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Summer is a wonderful time of year for outdoor cookouts and dinner parties. Dinner parties are a great way to spend time with your guests outside without baking in the sun. However, if you’re going to throw the most lovely summer bash of the year, you need to have a plan. We have put together some ideas, and very important steps to follow in order to be the envy of all your friends.

Inviting the Guests

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First of all, yes, it is perfectly acceptable to send e-vites rather than paper invitations. There are several websites that allow you to customize very elegant invitations that you can email to friends, or even link them through Facebook. Another great perk is that the templates assure that you don’t miss anything, and some offer a way for the guest to not only RSVP but to attach any food allergies or circumstances. Also, if you’re able to swing it: allowing them to invite a plus one is a nice gesture and will make mingling easier for you later.

Making the Menu

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I recommend being prepared for anything when it comes to the menu. If you can’t acquire everyone’s preferences beforehand make sure you have options ready. Vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, gluten allergies, etc. are not so rare anymore, so some possibilities are: gluten free bread, veggie burgers, shrimp cocktail, or a rich salad with veggies, beans, and nuts. Another great idea is Soba noodles. Soba is delicious and good for you, but be aware that you do not have to cook as long as white pasta, it will stick together quickly if you don’t keep an eye on it. Having a few of these choices available will assure that no one goes hungry, and they will be so touched that you considered them. As for the rest of the gang, decide on your meat or poultry and then consider what wines, and veggies will compliment your dishes the best. In my experience one side you can’t go wrong with is roasted red potatoes. If it is a new recipe you’re trying, give yourself extra time just incase something goes wrong.

Greeting Upon Arrival

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The anticipation of your first guest can make you anxious, especially if  you’re unprepared, which hopefully you won’t be. However, as the first and second guest enter it is easy to greet them, and get their drinks, but as more and more begin to arrive, it can become difficult to juggle so many introductions. There are a few solutions for this: designate a friend to come early and help you greet and get everyone their first round, set up a bar area and let everyone help themselves, or if you have the means to do so hire a bartender. If you’re mixing groups of friends try to introduce the strangers to one another and be sure to let them know of something they have in common, you’re basically giving them their discussion topic, and they can take it from there. This keeps people from forming cliques, or awkwardly introducing themselves to someone they’ve never met.

Music of the Night

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One of my favorite parts of planning any occasion is coming up with a playlist. When it comes to dinner parties the music is meant to set the mood, it’s not really for bumping and grinding, but this is your dinner party. My advice is to keep it classy and simple. Classical piano is an obvious choice, but you don’t have to be limited to that. Throw in some Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, even Louisville‘s group: My Morning Jacket has a few that could make it onto a dinner party playlist. Also, try to throw in a few of your own finds – people inquiring about the artist makes for great conversation and they’ll always remember you recommended it.

Dinner and a Toast

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Finally, it’s time to eat. At this point, you need to decide if you want to make a toast before or after the dinner. Usually, the beginning is best because it is a great excuse to get everyone’s attention and let them know it’s time to eat, and thank them for coming. Once you’re at the table, this is the time to explain the menu, and show off all your hard work – of course you will make it seem like it was no sweat off your back. Make sure everyone has a glass of water, their drink, and I recommend using cloth napkins over paper.

Goodnight and Thank you

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Most of your guests will be aware when dinner is over. They may stick around for conversation, another drink, or dessert if it is served. However, there may be some guests who aren’t ready to leave even though you’re ready to hit the hay. Saying things like you’re tired, or have a big day tomorrow usually do the trick – if not, start cleaning up. Still not working? Let them know that you are beat as nicely as possible, and they will get the message. For those guests who may have drank a bit too much to drive have taxi information posted somewhere, and have the number saved in your phone. Finally, the thank you notes – some friends may send them to you, but most won’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t send a few. A nice touch, and a great way for your guests to always remember you and that evening is to send out thank you cards the next day. I try to have decorative cards on hand, you can also add some style by using postcards.