
Tight on space? Invest in a space saving propane stove like the compact ones used on camping trips. Alternatively you could bring a hot plate outside and plug it in with an extension cord.
Regardless of your cooking setup, it’s extremely handy to have a work surface near your cooking station. You’ll use this to hold trays of food, necessary tools, seasonings, condiments, and more. Ideally you will want a counter height work surface but repurposing an outdoor dining table or even a bench will work in a pinch.
Once you’ve established your outdoor kitchen setup and planned your meal, it’s a good idea to then plan for guest seating. Seating can be as casual or elegant as you please (depending on your budget!). Below are a few ideas and suggestions.
Why is outdoor furniture so expensive?
First of all, why in the world is outdoor furniture SO darn expensive? Outdoor furniture tends to be more expensive than indoor furniture because it’s manufactured to withstand the elements.
From expensive or treated wood, to performance upholstery fabrics, to sandblasted or powder coated treatments… Outdoor furniture is expensive to produce.
Sustainable ways to save on outdoor furniture
One simple, sustainable way to save on outdoor furniture is to purchase it second hand. Instead of getting the cheapest outdoor set you can find, instead I recommend searching local listings.
Even if the second hand set you end up with isn’t your EXACT style, get the best quality set you can afford while you save up for the set of your dreams. This can be a good way to test layouts and determine what works best for you and your guests based on how you like to entertain.
Do you prefer a lounge set with a coffee table? Or do you like a formal dining table and chairs set? Either way, you can always re-sell your temporary second hand outdoor furniture when you’re ready to upgrade. Don’t give in to “cute” low quality options that last for one season or less!
In defense of white outdoor cushions
If you’re looking at upholstered outdoor furniture then you are also probably trying to decide what color of upholstery to choose. There are tons of great options, but if your furniture is exposed to the sun then my recommendation is always white.
But don’t white cushions show dirt more easily? Sure. But dirt and stains are removable. It’s easy enough to clean white outdoor cushions. It is impossible to fix sun bleached colorful fabric cushions.
So if you’re looking for cushions that will last sunny season after sunny season, then my color recommendation is white.
Can’t afford outdoor furniture right now? Try this instead
If furniture just isn’t in your budget this season, you can still enjoy a meal outside with friends! Serve your guests picnic style. I actually like doing this when we host families with lots of kids. Adults sit on furniture, kids sit on picnic blankets.
I like using Mexican blankets like these for outdoor picnics (in our backyard, at the park, at the beach, or anywhere else really!).
Now that you have a plan for outdoor cooking and outdoor seating, it’s time to eat! It can be tempting to serve guests with single use plates, cups, cutlery and paper napkins. This becomes especially true when kids or messier foods are involved!
Here’s the thing… Is it easiest to have your guests toss their used plates and cups into a trash can after the meal? Yes. But there are time and energy (and resource) saving shortcuts that you can use to make reusables feel less intimidating. I’m sharing my best tips below.
Tablecloth and Napkins
Invest in a cloth tablecloth or two! In an instant, a clean tablecloth can turn a dirty or dusty table into a chic place to dine or serve food. Adding cloth napkins to the mix is not only stylish but also practical!
If you’re afraid about the time and effort required to remove stains and wash a tablecloth and napkins then allow me to convince you otherwise. Here’s the move:
Fuss-Free Cloth Napkin and Tablecloth Cleaning
Keep a bin or bucket nearby to collect cloth napkins after the meal. If it isn’t a seated meal then you can even direct guests to the bin when they finish eating or have soiled a napkin. You can choose a cute bucket (I like this enamel option) or just a plastic bin tucked in a corner or under a table.
After you finish hosting, simply fill the bin or bucket with water and a few scoops of an oxygen bleach. Mix it in until it has dissolved completely then let your napkins and tablecloth soak. I let mine soak overnight then add them to a regular wash cycle the next morning.
In the summer I love to line dry my linens (and sheets!). There is something so romantic to me about beautiful linens line-drying in the sun. Plus, it saves energy and results in a nice, crisp finish so it’s all a win-win.
If you aren’t serving a seated dinner (think big BBQs) then you might worry about dishes being mistreated or broken by accident. It might be worth saving yourself from this stress and investing in a set of unbreakable melamine dishware.
Trying to avoid plastic entirely? Consider a vitrelle, a glass laminate of three thermally-bonded glass layers. Brands like Corelle use this material and while these dishes can still break, they are able to take a good beating before chipping or cracking.
Fuss-Free Dishware Cleaning
Don’t let dirty dishes intimidate you! My hack for handling a big pile of dirty dishes is to use a big, lightweight plastic bin. I load ALL of the dirty dishes and silverware into the plastic bin then transport the bin into my kitchen. Sometimes I’ll use a second bin for glassware.
Once in the kitchen, I’ll drizzle the dirty dishes with dish soap then pour hot water over the top and let everything soak for 30 minutes up to overnight. When I muster the energy, I’ll just remove each dish, give it a quick rinse to remove soap residue then quickly hand wash or load it into my dishwasher.
This process takes less than 10 minutes and doesn’t have to happen immediately after an outdoor dinner party when you’re feeling completely exhausted. You could also recruit guests to help you with this process. Plus, there is very little risk of a dish breaking from someone balancing it on their journey from your yard to your kitchen.
Instead of water bottles, it takes very little time to fill a drink dispenser for guests to serve themselves in a glass. Fill your water dispenser with ice and fruit slices to enhance the flavor.
Better yet, line up multiple drink dispensers filled with water, juice, mixed drinks, iced tea, or anything else you’re in the mood to serve.
Don’t forget to set a glass pen next to the cups so guests can write their name on their glass before they serve themselves. This way you don’t end up with an overwhelming number of dirty glasses at the end of the party!
If you do choose to serve single portioned drinks, go with aluminum cans. Aluminum is the easiest material for most recycling centers to properly recycle. Set out a recycle bin for guests to dump their empty cans into so you can dispose of them responsibly.
If you want to avoid plastic cups entirely (reusable or otherwise) then there are plenty of materials suitable for outdoor parties.
I love my set of Duralex glasses. They feel very French and look great on indoor and outdoor dinner tables. Plus, Duralex is made from a durable tempered glass. My kids have dropped glasses many times and (fingers crossed) we have yet to break a glass.
Enamel is another material great for durable outdoor use. I love this set of enamel cups. Stainless steel is a great, affordable option as well (we use them with silicone straws to serve the kiddos at our house!).
Once food is on the table, let’s keep it clean and palatable, shall we? There are a number of creative ways to deter pests from landing on the food you serve. Here are a few of my favorites.
- Fly Fan – My favorite solution for deterring flies. These are battery powered with small, soft fan blades (no fingers will be injured by them) to create enough breeze to deter flying bugs from landing nearby. Place a few around your table and enjoy a fly-free meal.
- Fabric Food Covers – I like using these over serving dishes before we sit down to eat. You purchase a set or make these yourself by repurposing fabric scraps. Sew a strip of elastic around the outer edge of the fabric so it can cling to the outside of a serving plate or bowl without blowing away.
- Beeswax Wraps – These are made by dipping squares of fabric scraps into beeswax. Once cool and dry they can be used like plastic cling wrap to cover serving dishes or leftovers in the fridge.
- Food Tents – This is a chic way to cover serving dishes or individual place settings at a table prior to meal time. Of course they take up space so only invest if you have enough room to store them and set them aside during the meal.
- Citronella Candles and Plants – If you’re trying to deter biting bugs like mosquitos then before you grab the bug spray, citronella might be worth a try. I have mixed results with citronella candles and I find that the scent can disrupt the meal experience. An alternative is to decorate your table and the surrounding area with potted citronella plants.
- Bug Repelling Blankets – A chic, citronella and bug spray alternative is to supply your guests with a bug repelling blanket. I love the look of these bug shield blankets by Outer. Have guests drape one over their shoulders during the meal to stay comfortable in case things get buggy.
And there you have it! My tips for sustainable outdoor entertaining. I hope you have gathered a few new ideas and feel empowered to give low-waste outdoor entertaining a try this summer. Cheers!